Sitting next to a guy I’ll call Mike, on our second date, I searched my memory for a sliver of how I used to flirt. My arms felt heavy in my lap and my brain felt sluggish. For someone who spent the last decade feeling pretty comfortable around the opposite sex, I was dumbstruck by how self-conscious I was now. How did I used to talk to attractive men before I stopped drinking?
Dating sober felt like a social experiment at times, a side effect I didn’t expect when I quit booze. For years I was a die-hard partier, never skipping a Saturday night out. Alcohol gave me a magical confidence that helped me navigate the awkwardness of socializing, dating, and generally being a sensitive person in the world. But as I got older, I started waking up in the morning with splitting headaches and emotional hangovers that took days to shake. By the time I turned 28, I was tired of the nausea, anxiety, and shame I felt every time I drank.
So I stopped drinking, cold turkey, and I started to feel better — I was less anxious, more productive, exercising more, sleeping better. There was just one problem: Seemingly every first date happens over drinks. I had no idea how to maneuver the logistics of sober dating; I hadn’t gone on a date without the assistance of alcohol since I was 18. That was ten years of only kissing after cocktails and conversations fueled by liquid courage.
I was a nervous teenager again, clueless around boys and nervous at parties. So I avoided them — until, after two months on my couch staying out of bars and eating licorice like it was a major food group, a friend offered to set me up with her fiancé’s friend from college. I reemerged onto the dating scene with high hopes and, likely due in part to my new candy habit, a fresh case of adult acne.
That first date seemed genuinely perplexed when I didn’t order a cocktail, but nodded emphatically as I explained that I had stopped drinking. “What about sangria?” he offered eagerly. “Or just tequila? Fewer hangovers that way.” At a party later that month, I tried to hide my sobriety, discreetly ordering seltzers with lime and asking bartenders to put them in lowball glasses. I was 16 again: totally unsure of myself, embarrassed by the one thing that would expose me as slightly different from everyone else. When I met a cute guy at a wedding a few months later, I told lies of omission all night and sipped my drinks silently, scared he wouldn’t be interested in getting to know me without vodka in my glass.
Luckily, after those first few panicked months, I became less concerned with how guys reacted to my sobriety, and more aware of how dating without alcohol felt. Despite the initial weirdness, not drinking on dates provided me with teenage-level clarity and decisiveness. Usually, after three or four cocktails, there aren’t a lot of people who I don’t like. But in high school, I’d known exactly who I had crushes on and who I was not interested in kissing. Without the cushion of alcohol, I found myself back in the same place, ending things up front with people I wasn’t into and allowing myself to revel in the giddiness of new feelings for ones I liked.
Even better, I was surprised to find that not drinking on dates could actually be fun. Without alcohol, there was room for simple things like movies and popcorn, walks in the park, comedy shows, and ice cream. Sure, these are all available to drinkers, but they weren’t activities I noticed or enjoyed in the same way when I had other, boozier options.
But back to Mike. As he and I spent more time together, I found myself getting comfortable enough with sober dating to lower the volume on my inner how-do-I-do-this monologue. It turned out Mike was kind of a weirdo, too, and instead of flirting on our dates, I tried a new technique: listening. He was nice and he was funny, and by the time we were cuddling on my couch listening to bands we’d both liked in high school, I was pretty sure I had cracked the sober dating code. Dating without alcohol had allowed me to be authentic and totally present, and I no longer felt uncomfortable at all.
But I broke the cardinal rule of dating: never, ever get excited. I didn’t hear from him for over a week, and when I did, it was via several text messages explaining why he wasn’t ready for a relationship.
I know what you’re thinking: of course he bailed. Everyone knows you’re not supposed to show your feelings so soon. But when you’re experiencing every emotion without a drop of numbing alcohol, the rejection feels a lot more raw and messy and real. I cried over those texts. What was the point of dating honestly, presently, openly, if you still wind up crushed in the end?
My inner 16-year-old continued to cry for a few more minutes after reading those messages before my 28-year-old self stepped in. She got us some tissues and called our mom. I got off the couch and went to see a few friends who shared similar experiences, made me laugh, and reminded me that the best part of feeling like a teenager again is that you aren’t actually a teenager anymore. You have the adult tools to take care of your younger self when she gets scared, and can gently but firmly take over the reins and let her know that it’s going to be okay.
The truth is, I barely knew Mike. I had been excited about him, yes, but mostly I had just been excited about the spark I felt, and about connecting with another human being in this new, unfamiliar way. I’d spent years connecting with men when we were both drunk, bonding over another round of shots only to turn our backs to each other the next morning, bleary-eyed and hungover.
Maybe I had come on too strong because I was sober, or maybe he just wasn’t right for me. Ultimately, this is how dating goes: it either works out or it doesn’t, and I just had never been present enough to really experience it before. It’s a lot easier to shrug someone off when you can hardly remember what you talked about on your dates in the first place.
But I hadn’t cried over a guy in a long time, and there was something weirdly beautiful about how much it stung. Like a teenager, you feel everything deeply when you date without alcohol: the butterflies, the first kisses, the glimmer of hope and nagging insecurities. It’s painful, but it’s also the most alive I’ve felt in a long time.
My 29th birthday is coming up, and I’m still single and sober. After a year of dating without alcohol, not drinking isn’t the awkward part anymore; it’s the act of opening up to strangers over and over again. First dates are weird and uncomfortable, and they make me feel like a nervous teenager every time. Maybe there are some things that just don’t get easier to navigate as we get older. Luckily, thanks to my new Retin-A prescription, my skin isn’t one of them.