We chatted for three hours over coffee on a foggy San Francisco morning. His bright eyes flickered as he told me about his recent hiking trip through New Zealand. I related, shared my own New Zealand travel stories, and fought the urge to imagine us rolling around in a large hammock off the shores of Papua New Guinea. I believed we would definitely see each other again and felt grateful to have met someone so easygoing.
On our way out of the café, he asked whether or not I liked sushi. Believing this was a segue into a future dinner invite, I enthusiastically told him I loved raw fish.
Then, he looked up and crinkled his nose, confused. “Wait, but you don’t drink. So ... no.”
“You asked about sushi, right?”
“Yeah, but you don’t drink.”
“Does one need to drink to eat sushi?” I watched our sweet date deflate like a hot air balloon, with me in it. I also recalled many a sushi night where sake bombs and the “large” Asahi beer overshadowed the beautifully colored dragon rolls laid out on the table in front of me.
Sushi did used to be synonymous with drinking for me, and I gathered that’s where this guy’s brain took him as well. The whole thing sounds a little ridiculous, but I do understand where a heavy drinker could get it all mixed up in their head.
The guy changed the subject after that, hugged me, and never spoke to me again. It appeared he ultimately could not make sense of dating someone who doesn’t drink.
Scenarios like this are not uncommon for non-drinkers dating in a world where booze remains a key player in socializing, and especially the awkward beginnings of a relationship.
I get it and I’ve been there. Before I stopped drinking almost seven years ago, I would have never wanted to date a sober person because I knew we could not share in the hobby I loved most. Plus, if I didn’t have alcohol to help me with my insecurity, I would have never been able to get through the first few dates, first sex, or god forbid, intimacy. There was no way, or so I thought, that I could do any of that on my own.
Alcohol used to swaddle me in a superhero cape. It gave me a confidence so fierce, I sometimes believed I could win the affections of any guy I approached. On the flip side, my drinking chutzpah often transitioned into debilitating anxiety and a belief that I was actually the ugliest and least interesting person in the room.
This was the Jekyll-and-Hyde insanity drinking produced. I couldn’t ever stay on the same page with myself. So, after suffering for 20 years together, I finally acknowledged the worst relationship in my life and quit the drink.
Living without booze forced me to find the self that countless dirty martinis had drowned and buried. Over time, I started to gain confidence in my skin by bringing the same, consistent person to the table ― in life and on dates.
Of course, the first several dates out felt a little like standing on stage naked and being forced to do hot yoga poses. It took me several tries to learn how to get out of my nervous brain and into my body.
At 36, I had never gone on a first date without drinking two to infinity glasses of wine. I learned to socialize and flirt at parties in junior high with a beer in my hand. I had zero frame of reference into 1) How to “be myself.” Who’s that? 2) How to get out of my head. 3) How to get through a whole date.
Over six years of practice later, I have found I best match with someone who drinks very little (yes, they do exist), or someone who doesn’t partake at all. Some people will say they don’t care about drinking and then proceed to get drunk in front of you on a first date, because it’s hard to hide it when booze is your best friend.
I’ll never forget my date with the hot painter. His brown, shoulder-length hair rested on a see-through white linen shirt that opened a little too much around his chest. He looked like he belonged on the cover of a romance novel and, weirdly, I liked that. We met and chatted at the bar of a restaurant that was just dark enough to make out quietly in a shadowy nook if you wanted to.
My date drank a glass of red wine as I sipped a goblet of sparkling water. Pretty straight out of the gate, he told me a story about his alcoholic father whom he had to carry out of the house to the hospital. The father died shortly after. The narrative continued and my date’s glass morphed into two and then four.
After the story about his dad, he segued into funnier anecdotes that included hand gestures and some impersonations. I watched his personality get bigger with each glass (been there). He made me laugh and then he fell off his very tall stool (been there too). I gasped, but he popped right back up and into another lively impression. I enjoyed the show, but knew long before he fell that we weren’t a match.
Fabio and I started out on earth, together, and then I watched him board a rocket ship to several other planets, without me. That is how I feel on a date with someone on the way to drunk. Our connection decreases with every sip.
I’ve had numerous dates after that one, sober kisses and yes, sex, and I didn’t die. Over time, I learned how to be present on dates. What that gives me is an opportunity to listen to the other person.
When I do this, I can hear if he is talking at me or with me. I notice if he is asking questions or going on about the fact that he could have made state as an incredible athlete in high school. It is so much easier to measure compatibility now that I have stopped thinking about what my date thinks of me, and started focusing on whether or not I want to spend more time with them.
Although I’ve gained confidence (not drinking to excess and then not doing and saying regrettable things will do that), I do sometimes feel like an outsider. With some people, I can talk about my decision to stop with ease because they are listening and think it’s cool. Others are confused or just act like what I’m saying isn’t real.
This process has been a long one for me, with misfires and dating situations I should have quashed sooner. But I try to go easy on myself. I started drinking as a teenager, so emotionally mature dating has taken a while to learn.
I also had to get comfortable with telling my story before I could enjoy meeting new people. I spent so much time worrying what people thought that I had trouble paying attention in the beginning. But letting go of the shame I carried around my drinking allowed me to experience unconditional love and connect with others in ways I didn’t know possible.
I still haven’t found my forever person, but I finally believe I deserve to.