When the gods of love provide, and I am setting up a first date, I take a simple approach: I name a date, time and coffee shop or bar.
Then, I always slip in one last simple sentence: “By the way, I don’t drink.”
It’s a statement that shouldn’t be a big deal. But I have learned that it can be.
Sometimes, these first dates will ask why I abstain. I tell them honestly: I’m a recovering alcoholic. In my online dating profiles, I always include that I’m the author of “Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk”; that has seemed to decrease the need to explain.
In a city like New York, where first dates are usually held over drinks, and initial acts of intimacy are often accompanied by a light buzz, dating as a young sober person has proven to be incredibly confusing.
Still, I am able to form sentences on a date without wine, and sex does still work without tequila.
When I first got sober four years ago, I felt the need to “make up for” the fact that I wouldn’t be drinking by planning overly ambitious dates. I would scour the city for an experimental play, or suggest we go on adventures hours away in the Hudson Valley; I was determined to try to find activities that showed this stranger that I was still interesting without alcohol. Then, when trying to plan a first date involving a trapeze, I had a realization: I didn’t need to replicate a rom-com plot, just because I didn’t drink. Plus, a trapeze class, long train ride or walk through the woods with a bad first date is still uncomfortable, whether or not you’re drinking.
So I like to have my first dates over coffee, or even at a bar. (Though I recognize that the latter is not a healthy situation for every recovering alcoholic.) These types of dates are casual and — call me lazy! — ideal in that they involve little planning. Unlike a full dinner, going for a hike, or seeing a play, if the date is awful, it’s easy to get out of there fast. If you and your date hit it off, you can move on to dinner or just keep talking all night.
It is easier for everyone involved if I let my suitor know that I don’t drink before we get to the date, instead of letting them know when they give me that look of panicked confusion after they order a gin and tonic and I order a Diet Coke. (Or a tea if I’m feeling wild!)
Sure, I don’t need to tell this person I just met that I’m refraining because I’m an alcoholic. But I realized after many failed dates, much introspection and countless therapy sessions, that my delaying telling dates I was an alcoholic in recovery was coming from a place of shame. It was coming from my insecurity that I’m less desirable as a romantic partner because I am not able to drink.
By telling the person before the date that I don’t drink, they then have more time to process it, and thoughtfully decide whether they feel comfortable drinking even if I am not.
There are many sober people who only want to date other sober people. They might feel that this will reduce relapse triggers for them, or that the other person will better understand the experience, or that they’ll just have more in common. Though I am open to dating sober and non-sober individuals, I certainly understand that inclination.
Especially when I get bizarre reactions from a date.
There was one guy who was visibly agitated that I wouldn’t drink, and another man who seemed dumbfounded that I could be physically intimate while sober. There was the date that wanted to hear my drinking horror stories, then seemed to drink for both of us.
Yet the most recurring issue has been when people assume that my not drinking means that I am somehow judging them for drinking. Sure, as a recovering alcoholic, I don’t want to date someone who makes me feel like I’m making out with a bottle of Jack Daniels. But I have been on plenty of dates where the other person has had a drink or two, I have had zero — and neither of us seemed to notice.
In the beginning of sobriety, those odd reactions bothered me. Now I know they are a reflection on the other person, not me. Four years into sobriety, I have developed a simple rule: If someone has any reaction to my sobriety that isn’t immediately ‘good for you,’ I know we are not going to work out.