On Being Young, Sober and Single: Navigating Romance Without the Booze

Originally published at http://www.thefix.com/content/young-sober-and-single-navigating-romance-without-booze. 

When people look at me, they don’t see an alcoholic.

They see a content 22-year-old student-athlete with a 3.8 GPA, the editor-in-chief of the college newspaper, someone who balances two part-time jobs in addition to academics. I don’t fit the stereotypical “old geezer whose life is falling apart and has lost everything” mold people associate with alcoholics; even at my rock bottom about a year and a half ago, I still managed to balance (and even excel) in most areas of my life.

Except relationships. Relationships were difficult – especially after I was introduced to alcohol.

Where I was reserved and self-aware when sober, I would completely surrender those insecurities as soon as alcohol took hold of me. When that buzz hit, confidence did as well. I was able to talk to anyone in the room. All I cared about when drinking was that it made me feel lighter, happier. I thought it made me a more likable person. I was wrong, but I wouldn’t come to that realization for quite some time.

During freshman year of college I had a short relationship, a few months at most. He liked to drink as much as I did, if not more. Unsurprisingly, when we both drank or one drank more than the other, it never ended well. Alcohol played a role in our relationship ending, so logically I went out and got trashed the night we broke up in order to forget about the situation.

Here’s a curveball – it didn’t work. It never did. It only made things look better for a short period of time, or made me more confident to say or do things I wouldn’t say or do sober. Then I would wake up in the morning, probably hungover, left to clean up the destruction I had left in my path the night before.

My drinking really escalated after the breakup. After all, I had an excuse to drink: I was hurting. It seems that as a culture, we have this idea that alcohol and the high it brings can cure hurt, when all it really does is overshadow it and make it more prominent when it’s finally acknowledged. I have also struggled with anxiety and depression the majority of my life, and for whatever reason, I had taken it upon myself to lower my dose of Zoloft from 100 milligrams to 25 milligrams. Since I was already struggling emotionally and my dosage wasn’t what it should have been, depression set in and was only exacerbated by my drinking.

About a month after we broke up, St. Patrick’s Day arrived. It happened to fall on a Saturday – a beautiful, rare, 70-degree, Minnesota day. In retrospect, it was a recipe for disaster due to the various “reasons” to drink: the holiday, the weather, the school year winding up, the continuing pain from the breakup. My ex and I both played rugby and frequented the same parties, so I was bound to run into him.

I don’t recall much of the encounter. That St. Patrick’s Day was the first time I ever drank to such excess that I blacked out. Jello shots, energy drinks and regular shots are not a solid combination for an already emotionally fragile person. To put it simply, the shit hit the fan. I ended up running into my ex, bitching him out, and slapping him – none of which I would even consider doing while sober. Subconsciously, I wanted to hurt him, so I rubbed my single status in his face by flirting with other boys. He didn’t care, and this made me more determined to make him care.

By the end of freshman year, I was becoming someone I didn’t recognize. Thankfully summer presented itself before I did anything irreparable. I had three months away from the college atmosphere and time to get over the boy situation. And I did. At least, I thought I did.

Summer came and went relatively incident-free. I came back to school still single, over the situation from the previous year— or so Sober Beth thought. Drunk Beth had other ideas, and ended up reigniting that spark with the ex – a dangerous road back to old feelings. I fell into this pattern so effortlessly when I was drunk, and it seemed harmless. But it wasn’t.

Over the course of my drinking, I never woke up next to a stranger, I never took part in any sexual encounter I didn’t want to take part it, and I never was unable to recall what had happened with a boy. Looking back, I’m lucky that I wasn’t taken advantage of. I was drunk often and it could have happened easily. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by respectful guys and good friends looking out for me (even though that wasn’t their responsibility).

However, while I never was in a legitimately dangerous situation, I did compromise my beliefs and values when it came to the opposite sex – and that was almost as difficult to come to terms with. I became a person I wasn’t comfortable with when I was sober, which made it all the more tempting to drink so I would feel okay about the choices I was making. Then I would wake up with immense feelings of guilt and regret, and the cycle would begin again. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action over and over and expecting different results. That was me, and I was the only one who couldn’t admit it.

Until one day, I did. My last drink was May 7, 2013. After many tears and sleepless nights, I came to the realization that I was an alcoholic. I haven’t looked back since.

For the first year of sobriety, I focused on myself. Not because I was told to (as the 12-step program will advocate), but because I actually wanted to. I wanted to figure myself out and save someone else the trouble of decoding my mixed signals.

In the past few months, I have been more open to dating, and even to monogamy. Maybe this is because I know I won’t be getting wasted and potentially hurting someone I care about. I can put my feelings on the line knowing that I don’t have the option to drink and swallow them up when I’m emotionally uncomfortable. But even that is a fair tradeoff if it means I can avoid the turmoil that drinking cast upon my relationships – romantic and otherwise.

Feeling everything deeply is both a blessing and a burden. Emotionally, learning to cope with feelings of inadequacy and self-worth has been a difficult road, but it has also been rewarding. I’ve gained so much perspective into why I handle situations the way I do, which in turn makes me more comfortable opening myself up to someone (should the opportunity arise).

And then there is the physical side of relationships. Prior to sobriety, my confidence was never what it should have been. I was self-conscious, hesitant and afraid. I loved being drunk because those feelings dissipated and allowed me to let my guard down. I could kiss someone without analyzing every second of it, every movement. Physical connections seemed easier in the moment when I was drunk, when in reality they were meaningless and much less fulfilling. There’s a fine line between analyzing everything and analyzing nothing when it comes to a physical connection with someone, and I feel as if sobriety has finally allowed me to find my footing.

Still, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. To be honest, sometimes being sober and dating just flat out sucks. It makes awkward first dates even more awkward, makes conversation and common ground harder to come by. Americans as a culture enjoy making alcohol a part of outings. It can be frustrating to explain to a (mostly) stranger why I no longer drink; a common response is asking, why can’t I have “just one?” The problem is that “just one” isn’t part of my vocabulary.

As a 22-year-old, I’ve had to explain, more than once, on a first date that I no longer drink, but that they are welcome to if they feel so inclined. Typically, the date does not take me up on that and instead declines out of respect for me. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the gesture. But I do not want to dictate anyone else’s idea of normal, and that is something I am still learning to navigate when it comes to dating.

Obviously I could choose to date someone who is also sober. I’ve decided sober guys are hot– not in a physical sense, but more so in where they are emotionally. As with anything, common ground makes a connection more easily attainable. Most sober people have learned through the program that letting their guard down and expressing themselves is a healthy means of working through life. Sobriety has a way of making people mature more quickly than they otherwise would. As a female, it is so refreshing to see males who know they don’t need to be the perfect picture of strong and masculine.

I recently went on a first date with a guy who is also sober (Uh, thanks Tinder). Said first date included a 10pm AA meeting. You’d think it would be awkward, admitting all your wrongdoings and flaws to someone who you are ultimately trying to impress – but it’s not. It’s refreshing. Both sides know what they are getting into, where the other person has been – but both sides also understand that they are not that same person anymore.

I’ve found that the way a guy initially handles my choice to not drink has told me a lot about the type of person he is and whether I should pursue him. I don’t know where my sobriety will take me in regards to my romantic life. But I do know that while my sobriety doesn’t define me, it is an enormous part of the person I am today. It is important to me to find someone who understands and respects that aspect of my life. If that person is a normie, I’m okay with that. If they are also sober, even better.

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