The vulnerability of sober first dates

I’ve talked before about what it’s like to fall in love sober, and more recently about sober breakups. In early sobriety, however, I know that I personally craved detail. Ok, so you say that you’re dating sober. What does that mean on a granular level? What did you say when he asked you out for drinks? Did he look at you funny when you ordered a Diet Coke? Or did you warn him ahead of time? Was he disappointed? Were you bored? How did you calm your nerves? How does flirting work? How does kissing work? What's the friggin' password?!

In that first year of sobriety, I went on several sober first dates. Although alcohol was conspicuously absent, I loved the opportunity to get dressed up and the challenge of winning someone over. Even an average first date had the capacity to offer basic affirmation, and a better-than-average date might just be the ticket to totally losing myself in another person. (Sans alcohol, opportunities to lose myself were rare.) When possible, I tried to arrange for a first date of going to coffee, sometimes even a workout at the gym. I was self-conscious about not drinking, and in these contexts it was less obvious. (Although, to be fair, you can often order wine in most Wisconsin coffee shops, and it’s not long before Planet Fitness gets Budweiser on tap.)

Three years into sobriety, I've been on many more sober first dates. Despite my expectations, I struggle to remember a single time when someone has tried to make me feel uncomfortable for not drinking. And it’s not because I’m dating unicorns. Rather, it’s because I’m dating men between 25-30 who truly don’t care whether the person across from them is drinking a beer or a ginger ale. I would say my dates are just good at hiding their disappointment, but I’ve also learned that most 27-year-old men can’t hide much of anything. Whatever happens to be in my cup truly does not matter, as long as I’m open, curious, and look more-or-less like the pictures on the app.

Easier said than done, of course. At the very least, I’ll click “enhance” on every photo, and it's just dumb luck that I don't know how to use Facetune yet. And who wants to be open - especially in a situation that is inherently vulnerable? Never mind how others deal with my sobriety on dates; how do I tolerate it? On date nights, I used to nurse a drink before even leaving my apartment. And once we settled in, the shift in my demeanor as two drinks turned into three was palpable. A date which started out average ended up fun and carefree. By the end, I didn’t always know if I liked him, but I was reminded that I liked booze quite a lot.

As I began to like myself more in sobriety, the question of whether my date would like me too became less concerning. The question of what to talk about has become less important. I’m sure we’ll find something - and if we don’t, I can hop in the car and drive home after an hour, citing my (quite honestly) early bedtime and having spent no more than $3 on Diet Coke.

Of course, disappointment is inevitable. It's increasingly clear that what I need to find is not another person, but an increasingly complete version of myself. As an Enneagram 4, I naturally look for a type of salvation in other humans that isn’t possible. Drunk, I could sometimes trick myself into believing I’d found it. Waiting for a text was and is the millennial equivalent of waiting for wholeness. And drunk, I was much more inclined to wait.

Sober, I know that wholeness is an inside job. I’m even prepared for wholeness to feel like “halfness” indefinitely, as the state of searching seems to be fundamental to my personality. Previously, I drank to cope with the reality of feeling half, and the disappointment that feeling whole through others does not appear to be possible. Sober, I get to remain open to what is possible. Building relationships. Forming connections. Helping each other to feel less alone.

And, as a bonus: I still love getting dressed up.