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irst kiss.
I was twelve. I was also high.
First kiss with tongue.
Thirteen. High.
     First time at second base, fourteen, drunk. First time at third base, fifteen, drunk and high. First home run, sixteen, I was drunk and high. Second time third time fourth time and on, I was drunk or high, usually both. During every sexual experience of my adolescence and early adulthood, I was either drunk or high or both.
     I got sober when I was twenty-three years old. I had been a drug addict and alcoholic for five years. I had been using drugs and alcohol for thirteen years. Everything I knew was related to substance abuse, and I had to learn how to do everything over again. I had to learn how to walk, talk, sleep. I had to learn to eat, think, read. I had to learn to write, socialize, work. I had to learn to become human again; I had to learn how to function again. I hadn’t functioned in any normal way for a long time, if ever. That included sexually. I had never known normal sober sex, and for the last year of my addictions, I had been impotent. I was twenty-three years old. I’d probably had sex two hundred times. I had to learn how to do it over again.

Had I been of sound mind, sound body and stable emotion, I would have been in sexual heaven. I could have gotten laid at will. I was not.

     For the first several months I didn’t want to try. My last girlfriend had killed herself while I was in jail and women terrified me. She was also an addict; we had met in a treatment center. While we were there we had helped each other, supported each other, made each other laugh and fallen in love with each other. We never had sex because we had wanted to wait until we could somehow make it a special occasion. Our plan was to live with each other when I was released. We were going to start experiencing sober life together, sober life in all of its forms, including sex. The plan ended when she had a breakdown and dealt with that breakdown by hanging herself. I was devastated. My life had been filled with rage, sorrow, pain and confusion, but nothing I had ever felt came close to the feelings brought on by her death. I had been driven to addiction by an inability to control my emotions, by a desire to medicate, dull and kill what I felt, and it took every bit of strength that I had not to go back to it. The idea of making myself vulnerable to those emotions with another woman was too much to consider. I had to stay clean. Another woman could hurt me more. Women fucking terrified me.


     I avoided the issue by avoiding women. I saw them socially, had female friends, but never never never opened myself up to them or allowed them to get close to me. I had plenty of opportunities. More than I had ever had in my life. Women sensed my distance and it drew them to me. Women knew I was troubled and it made them want to take care of me. They offered me dinners, places to stay, shoulders to cry on, told me if I ever needed to talk they would listen, told me if I ever needed anything, please call. I knew what those calls would lead to. I knew what they wanted was not dinner, or me on the couch, or my tears or my secrets or anything else. They wanted a badboy, an anti-hero, and the horrible past I was trying to deal with made me seem like an extreme version of one. It was not a role I was willing to play. I wanted to put that bullshit behind me. My past was not imagined, my troubles were not invented, my life was not some silly Hollywood creation. Had it been, and had I been of sound mind, sound body and stable emotion, I would have been in sexual heaven. I could have gotten laid at will. I was not, however, of sound mind, sound body or stable emotion, so I didn’t get laid at all. I just kept to myself, and kept women away.
     Time heals, and it healed me. After six months of sobriety, I started to feel better, stronger, more human. My body wanted sex, craved sex and needed sex, but my heart wasn’t as strong. I satisfied my body by masturbating furiously, copiously, constantly, frantically. At least three times a day, sometimes four, sometimes five, a couple of times six. I never used magazines, I never used films, I used my mind and I fucked women I didn’t know and didn’t care about, women I saw as I went about my day, women who could not hurt me. I never made love to them, I fucked them. Quickly and ferociously, I took them and I left them. Bumped into them on the street, walked into their apartments and had them on the kitchen floor. Stood next to them on the train, went to their office and bent them over their desks. Saw them across the the store and put them against the wall of the dressing room. I gave them nothing, they gave me what I wanted, at least in my mind. It worked for a while. My fuck fantasies kept my basic human need at bay. At least three times a day, sometimes four, sometimes five, a couple of times six.

I saved for a month, thought a whore would solve my problem.

     Time continued, healed; I started to want more. I was lonely and I wanted more and I started to feel like I was ready. I had a beautiful friend. Someone I had known for a long time. We had gone to school together, had run in the same circles, had been close before I fell apart, became closer when I started to get better. She was someone I trusted and felt comfortable with, someone I thought I could love. I knew she had feelings for me, and I knew those feelings weren’t part of some silly fantasy. I knew it would happen if I let it and I decided that I would let it. It was in the afternoon. We went to an ice cream parlor and we had a banana split. We went for a long walk. We went back to her apartment to see her roommates. They weren’t there. We sat on the couch, we could both feel it coming, I leaned towards her, she accepted me. Tongues and hands I was hard. Shirts came off I was hard. Pants came off I was hard. She told she wanted me inside of her I moved towards her I started to get scared. I moved closer scared closer I have never done this before closer I was impotent for a year closer she could hurt me. I lost it, went soft. I had never done it before was impotent for a year she could hurt me.
     I told her why I couldn’t be with her. She was kind, understanding, tried to hide her disappointment, tried to vanquish my shame. She told me we could move at whatever pace I felt comfortable with, told me that we could take our time. I thanked her, but it didn’t help. I was embarrassed, felt pathetic, lost my confidence. We tried a few more times, tongues hands clothes moving closer, but it always ended the same way. I couldn’t do it.
     We split up, I was alone, stayed alone, avoided women, used my fantasies to satisfy my need. Two months passed and I started to feel better. I met another woman. Trusted her, thought I could love her. We moved slowly together kissed for the first week. Shirts came off the second week. Pants came off the third week but there was no forward movement. I started to get scared. I had never had sober sex, I was impotent for a year, she could hurt me. I did not want to experience the shame again, the embarrassment again. I left her. Gave her some bullshit excuse. She knew it was bullshit. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t do it.
     I retreated, went into my shell, protected myself, satisfied myself. I bought a self-help book. It told me what I already knew, that I was scared and needed to confront my fear. I threw the book away. I thought about sex without feeling without love without fear. The easiest way would be with a whore. I didn’t have much money, didn’t make much money, so I saved for a month, thought a whore would solve my problem. I went out one night took a train to the area where I knew I would find what I thought that I needed to cure me. I walked. Up and down, up and down. Passed women I could fuck for a fee, they asked me if I wanted a date. For a hundred, a hundred and twenty five I could have whatever I wanted, Baby. I didn’t want it. The thought made me sick. I went home and I masturbated.

I could feel myself around her edges I was scared shaking scared shaking.

     A friend came to town. She was an old friend, a trusted friend, formerly something more than a friend. She was two years younger than me, smart, cool and gorgeous, part African-American part Native-American. We listened to the same music, read the same books, liked the same art. We had been together when I was eighteen and we had slept together many times and there had never been talk of commitment or a future, just friendship and more, friendship and more. We went out to dinner, talked, laughed, stared at each other, held hands. We went back to my apartment. Tongues hands shirts pants panic panic panic. I told her why, the shame returned. She smiled, said close your eyes, used her hands used her mouth, talked to me while she did it, said she was going to take care of me. She said relax, I’m in charge, I’m going to make you happy. And she did it. Hands and tongue. She made me happy.
     She stayed for the weekend. It was more of the same. Her hands and her tongue were in charge and they made me happy. I worked because I didn’t have to work. I worked because there was no pressure and there were no expectations. She just wanted to make me feel good. I was never inside of her, but it didn’t matter. I had performed. In a limited way, but I had performed. The shame and embarrassment were melting away, my confidence was coming back.
     I had performed.
     My friend left, but we stayed in touch, spoke to each other every couple days, made plans to see each other. A month later I went to see her. She picked me up at the airport, we went straight to her apartment, hands and tongues, hands and tongues, I wanted more, she wanted more. She pulled me toward her. Panic panic panic. I started to shake with fear, I could feel myself going soft, I had never had sober sex, I was impotent for a year, she could hurt me. She pulled me toward her. I could feel myself around her edges I was scared shaking scared shaking. She pulled me inside I hadn’t gone soft yet she pulled me inside. Inside. Warm, soft, calm, serene, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I was hard. Inside of a woman. My past was my past and inside of her it became irrelevant. I was hard, I started moving. Warm, soft, calm, serene, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. I was hard and moving, I didn’t last long, I came came came into her, into the world, into myself, into life, into confidence. I came. I came.
    It was over. I didn’t pull out just stayed inside of her, held her, stayed inside of myself. It felt good inside, strong inside, simple inside, confident inside. It felt secure inside and better inside. It felt like I was a human being inside of her, and I felt like I was a human being inside of me. A human being who could function, who could feel, who could deal those feelings, who had needs, who could satisfy those needs, like a human being who had wasted much of his life but was ready to start living it. The fear and shame were gone gone gone. I had been inside of a women while I was sober and I had stayed hard and I had functioned. Twenty minutes passed I felt the same I was ready. I told her I was ready she smiled inside of her inside of me I was ready. I didn’t last long, but twenty minutes later I was ready again. The fear was gone. Twenty minutes later I was ready again.


©2003 James Frey and Nerve.com

the Sex & Drugs issue  
SubURBAN Photography by Robert Petrie
One, Two by Ian Spiegelman
Lucy & Rachel by Lisa Carver

Romancing the Stoner by Ondine Galsworth
/personal essay/

Clean by James Frey
/personal essay/

Sexy Dancer by Erin Cressida Wilson & Sean San Jose
Dirty by Daphne Gottlieb
I Did It for Science: Drugs by Grant Stoddard
The Night Visitor by David Amsden
/personal essay/
Tweak by Nicolas Sheff
James by Bruce Benderson
Dirty and Sober by Em & Lo
Amanita Virosa by Jenny Boully
A Life of Substance by Richard Hell
7 Days to Better Sex Through Recreational Drug Use by Carrie Hill Wilner
Slippy for President by Steve Almond

James Frey is the author of the memoir A Million Little Pieces (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Originally from Cleveland, he is married and lives in New York City.