Nice to Meet You, No I Don’t Want a Drink: Dating After Sobriety

Happy hourHappy hourBy Anna David for HowAboutWe

"So you don't drink at all?" Jeff, my formerly-winsome date, was suddenly eyeing me with skepticism. We were on a blind date set up by a mutual friend, so I had no clue what he'd heard about me-specifically, about my addiction and subsequent sobriety. In that moment, as he gulped his glass of merlot, I felt adolescent as I sipped my cranberry and soda through a straw.

The right moment to tell a date that you don't drink is tough to pinpoint, I've discovered. Right after the waiter asks for your order isn't a bad option. Or even when your suitor is scanning the wine list and asking if you'd prefer red or white.

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"I don't drink," I'll say, always trying to make the three words sound as casual as humanly possible. Sometimes this confession will be followed by no acknowledgment at all, or a simple nod. Of course, then there are times when you see an alarmed look pass over his face. Like the look Jeff was now wearing.

"Really? No drinking. Wow. Is that because…?" This question almost always cuts off, either because the guy can't bring himself to say the words, or because I cut him off, not wanting to watch him grapple.

"I'm sober," I'll announce. And I am, and have been for over 12 years-ever since going to rehab after a coke habit turned serious enough to keep me holed up alone for days at a time.

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Dating While Sober can be a hassle, annoyance, or even a burden. But for most sober people, it's worth it-mainly because we got sober in order to live as full lives as possible, a goal that includes finding the right mate to share our sober days with.

Plenty of men in L.A. and New York-the two cities where I've dated since quitting-know what "I'm sober" means. But not all. Some have asked, "Not even beer?" or "But you're not, like, in AA or something, are you?" with a look as if I just revealed I spend my evenings with Tom Cruise awaiting a space transport to Xenu.

When it comes to online dating, the drinking issue is typically dealt with up front. Profiles let you list whether or not-and how often-you drink, smoke, and do drugs. For me, this means passing by the men who check "regularly" under drinking or drugs (or who mention, say, whiskey on lists of things they couldn't live without).

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Of course, the consequence of cutting out all drinkers: you wind up with a MUCH smaller dating pool. Rebecca, a 36-year-old sober marketing executive, estimates that fewer than 10% of the men on dating sites don't drink. And the non-drinkers, she says, "definitely tend to be weirder: they seem way more neurotic and insecure-or at least more in touch with their insecurities."

Don't get me wrong-many sober people have no problem dating drinkers…to a point. "A woman doesn't have to sober but she has to be conscious," says David, a 34-year-old sober actor, adding, "When it's been established that I am sober and then we go out for dinner and she has three glasses of wine and is smoking an E-cigarette, that would be classified as not conscious."

The majority of the sober people try not to look at the dating pool as drinkers versus non-drinkers, but rather people for whom drinking is important, and those for whom it isn't. This latter group-a slice of society most of us never knew existed pre-sobriety-is the one we're targeting. We're also looking for people who are living the way we are-that is, by trying to improve themselves and focus on self-honesty, even when it's of the brutal variety.

It's the emphasis on honesty as a tenet of addiction recovery that keeps most sober folks telling the truth about their sobriety-in other words, anyone who is committed to leading a sober life won't lie on her profile and say she drinks "sometimes" just to appeal to more guys.

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Granted, coming clean about sobriety isn't always easy. Elizabeth, a 32-year-old writer in New York, says she would never reveal that she was sober on a first, second, or even third date "unless it somehow came up" because "it's like if I was a vegetarian: it's just something I do-it doesn't make me who I am." And David also waits until the topic comes up organically-even if that's a few weeks into dating.

Of course, that method can backfire. Claire, a 39-year-old voiceover actress, once went out with a guy I knew. He told me afterwards that he assumed, because she never wanted to split a bottle of wine with him, that she was silently communicating a lack of interest. So, after four or five dates, he never called her again.

I'm incredibly open about my sobriety-arguably, way too open about it-which means that I've launched into tales of cocaine-fueled craziness on first dates as evidence not only that I had my reasons for stopping but also that I'm still cool. My dental hygienist happened to know a man I'd dated. After we split, she told me he'd mentioned to her that he was turned off by how much I discussed being sober. Whoops.

Still, while I know it's far from sexy to dump all my baggage at the feet of a stranger, I can't help but think that if a guy's got a problem with my addiction or sobriety, I'd rather know right away so neither of us wastes our time.

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The truth about dating when you're sober is that after a certain amount of time, not drinking on a date (or anywhere else) doesn't feel all that different from drinking on a date (or anywhere else). If you're doing the internal work that staying sober and being happy demands-regularly examining your defects and working to improve them, dealing with your resentments by considering the part you play in them-you not only become a much better catch, but you also get comfortable enough to feel like you don't need, or even want, to drink on a date.

Plus, well, sometimes it's only the problem drinkers who can't get over my sobriety.

Take Jeff, for instance. We went out a few more times and I began to notice that, eventually, he'd start slurring his words and lose memory the next day. After a few nights of this, I told him I couldn't deal-and he called me judgmental, and we never spoke again.

A few months later, I heard some news about Jeff from our mutual friend: He was worried about his drinking, and had decided to give sobriety a try.

Anna DavidAnna DavidAnna David is the author of the Kindle Single Animal Attraction, as well as the novels Party Girl (HarperCollins, 2007) and Bought (HarperCollins, 2009) and the memoir Falling for Me (HarperCollins, 2011). She conceived of and edited the anthology Reality Matters (HarperCollins, 2010), is the executive editor of the addiction and recovery website The Fix, and has written for publications including The New York Times, The LA Times, Vanity Fair, Cosmo, and Self. Her next book, on the actor Tom Sizemore, will be released in 2013 by Simon & Schuster.