I'm sober but live in a drinking town. Dating is complicated
How was I ever going to have a first kiss with someone new without a little liquid courage?
This First Person column is the experience of Robyn Schleihauf, who lives in Dartmouth, N.S., and has been sober for three years. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
When I moved to the Maritimes from Kingston, Ont., as a 22-year-old, most of what I knew about my new home could be distilled to a few loose stereotypes about kitchen parties and cèilidhs. I had broken up with the only man I had ever dated for longer than three months and I'd graduated university. I knew I needed a change, but I wasn't sure where to go. I ended up choosing Halifax because I had been to the West Coast but never gone east. I had in mind dark bars and good music and drinking alongside people who knew how to drink. I did not have in mind the burnt coffee smell and bad fluorescent lighting of an AA meeting.
I spent my first couple of years in Halifax working as a bartender. I got my first bar job because I mentioned on my resumé that I had been in the Queen's University Beer Appreciation Club. I fit right into the drinking culture, often sipping on a "little buddy" — our term at the bar for a lowball glass filled with craft beer — while I worked and chatted with the regulars.
After closing time, bands who had played other gigs around town would tumble in. Sometimes they'd get back up on stage to play a few songs as we all smoked cigarettes inside, shoving five-dollar bills into a cup and marking a scratch down on the tab sheet as we poured ourselves another. It was easy enough to meet people, and there was as much romance and heartbreak as you would expect from people who mainly see each other between closing time and sunrise.
I started to get worried that the after-hours party scene would eventually kill me. So I went to work at a microbrewery where we would siphon pints of IPA off the taps in the keg room. That way the volume we were drinking while we worked would go unnoticed — or at least uncounted. On Friday nights after happy hour, the staff from the cafe downstairs from our bar would bring us up shots of espresso, which we would shake over ice with brandy and amaretto into a drink we called "shots in the dark." If I worked a day shift, I was often so hungover that I would nap in the storage crawl space beside the plastic bladders of pop syrup. The kitchen guys would make me little plates of poutine, and I would nurse a Caesar I kept on the back bar. I didn't have to hide it. I wasn't expected to. If anything, it was laughed about, understood and encouraged.
I dated my regulars: an engineering student working on his masters, a computer science professor doing his postdoc as well as other bartenders and sometimes musicians. They were the men in my orbit because they liked to drink.
Slowly this life of drinking and working at the bar became depressingly monotonous. I started asking some of my other regulars out for lunch — the ones who seemed like they liked their jobs. I needed out of the bar service industry, but I didn't know what to do with myself. I started volunteering as an ESL tutor to newcomers to Canada. Eventually I decided I wanted to go to law school. My drinking waned a little while I worked towards that goal, taking classes and working at the bar at night, studying for and writing the LSAT, twice.
When I got into law school in Toronto, my drinking ramped right back up. Still, the people I knew in Toronto didn't drink like the Maritimers I knew. It's not that there isn't a heavy drinking culture across the country — there is. It's just that the bar scene I was used to — with friendly regulars chatting with anyone who walked in — was not really there.
I hated my first job in law and surprised most people I knew when I refused another contract, bought a 1999 Honda Civic and made my way in a sort of reverse migration back to the Maritimes. I got a job. I settled back in. My return was marked by binge drinking with my friends and my family. We got together at bars, and we met up at shows.
I went on dates at bars because that's what you do. I ran into people I knew because they were all there too. I recently asked two friends to describe drinking culture in the Maritimes. One answered, "Ubiquitous." The other said, "I would assume someone drank alcohol before I would assume they drank coffee."
I drank alcoholically, hidden in plain sight, for my entire adult life. I struggled alone and shamefully before I finally accepted that the life I wanted — where I baked scones on Saturday mornings, did yoga and read books for fun — was only going to happen if I put down the bottle. I got sober at 36.
LISTEN | The moment Robyn Schleihauf decided to get sober
Still single, but now I had no clue how I was going to date. How did people get to know each other without meeting for a drink? How was I ever going to have a first kiss with someone new without a little liquid courage? It all seemed horrifically embarrassing and a little reminiscent of junior high.
I was also worried. I already felt like I had too many parameters for a future partner, like wanting someone who was funny and would be nice to me and who had a job and a bed frame and a bathroom sink that wasn't speckled with stubble that was never wiped away. Now I suddenly had to add on this additional requirement, and I was not even sure what it was. Could I tolerate someone who drank? If so, how much would they be able to drink before it bothered me?
At first, I was a bit scared of dating anyone who drank at all, so it was convenient when a man hit on me at my second AA meeting. He was five years sober to my two weeks, and I was so relieved to not have to think about the drinking thing that I happily ignored the fact that he was polyamorous where I was decidedly not. He spent hours telling me every detail of his marriage and divorce without once asking me a question about myself. This was obviously unsustainable, and I needed to focus on creating all new habits anyway, so I took a break from dating.
I felt ready again about 11 months into my sobriety. I downloaded several dating apps and just tried to swipe left (for those fortunate enough not to know, swiping left means no thanks) on any man holding a pint glass in his photos or who was visibly drunk. There were a lot of them. I ended up dating men who just didn't really like drinking — divorced dads who lived in the suburbs and smoked a lot of weed, or men without children who lived in apartments in the city and smoked a lot of weed.
Eventually, I added that I am sober to my profile, which had the unintentional effect of attracting men with drinking problems. I picture them swiping Tinder in bed, sweating from a hangover in their unwashed sheets – I must stop drinking, they think – and there I am, walking my dog by the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise like a sober beacon ready to lead them into the light. These dates felt like interventions I was ambushed into.
Adding "sober" to my profile also attracted a lot of deeply personal questions about my addiction. One man asked before we ever met what exactly I do to maintain my sobriety, because he didn't want to bring an unreliable addict around his daughter. It made me think about all the people who weren't in recovery and also on the app, lurking around and ready to meet his daughter while sipping their fourth or fifth glass of Pinot Grigio. I told him it may be a little early to interview me for the role of stepmother when we hadn't even laid eyes on each other. A strange part of being in recovery is being held to a higher standard than is ever applied to other people, even those who may be in active addiction. Indeed, practically no one (outside of my own mother) had ever said anything about my drinking until I got sober.
It's been a few years now and I'm not really closer to answering the question of what my parameters around the whole drinking thing are when it comes to dating. What I do know is that the easiest man to date by far was the one who just did not want to drink around me. By removing the question of when and whether and how much he could or should drink around me, I got to take a break from the near constant evaluation I often have to do of the strength of my own sobriety. And that helped me focus on the other stuff – like whether he was funny and kept his bathroom clean.
Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here's more info on how to pitch to us.