No Hugs Please, I'm Sober!
First you get sober. Then you find out who you are. Then you learn to say no.
I've been sober in AA for over five years now. AA has saved my life, given me a life, and shows me how to live my life. As someone who was born-female bodied, but identifies as gender-non-conforming and queer, my program ride has been a bit bumpy. The emphasis on the "women with women" and the "men with the men" didn't make sense to me. Learning to navigate boundaries—emotional as well as physical—within my friendships proved a rocky road, until one day I learned how to stand up for myself.
My first year sober was like waking up from a nightmare and stepping into an alternate reality, one in which everything was heightened because I was truly awake. My emotions ran wild and when people were nice to me I would get an unparalleled natural high; when they were mean or indifferent the depths of my lows were unsurpassed by any I’d had before.
Not knowing how to navigate physical boundaries, I began pulling away from hugs early and wishing I had the guts to say "Don't hug me."
My skin felt like it was turned inside out and the entire world could see it/me. To add insult to injury my sponsor suggested that I keep my hands to myself for the first year because who knows what sober sex would trigger. Despite the fact that I bordered on being classified as a sex addict, I followed her suggestion. I did have an Internet girlfriend who acted as a pacifier, but she didn’t own a car and lived in southern New Jersey. Just far enough for my broke sober butt to be unable to reach.
Thirty days into my recovery I found myself having panic attacks and waking up every day with a depression that bordered on suicidal. Thankfully, I found my way to therapy. Having never done therapy sober before, I filled up the sessions with unabridged tales of my life story, listing off trauma after trauma with the inflection of a weather reporter. My therapist would attempt to connect me to my experience, asking me questions like, "How did that make you feel?" My responses always began with "I think,” because my feelings had long been replaced with thoughts, leaving no room for anything to be felt.
At two years sober I got another therapist, one I slowly began to trust. I also began my fourth step, but was unable to grasp my part in my resentments. Instead I wrote a list of the many terrible people who had harmed me. Each time I put pen to paper I wanted to kill myself. My sponsor helped me make a safety plan of sorts, suggesting I only work on the inventory for five minutes a day, making sure to do something fun and restorative afterwards. I interpreted this as drinking copious amounts of coffee, smoking cigarettes and eating a cupcake (or two).
By the time I got to my part it became my fault. I became convinced any harm that had come to me was of my own making. The family member who molested me at five was not to blame because I was the one who had crawled into bed with this person. The older teenage boys who'd ignored my requests to stop weren't to blame because I hadn't screamed "rape" or "stop." I believed it was my alcoholic mind and extreme low self esteem that had put me in places where people would take advantage of me.
Thankfully, my sponsor pointed out how distorted my thinking was. In fact, this thinking and rationale was the exact reason I drank. Having no ability to find the middle ground in any situation, I either saw myself as a victim or a villain. As I read the resentments towards the people who had abused me, my sponsor directed me to write over them with a big black marker: I WAS JUST A CHILD. This action helped me to make my way to a middle ground of understanding and helped me to address the enormous ball of shame and sadness that had been stored inside me.
Slowly, with the help of my therapist and sponsor, I began to unravel it. I began for the first time to see—and unabashedly to tell—the truth of what it was like for me growing up queer and gender-non-conforming in a small Mexican town. I developed empathy for that little person who had absolutely no tools to navigate that kind of climate and a brain that was set up to self-destruct. Of course I sought validation by presenting myself as hyper feminine and sexually appealing to men. This was a survival technique developed to keep me alive.
Not once during my development did I even consider asking myself if I was really attracted to someone. Getting validation from others was more important than my feelings. To mask my feelings (or lack) for someone, I learned to disassociate from my body. I told myself I was lucky to finally be seen as an attractive female and not an effeminate tomboy. The word 'beautiful' had never been connected to my name before and, until I developed a female body, I had felt utterly invisible. So, when I felt like throwing up while kissing someone, I told myself this must be butterflies.
Before getting sober I would bounce back and forth between men and women who gave me attention. After a drunken night with a stranger I would wake up with bruises on my arms and think they were funny souvenirs. Sober and reflecting these "funny" tales to my sponsor and therapist, I began to recognize the accurate words to describe these events. I'll never forget my therapist asking me, "Don't you think that's rape?" Slowly my life experience twisted from the story of a carefree party to tales of date rape, emotional incest, and a complete disregard for myself and my body. It all clicked into place. I put my hand up in meetings, uttered a word or two about childhood flashbacks, and then bawled for the rest of my share. Grief overwhelmed me and all my relationships with men were drawn into question.
Armed with the knowledge of my survival traits (character defects), drawing men to me who would victimize me, I began to look around and recognize how the men in the rooms interacted with me. I became hyper aware of each hug and kiss on the cheek. I suddenly realized they were not welcome. Not knowing how to navigate physical boundaries, I began pulling away from hugs early and wishing I had the guts to say "Don't hug me." But, how could I ask them not to hug me? They’d been my supporters and friends for years. Despite my connection with them, each hug triggered a flashback of each touch from a man I’d never wanted, but received regardless. Hugging may be a simple gesture of comfort for many people. For me, it felt like an invasion.
One day a guy friend went to hug me and I flinched. Embarrassed, I told my sponsor about it. She encouraged me to shake hands instead of hugging, but my fear of rejection was so strong that I couldn't bring myself to do it. Until one day I showed up to my home group feeling worn down. I felt like I was being hugged to death. The meeting began and I sat in the front. When it came time to share I put my shaky hand up and what came out of my mouth shocked me. I shared with the room what I'd been going through and how I loved many men in this room dearly, but “Don't hug me!” The last words came out with a booming voice followed by a guttural cry.
The next day I came back to the meeting feeling like a dog with its tail between its legs. The first person I saw at the meeting was one of my very close male friends. He looked me in the eyes and, without saying a word, extended his hand for me to shake. I cried. That was not the reaction I was expecting, but it was one that most men had in the meeting. And I learned to assert myself with those men who didn't respect my boundaries.
With my newfound space, I slowly began to heal and, slowly but surely, I began to hug my friends again. Nowadays I find myself walking arm in arm with a friend, and, once in a while, even putting my head on their shoulder. For someone like me, that's a tiny miracle.
Chris Gates is a pseudonym for a Manhattan based blogger