real life

'Sex was the only thing that helped me feel good'

When I was a teenager I discovered that there were four things that counteracted the salacious nature of grief. They were, in no particular order: sex, substance abuse, travel and hurting other people. There are, of course, much healthier antidotes to the feelings that loss inevitably brings, but in my adolescence these four were the most immediately recognizable.

I was fourteen years old both when of my parents were diagnosed with cancer within months of each other. Being an only child, the ensuing years of hospital visits, surgeries and chemo treatments were lonely ones for me. I was eighteen when my mother died and twenty-five when my father succumbed. The years in between were tumultuous, to say the least.

With no guideposts, and no one to explain the effects of anticipatory grief, regular grief, extreme grief, or anything remotely grief-related, I threw myself at whatever I could, and in the beginning that meant boys. Thinking about boys, pursuing boys, kissing boys – all of those endeavors felt like the very opposite of the death and grief that shrouded my life at home.

I lost my virginity a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday, to my high school boyfriend Henry, one afternoon in his bedroom. The act itself was sweet, fairly painless and by all accounts, quite innocent. But above and beyond those things, I found the act of sex to be the very thing that momentarily quelled the gnawing rage inside of me.

But I also realized that it wasn’t necessarily the sex I was after, but the promise of it. Those moments before two people who want to touch each other do, are unlike anything else this world has to offer. Those moments are also the fantastic opposite of when two people part, something that was being forced upon me in my young life over and over.

Laying in bed with Henry, tangled in each other’s arms, both of us flushed with longing and desire, nothing else mattered. Everything about my life disappeared and for brief, bright instants I wasn’t weighted down by the sounds of my mother retching in the bathroom after chemo, or the defeated look on my father’s face as he sifted through medical bills at the dining room table.

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A couple of years later I was in my freshman year of university, living in a co-ed dormitory at a small, liberal arts college. The boys were long and lanky, filled to the brim with artistic intentions, and I devoured them as quickly as I could. Now when I say devouring, I don’t mean casually – one night stands were something that came later – rather, I mean I pursued and consumed those tentative connections as greedily as someone who has long been starved. By the time midterms rolled around I’d made out with at least half a dozen of them and fallen in love with two.

And on the night my mother died, alone in a hospital in Washington, D.C., I was 150 miles away, having stopped to stay the night with one of those boys I thought I was in love with, a decision I would end up regretting for the rest of my life.

As a poetry major I wrote about the loss, comparing my mother’s death to being raped, even then understanding that there was a relationship between death and sex. What I didn’t understand was that even if sex seemed an antidote to the desperation I was feeling, it wasn’t. You simply can’t fill a hole in yourself with another person. They will never quite fit and you will both resent the act of trying.

In the brief moments in which I had the clarity to realize this, I made attempts to explore other answers, none of them very healthy. For many years I flung myself carelessly out in the world, traveling dangerously on my own to risky places, drinking until I could no longer see the room around me, and hurting anyone who stepped in my way, often all of three approaches at once.

But it was always the sex and relationships to which I returned.

I spent my early twenties in a relationship with a troubled young man who had his own grief to contend with, and a few years after that with another man who would lose his mother to cancer during the course of our time together. In both instances the men and I sought to fill each other up, with sex, with love, with the promise of something bigger than we would ever be capable of becoming. And in both cases the relationships ended with all parties left deeply hurt and distanced by the illusions we had forced upon the other.

I was late into my twenties, several years past my father’s death, when I finally sought out healthier alternatives to quelling the painful ache inside me. At a yoga retreat in Northern California I leaned and stretched into my body, finding myself feeling just as present as sex had ever made me. In a guru’s apartment in Los Angeles, I sat in meditation for long minutes, finally finding the space within myself that I had sought in so many foreign countries. In my own bathtub, night after night, I discovered that the warm water and quiet room could soothe me just as well as a glass (or three) of wine.

I still remember the first time I had sex after I had gone through these transformations. It was with the man who would, in fact, become my husband. The act was unforgettably different than almost every other encounter I’d had previously. If only because, for the first time, I was in it not because I was seeking an antidote for something else, but because I loved him. And finally, myself.

Claire Bidwell Smith is a Los Angeles-based writer and author of memoir The Rules of Inheritance (Text Publishing, 2012). You can find her blogging on her website www.clairebidwellsmith.com and tweeting @clairebidwell.

When have you had sex other than for love?

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