On November 7, 2016, I made the decision to surrender to sobriety after many failed attempts to moderate my drinking. For nearly a decade, I’d been creating an identity I could no longer run from—a blackout drinker.

When I committed to getting sober, I was under the impression that once the booze was removed from my life, I would instantly be “fixed.” I wasn’t yet aware that the real work would begin once the lid was lifted off the emotions I’d been suppressing.

Within a few months of sobriety, it became obvious I’d need to work on my sexuality. When I was actively drinking and using drugs to numb unwanted feelings and emotions, I wasn’t a stranger to regular casual sex.

I abused sex in the same way I did alcohol.

I can’t quite remember much of the sex I had—what I do remember was that it was the kind of sex that I was most likely too inebriated to consent to. I was used to waking up in beds with strangers without any idea where I was, or how I ended up there.

Disconnected sex became my norm and I didn’t question it—although I knew that it didn’t exactly feel right. Before sobriety, being naked in front of someone else made me feel self-conscious, openly expressing my desires made me feel exposed, and I had this nagging fear of being judged for being “too experienced.” I needed the veil that alcohol and drugs provided in order to mask my insecurities.

Good Girls Don’t Do That

I’d been holding onto—and hiding behind— a lot of shame from childhood. And it’d been compounding as I got older.

As a young African girl raised in a Christian household, sex was never an area of discussion unless I was being warned about teen pregnancies and disease. Even as a toddler, I remember hearing “close your legs,” “don’t sit that way,” “good girls don’t do that”—shaming statements that would shape how I viewed my womanhood, genitals, and sexuality in general. Around age 7, my mother “caught me” rubbing my genitals on the corner of a drawer. I didn’t fully understand the concept of self-pleasure at the time. But I did know that what I was doing felt good.

My mother’s horrified response suggested that what I had done was wrong and unwelcome in our house. This was the moment I internalized the belief that God’s children didn’t pleasure themselves in such ways. The shame around my sexuality inevitably intensified. I didn’t have any adults that could educate me about my sexuality, which drove me to learn from pornography, television, and movies. This, of course, wasn’t the healthiest way for an impressionable pre-teen to get an education.

Losing My Sexuality in Substance

I discovered alcohol in my teenage years. And I was drawn in by its seemingly magical ability to make my low self-worth and shame—especially around sex—disappear almost instantly.

My first experiences with outercourse and penetrative sex both involved alcohol. My sexual partner—an older boy—told me that it would loosen me up a little. He wasn’t wrong. That experience created a pattern in which I relied on alcohol or drugs to feel comfortable and “ready” to have sex.

Things stayed that way, through to my last long-term relationship. My partner met me when I was still deep in my alcoholism, which meant he’d known the version of me that had something of a “sexual prowess.”

But when I got sober two years into the relationship, I realized clearly that I rarely wanted to have sex without some sort of buzz. Really, I didn’t know how to.

I wasn’t used to expressing my sexual desires in a way that made me feel good about myself. I couldn’t give or receive oral pleasure without feeling guilty; even masturbation brought on these feelings. I judged myself harshly and thought that my partner would do the same. It was hard for me to unpack and dissect why I felt the way I did, primarily because I’d felt guilty about my sexuality from such an early age.

Reclaiming My Sexual Power

Although that relationship didn’t work out for several reasons, sex was a major factor. After the breakup, I grieved the loss of our connection but began to feel a shift take place. As well as consuming all the sobriety literature I could get my hands on, I searched for writing, videos, and podcasts that could expose me to the others’ experiences of sexual shame.

I felt that I was being given a second chance to redefine my own journey and to set my own rules.

I realized that I could explore my sensuality in a non-performative way. I could finally get clear on what was stopping me from accepting my sexual side.

Doing this allowed me to find the language and community I was looking for; it allowed me to start working through the shame. I followed the work of sexuality teacher Sheri Winston and introduced myself to solo tantric sex, which was the catalyst for my sexual awakening. It began my journey of shameless, unapologetic self-exploration.

I made an open commitment to reclaim a vital part of my womanhood: My divine sexuality. I journaled openly online about my experiences, and was humbled by how my story resonated with a number of women and non-binary folks. I no longer felt alone and doomed by my guilt and shame. I began to experiment with self-pleasure, knowing that I had to start with myself before I could look for wholeness with a partner.

I took my time, and gave myself the compassion and space I needed to learn and listen to my body. I placed all focus on staying sober and getting to know myself again.

I’m on an ongoing mission to unravel the fear, limitations, and judgement about sexuality that were ingrained into me from the day I was born. In choosing sobriety, I said goodbye to the disconnected and performative sex that left me feeling depleted, empty, and regretful.

If it weren’t for sobriety, I might not have discovered how meaningful, healthy, connected, respectful, and safe sex can be. Sobriety gave me the chance to take a clear look at my sexuality and allowed me to discover and reclaim my sexual power.