Is he going to look anything like the picture online? Are we going to have anything to talk about? Is this dress too revealing? What if he is an anti-vaxxer? These are all normal anxieties that come with the territory of online dating. Anxieties that I used to smooth over with a few large glasses of white wine before a date. But now … Now is new; now is different. I’ve been out of the dating game for a decade, and in the meantime I quit drinking.
Every first date I ever had was in a pub – usually my local, so I had the added safety buffer of knowing all the regulars and the barman. What are you supposed to do on a date if not drink? How do you get up the nerve to kiss them? What am I meant to do if not drink until they get funny or handsome enough for the aforementioned kissing?
There were a bunch of factors at play when I re-entered the dating world last April. We were still in a distanced, “wearing masks in restaurants when walking to your table” type of world. And everyone was out of practice with human contact, let alone first dates. Social anxiety and awkwardness were radiating from people that had been locked inside with their cats or toddlers for a year. I was not yet confident enough with my sobriety to wear it proudly and treat it like a superpower. It was more a tick box at the end of my Bumble profile than something I accentuated, and my initial dates reflected that.
I was still trying to date in pubs, like a drinker, rather than doing other activities where we could engage with each other without sharing a bottle or three of wine. I was camouflaging this huge change in my behaviour and life by trying to keep up with their drinking pace with non-alcoholic beers. But I was not enjoying myself at all. I wasn’t looking to date someone else who was sober, but I also didn’t want to date anyone who socially drank like I used to – that is to say, excessively.
I didn’t want to sell a false bill of goods, either. I am not someone who goes to museums or the Proms. And pretending to like those things more than I do would end up with those same out-of-sorts feelings. I thought dog walks might be the key to my dating. I have an elderly cavalier King Charles spaniel, McNulty, whom I adore. Dog walks are incredible with people who you are connected to and want to spend hours with. But they are awful for a 45-minute stroll around the heath with a stranger, because there is no eye contact and you are often stopping to pick up dog poo.
I ended up going on 18 first dates in April and May last year and didn’t say yes to any second dates. The main thing that was wrong with all of my initial sober dates was me. I was unsure of myself. I was like Bambi, unsteady on my new spindly legs, which meant I had lost a lot of my bravado and charm. I wasn’t owning this new phase of my life. I was just trying to act as if I hadn’t changed at all, and it was not working. So I took a hiatus.
I took some time off to own the fact I am a non-drinker and that I don’t want dates that primarily revolve around cocktails. I run food festivals. I love trying new places. Let’s explore restaurants and cuisines that I haven’t experienced. Take me to a trattoria or an oyster bar. Let’s share small plates and connect that way. We can go to a farmers’ market and eat unpasteurised cheese or try guacamole with crickets. Come and watch American football with me – I’ll explain the rules. But be warned: I will always have McNulty in tow.
My profile now clearly says that I quit drinking in April 2020. I am upfront in my messaging before meeting anyone that I am not a drinker. I also don’t respond to anyone who is pictured chugging beers or lists wine or cocktails as their interests. I have no problem with drinkers; it’s just not how I want to spend my time, and I have no interest in changing anyone else.
Last week, a guy with whom I had been exchanging messages once again ignored that I had told him seven or eight times that I don’t drink. When I called him on it, his response was: “Sorry, I don’t have a record of people I speak to and their individual dietary requirements.” I think I will give that one a miss.
I am now once again unapologetically brash and brazen, and me. And still worried that their picture is going to be old and they won’t wear a mask. But the dates are definitely improving.
Dru Jaeger, Club Soda co-founder and author of How to Be a Mindful Drinker, gives his tips on sober dating:
Consider how you’re presenting yourself on your dating profile. That picture of yourself holding a big cocktail may not tell the story of who you are now.
Dating doesn’t equal drinking, so choose venues and activities that you enjoy as a non-drinker. If you do opt for bars and restaurants, check menus in advance to make sure there are good alcohol-free options.
Don’t feel under pressure to justify not drinking. You don’t owe your date an explanation. Be unapologetic. If they’re adamant that they’ll only date a drinker, consider it a lucky escape.