The Perils of Dating While Sober

By Kerry Neville 10/14/19

I am acutely aware of how careful I am to minimize my recovery journey when I first start dating someone.

Black and white image of couple embracing, woman's face visible, facing camera, over man's shoulder.
Love is an inherently risky proposition Photo by Fernando Brasil on Unsplash

A few months ago, a male friend and I were talking about the frustrations and disappointments of dating. I mentioned how lonely it can be navigating this world on my own, without a traveling companion, a long-term lover, or a hiking partner, without someone with whom to Netflix and chill on a rainy Sunday.

He said, "Dating is complicated for everyone, but for you, with your history? I can only imagine. Maybe guys are afraid of you, afraid of your intelligence and strength.” He hesitated and then continued, “Or maybe they’re just afraid to get close because of your bipolar diagnosis and...well, you’re an alcoholic. So a drink in a bar is out. Your history makes them wary. It's going to take someone special, someone who’s willing to accept that risk and all your baggage."

All Your Baggage

All your baggage. My old shame rose up, and his words fell on me like a one-hundred story building collapsing, cinder block by cinder block, The only words I could say in clipped retort? 

“It’s called alcohol-use disorder now,” I said. “Update your vocabulary.”

For days I replayed his assessment in a loop, an auto-play rumination and in self-defense, even wrote out a bulleted response:

  • Men afraid of me? Seriously? Maybe he’s afraid of my brain, but I’m afraid of his brawn. I’ve been sexually assaulted twice by two different men. Statistics show that women are more likely to be harassed and assaulted and raped—their lives endangered—by men than vice versa. 
  • I'm on a low dose of lithium now, and eight years stable and on an even keel since my divorce. My psychiatrist thinks I may not really be bipolar, or that maybe my bipolar instability was triggered by the conditions of my marriage.
  • And on dating apps, so many men post pictures swigging beer, wine, and booze and list beer, wine, and booze as hobbies. Almost always the first message they send is, “Do you want to get a drink?” And when I suggest a walk, a museum, non-boozy meetup? They disappear.
  • No drama, no crazies, no baggage: an oft-repeated list of No’s on dating profiles, but then these men (perhaps women do this, too?) indicate that they are married and looking for discretion, no strings attached; they also like to post photos of bloodsport: bare chested with AK-15’s and dead animals. But no drama!
  • And finally, too risky to love me? I’m a safe bet now! Look at the evidence: Sober, stable, all my s*** sorted!

Doth the lady protest too much? Might my bulleted explanation be my armor against latent shame? Because what I am admitting to in my list is that I am lovable only now that I am well, and that when I was unwell? I was unlovable. 

Love Is an Inherently Risky Proposition

"I stopped loving you when you got sick," my ex-husband told me when we decided to divorce, and it’s what I have secretly believed for so long. Hence, my adamant insistence that I am well, well, well and have been now for years, years, years. 

But this narrative—I am such a scary person to love that it will take someone with extra-special love powers to love me—is one that no one with any diagnosis or at any stage of recovery should ever buy into. Love is an inherently risky proposition. We are at our most vulnerable when we love, trusting our hopes and fears to each other. And there is always the risk of love's end, but, too, always the possibility of love's beginnings, its growing and expanding.

And yet, finding our way to a beginning of love with someone can be daunting and terrifying as we have to negotiate our commitment to honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness. We must reconcile that old shame that rises up, sometimes in ripples, sometimes in waves, when we summarize our histories or share how we still struggle with one day at a time with a new partner. I am acutely aware of how careful I am to minimize my recovery journey when I first start dating someone.

“Oh,” I might say, “I stopped drinking because I wanted to live a healthier life, and for a few years I struggled with depression, but it’s all good now. Really, all good now.” Again that adamant insistence, again that background noise in my head: If he can fall in love with me now in all my lovableness, then none of my previous unlovableness will matter. Of course, even for those who have not struggled with mental illness or alcohol or substance use disorders, it is impossible for “all” to be forever good.

"Really Crazy"

I recently ended a relationship with someone after two months of mostly happy, breezy fun but I realized I’d been dodging my shame. When we first met, he mentioned early on that his ex-wife was bipolar. “Really crazy," he said, and gave me a look that put me on notice.

So I casually mentioned to him that I had bipolar as well, but “Stabilized!” I said, with a giant calm smile plastered across my face, and I even fluttered my eyelashes in flirty dismissal.

He said he could see I was in a “good place” and not at all like his ex. And because I want the world to believe that I am in a good place (and most days I am), I nodded in enthusiastic agreement. 

But then, a few weeks later, he mentioned that my town was known for the State Psychiatric Hospital, opened in the 1840’s and now shuttered. 

"Have you ever been there?" I asked, because it is now a tourist stop—The Walking Dead once filmed a scene at the mostly abandoned grounds and there are historical markers describing the troubling treatment of the mentally ill across its almost 150 year history.

"No," he said, immediately and with a laugh. "I'm not one of the crazies."

Of course, during a period of my own instability, I was once one of those “crazies,” in and out of a psychiatric hospital. He knew this by now, though maybe because I "presented" as so very very well, he couldn’t believe that was part of my history.

To be fair, he made these comments casually, without malice, the kind of talk that generally surrounds those of us who suffer from mental illnesses or who are on a recovery journey. They were the kind of comments I often hear because most people assume, by looking at me and my “got it all together life,” that I am one of them, i.e., "not crazy."

But even if his comment was thoughtless, I felt that old shame rise up and stayed silent because I didn’t want him to suddenly see me as sick, and hence unlovable, and consequently maybe leave this beginning of us. So I made a silly remark about ghosts who must surely haunt those grounds. 

No bulleted list at the ready but here’s what I should have said:

"It's hurtful to hear you call someone with my diagnosis ‘really crazy,’ and to call those in treatment ‘crazies.’ We all have our baggage, don’t we? We live and stumble and get up and try to live better, always. All of us.”

But his remarks and my silence unsettled me. How easy it is for me to talk the talk, but how hard it can be to walk the walk. A few weeks later, I ended this beginning because, yes, I have baggage, and it is not just a free carry-on roller bag, but one of those $20K vintage Louis Vuitton trunks that have drawers and a hanger rod, room enough for my pain and my joy, my mistakes and my amends, my shame and my wisdom. 

That is, a trunk big enough to carry all my necessities for this continuing journey.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix

Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.