First Person: I'm An Alcoholic, But I Can't Date Sober Men
After getting sober at 20, one woman thought she could never date someone who drank. The love of her life had different plans.
BY BETH LEIPHOLTZ | Aug 30, 2016 | Sex & Relationships
When I entered rehab at 20 years old, one of the first thoughts to cross my mind was literally, "Great. Now I can only date sober guys."
It was overly dramatic, but I believed it. I'd been through a lot in the year prior, and had convinced myself that no one but another alcoholic would believe or understand my struggle and accept me.
In the two years before entering rehab, I'd dug myself a deep hole. After joining rugby in college, I began binge-drinking. I never learned to slow down, and didn't intend to. I loved being the life of the party. The adrenaline-fuelled nights, the meaningless hookups, the unpredictability — it was what I lived for.
But the summer of 2013 after my sophomore year, I ended up hospitalised with a .34 blood alcohol level. Though I didn't know it then, that would be the last time I drank. Shortly after, I entered rehab. I quickly found that my life was better sober, and I ran with it.
Months later when I was in a good place, my mind wandered to dating.
I'd kept my eyes open for other sober people my age, but nothing clicked. I'd yet to meet someone in recovery who I felt a romantic connection with. I knew of sober dating apps, but none of them had reached areas in rural Minnesota at that point. So I gave in to my last resort: I downloaded Tinder.
Later, I heard he had relapsed. I was crushed. My sober fairytale had been stomped on.
Now, I knew Tinder was not the most likely place to find love, let alone love with another sober person. It's known for breeding more hook ups than relationships, but I was hell-bent on giving it a shot. The first detail I entered in my profile was that I was in recovery, so no, I did not want to meet for a drink. Weeks passed. Then one day I received a message that read, "You're sober too?" I responded and we hit it off, enough so that we decided to go on a real date.
The next week, we met at Chipotle. In retrospect, it was an awful location, since eating burritos is delicious but messy and not at all endearing. We walked around downtown St. Paul and discussed what lead us to get sober. Sitting on the steps of a church, he kissed me. That night we went to a 12-step meeting together, and I was convinced I'd found The One. Shortly after, I met Sober Boy's family. Everything was going exactly as I'd imagined it: I'd met someone sober who understood the struggles and triumphs of recovery, and who understood and accepted me.
Then, as suddenly as the relationship began, it ended. Sober Boy stopped responding to my texts and my calls were all forwarded to voicemail. I was left feeling defeated, confused and alone.
Later, I heard he had relapsed. I was crushed. My sober fairytale had been stomped on.
After that experience, something changed. I realised that the type of person I had been looking for—someone sober, young, someone like me wasn't as good a fit as I'd dreamed up. After the way things ended with my ex, I knew I'd always be on edge if I dated someone sober. I'd be overly anxious, almost waiting for them to relapse. It was enough to worry about keeping my own sobriety; I couldn't do the same for another person. My mind began turning. I knew I was OK with being around alcohol even though I was sober. Having gotten sober during college, I'd learned to tolerate being in the company of people who drank responsibly.
So, in my post-heartbreak haze, I decided to re-approach dating. With an open mind, I made more immediate connections than my first Tinder go-round by reaching out to matches rather than waiting for them to initiate conversation. I left the information about sobriety in my bio, figuring that if that was a turn-off for someone, so be it. That probably wasn't someone I wanted in my life anyway.
As I was swiping left and right one afternoon, one guy in particular caught my attention. This blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy wasn't my normal type (I preferred tall, dark and broody), but his rugby-themed shirt made me curious. I realised that what I had been pursuing in a relationship in the past hadn't worked, so maybe it was time to change what I was looking for.
I swallowed my doubts and asked him if he'd like to meet for coffee.
To my excitement, he agreed—without suggesting a bar instead. We met at a coffee shop in a nearby town, and that was where I caught the first glance of the love of my life. He was wearing a camo jacket and cowboy boots, with a thick Minnesotan accent. He screamed "country boy," and I wondered what I had gotten myself into.
As we started talking, I was pleasantly surprised. Brandon's ease and charm quickly won me over. As we sat at what is now "our" table, I explained what had led to my getting sober at such a young age. He listened intently, without judgment, as I blabbered on about sobriety and the journey it had taken me on.
It has now been nearly two years since my last first date. Brandon and I recently bought a house and own three dogs. Our life together is different than I imagined, especially when I think back to early sobriety and remember how intent I was on dating someone who was sober — because Brandon isn't.
It hasn't always been easy to navigate dating a normal drinker, but we've managed. It would be different if my partner drank to excess, or drank every day, but he doesn't. He keeps beer in the house to have with dinner occasionally, and he'll have a drink or two if we go out.
Sometimes when he settles in for the night with a beer, I can't help but wonder, "Why? Why doesn't he drink more? Nothing is stopping him. Why doesn't he drink until he feels it? What's the point of stopping before that?" Then I remember that it's because he is not an alcoholic. He can drink responsibly.
Though he doesn't outright say so, I know the choices I have made in my life have impacted how he drinks now, something that occasionally eats at me. I feel guilty that his life has been altered because of my presence. In those moments I have to remind myself that no one has forced him to live his life with me by his side.
For example, one time early in our relationship, Brandon and I went to a party in the garage of one of his co-workers. There was a live band, and the music was reverberating off the walls of the garage. A keg was in the corner, and everyone had drinks in their hands. Because it was the home of someone he worked with, I knew no one there, which made an uncomfortable sober situation even more awkward. I told Brandon to go socialise, and persisted that yes, I would be fine alone for a few minutes. But I wasn't. Without alcohol, I didn't have the confidence or patience to shout over the din of the band and attempt to make small talk. So instead of continuing to try, I sat down and pet the dog while Brandon made his rounds.
Most people in my life can have a few drinks, socialise, and return home in one piece. My drinking resulted in blackouts and sleeping wherever I passed out.
When he returned, tears welled up in my eyes as I continued to pet the dog. Avoiding eye contact, I muttered, "I think we need to go." It was embarrassing for me to admit to not being OK, and I was unsure how he'd react. To my surprise, he simply agreed. Rather than question me or ask why I needed to leave, he said, "OK, let's go."
It was in moments like these that I realised I loved Brandon. In the time since, his willingness to accept me as I am has never wavered. He has never become mad or frustrated when I need to remove myself from a situation. He wants me to be comfortable, and knows I'll speak up if I'm not. Yes, there have been parties we've had to leave, or times when I've asked him to rein it in a little. But he always responds with understanding and respect. Brandon didn't know me when I drank, but he's made every effort to understand the person I was then and the person I am now.
Though I was unsure of dating a normal drinker, it has been one of the best things I've done for myself. It just reinforces the fact that alcohol and I don't jive when I see how most people drink. Most people in my life can have a few drinks, socialise, and return home in one piece, with memories intact. On the flip side, my drinking resulted in blackouts and sleeping wherever I passed out. I drank dangerously, whereas most people drink responsibly. Through sober eyes and a clear mind, I now recognise that.
The past three years have taught me many lessons, but perhaps this biggest one has been this: I may be an alcoholic, but that doesn't mean my world has to be limited to people who live the way I do. If I'd continued to believe that, I'd have cut myself off from many people and relationships, and would likely still be chasing that old thrill. Instead, my life is full, I am sober, and I've found someone who accepts me, rugged past and all.