Sober Romance

From a former drunk in love

Friends, it’s been a momentous month. In addition to my six month sobriety birthday(!), a friend’s last minute wedding I helped throw together, and two naughty French bulldogs descending on my life over Memorial Day, I met a fascinating man with actual relationship potential. Yes, in the Bay Area. No, I’m not making it up.

He’s different from the ‘life of the party’ types I would have previously gone for; instead book-smart, responsible, with a solitary nature. He’s subtle, considerate, and present. He’s heady, mellow, more at home on a hike with his dog than a night on the town. He’s better suited for my life now yet different from what I’m used to, making this connection feel simultaneously like a good fit and a healthy challenge.

Dating is completely different for me without alcohol — no hangovers, no help from boozy confidence, no next day’s shame or confusion. Normally, I would be “getting to know” someone over drinks, demonstrating how sophisticated my palate is (depends on the night), or how far under the table my bawdy alter-ego Jem Fatale can drink some dude in a dive bar (very). There might be a lively connection but it tends to morph into sad isolation in the light of day. Since I started dating and drinking at about age 15, alcohol has always played some role, usually in an attempt to facilitate connection. But in hindsight, it only made me feel more disconnected, repulsed and alone.

I’ll admit that it’s been harder to meet potential love interests without a social nightlife habit. I’m making a point to only be around people when they’re generally sober, inhibitions intact. But it’s also been interesting, and new, to feel the pull of attraction unaided by Pinot, observing feelings that I have the sober discipline not to act on. Sometimes I find a little flirtatiousness is a fun aspect of a platonic or even professional relationship, as with the handsome Irish maintenance man in my office. I trust myself to keep things from going too far. It’s fun and feels juicy in the moment without any real destructive consequences.

It makes sense that alcohol and my love life have been so intertwined, I operated under the assumption that desire was dirty or subversive.

And with a mindfulness of consequences, I have been able to honestly assess what I’m looking for longer term. Putting my own fantasies into the light with the clarity and compassion of a sober mind, I’ve unearthed deep, dark associations of love/desire/sex and a sickening shame that has kept my longings in the shadows. It makes sense that alcohol and my love life have been so intertwined, I operated under the assumption that desire was dirty or subversive. Alcohol gave me an out, however briefly, from that oppressive thinking.

Imagine my surprise to find I don’t need alcohol to experience the thrill of romance! To be courting, connecting, discovering over a thermos of water or a strong pot of coffee. My decisions don’t degenerate as the date goes on. Alcohol doesn’t obliterate insightful conversations. I don’t wake up, head splitting, resentful of the evening’s events. I’m feeling sensual without any help from an intoxicating substance, making exciting new associations in my psyche and memories that can actually be remembered. My attraction to him is not a shameful secret, it’s an important part of the process.

This time, the discomfort of a new love interest is more of a growing pain — from the vulnerability I am trying to be present with; exploring this entire person I’m considering fusing into my life. Neither of us is perfect and flaws are a little more intense sober, but also easier to take in with the empathy and honesty available in sobriety.

Even though I want him to like me, I’m not only showing what I think he wants to see. Being able to bring more of my whole self into the picture from the beginning feels like a major breakthrough in my personal development. It signals a trust in myself, knowing that a healthy partner will want to see the real me. I’m not looking for instant gratification but laying a solid foundation.

I’m noticing what issues we may run into if this dalliance continues. I’m able to factor them into the equation, start to honestly bring them up with him. I’ve been able to make room for complicated sides of myself that, for better or worse, he’ll get to know, and seek the same in him. It feels amazing to advocate for myself that way, to forge space for my whole self from the beginning. There’s less hiding my thoughts as I realize that worse than rejection is going into a relationship under false pretenses.

In the last six months, in writing about and talking with so many people about my own experience with sobriety, I have been able to better understand why alcohol was such an obstacle to me thriving, romantically and otherwise. Substances had become a stand in for connection, a lesser proxy for a real human who sees and accepts and desires me. Alcohol dulled my sensations of pain at times, but also pleasure. It set me up for heartache and heartbreak because I went into relationships unprepared and only half-seeing.

It doesn’t eliminate the work that relationships require, but I know better from the jump what outcome I’m working toward. We can forge a path together or part before codependency takes over. I don’t have to keep up a façade or over-analyze what I should do or say to keep him around. We can create something extraordinary with eyes wide open or I can go back to enjoying the freedom and space of being single. Partner or not, I have this same wide-eyed love for myself.

So cheers to love without crutches, without illusions. Love with the clarity to unite two whole humans. Healthy love. Love in the daylight. Love that can drive home after without risking everyone’s lives. It’s heroic, it’s happening, and I’m fully on board.

A thinking thot.

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