Love + Sex Love Life Stories

It wasn’t until I got sober that I learned how to go on a real date

When I was 23 years old, I hit rock bottom.

 I’d just ruined yet another relationship. I’d been drinking daily for over a year. I’d repeatedly ended up in situations I didn’t want to be in, with people I didn’t want to be with. 

I couldn’t imagine continuing to live the way that I was living.

So, I got sober. 

Of course, it wasn’t as easy as that. It took a lot of hard work, a lot of soul-searching, and a lot of hearing things I didn’t want to hear from people much wiser than me. One of those things I didn’t want to hear was that I shouldn’t date or have sex for a while. I was told that I was in no shape to have a relationship and that I had nothing to offer a prospective partner, so I should take some time to figure my own shit out. I sought out alternate opinions, but the only one I got was, “you can do whatever you want as long as you can deal with the consequences.” That sealed it for me. 

I was already drowning in the consequences of my drunk actions.

I stayed single and celibate for just over a year, and it was exactly what I needed. I certainly didn’t figure my shit out, but I had a much better idea of what my shit was and what I could do about it.

I decided that I wanted to date again mostly because I wanted to hook up. I started thinking about ways that I could meet a hookup and I realized that I had absolutely no idea how to date without drinking. Whenever I’d wanted to “make a connection” before, I’d go to the bar. I’d have a few drinks (or seven or eight) to work up the courage, and once I was sufficiently buzzed (or wasted), I’d approach my target. 

This approach worked surprisingly often, with both men and women.

Almost all my dates with serious significant others involved drinks at dinner, or drinks and dancing, or drinking before a show or a movie. The entirety of my romantic life had revolved around booze, as had the majority of the rest of my life.  

I didn’t know what date night activities we could do that wouldn’t involve drinking. I didn’t even know how to meet people. I was terrified that I didn’t even know how to talk to people anymore.

Like any millennial who wants to get laid, I turned to the Internet. I made a profile on OkCupid, sat back, and watched the messages roll in. I messaged back and forth with a few people, my confidence bolstered by the fact that we were keyboards apart. I narrowed my choices down to a few I thought I might want to meet, and desperately turned to my sober friends for advice. 

How do I even go on a date?

One of them made a crazy suggestion: I should talk with each of the prospects on the phone before I went on a date. A phone conversation? Who even talks on the phone anymore?

 But I trusted her, so I did it.

I’m glad I did because two of the three guys I had been messaging were boring AF. I couldn’t imagine making conversation with them for the length of a date. I stumbled through the conversation and began to wonder if my fears of being incapable of romantic human interaction without a drink were valid.

But the third guy was different. 

We talked on the phone for four hours, until 2 am. He was hilarious, interesting, and intelligent. And because I was sober, I was capable of having an intelligible and interesting conversation. The words poured out effortlessly and I began to lose my fear.

We met each other the next night, at a coffee shop instead of a bar. It was nice to be able to hear each other, to not have to shout over the deafening music in order to introduce ourselves. I felt awkward AF at first. I kept staring into my cup of tea. I incessantly twirled my hair. The rising feeling of panic in my chest made me remember why I’d always taken a drink before talking to someone. I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to do this without my liquid courage.

But he was just as awkward as me, and I realized that I actually thought it was pretty cute. He fumbled with his hot chocolate and struggled to make conversation just like me.

 I thought, “Maybe dating is awkward for everyone and I was just too wasted to notice.”

We grew more comfortable as the date progressed, making little references to the conversation we’d had the night before, and sharing small details about our lives. It dawned on me that I’d never made a connection this authentic when I was throwing drunken pickup lines around in the bar.

The rest, as they say, was history. 

A month later I was dating that guy exclusively. Six months later I moved in with him. Three years later he proposed to me, and four years after our first date, we got married. We’ve been married for almost two years. 

And I’m still sober.

When I was drinking, I was desperately searching for intimacy and manufacturing faux intimacy through hazy, drunken encounters. I was always looking for a real connection, but I was always too drunk to find it or to realize that it was right in front of me. A wall of booze was always between me and the people who were trying to love me.

When I got sober, it was really uncomfortable to let that wall dissolve. I desperately wanted a drink to protect me from the vulnerability of true intimacy. But when I sucked it up and fumbled through the creation of a real, authentic connection, I fell in love.

It might’ve been awkward AF, but it was totally worth it.

By Robin Zabiegalski

Robin Zabiegalski is a full time writer and editor. Her work has been published on The Tempest, xoJane, The Talko, The Bolde, and Kinkly. She also writes fiction and her work has been published in an anthology called "Fermenting Feminism" and in "Adelaide Magazine." Robin has a BA in Professional Studies from Johnson State College and she is passionate about feminism, body image, writing, snowboarding, and backpacking.