Sober Dating: Overcoming Triggers & Temptations

By Tiffany Swedeen 10/11/18

The date turned out to be a boobytrap of triggers that I wasn’t totally prepared for. But mindfulness, resilience, accountability – recovery - kicked in when I needed it most.

Tiffany Swedeen

I startled as my phone buzzed a text against my thigh. It was my date.

“I’m late, but I’ve got tacos!”

Relax, I urged myself, taking a breath and taking in the surroundings. It’s going to be fine. It’s just tacos.

This was my first date in well over six months. Unless you include a Saturday night in late August while I vacationed in Iceland. We ran all over Reykjavik searching for traditional lamb meat soup, to no avail. It was whimsical, it was carefree, but it was all the way in Iceland. And it didn’t even end with a kiss. This taco rendezvous felt like a legitimate return from a dating hiatus. 

Dating is challenging. Sober dating can be truly precarious. First of all, I have very little courtship experience. My M.O. has always been meet, mate, marry. Eventually, I learned not to wed every guy who showed interest. Twenty years of consecutive long-term relationships meant that at 36 years old I became sober and legitimately single, for the first time in decades. SCARY.

At the very least, it’s uncomfortable. And why do so many of us drink? To treat discomfort! “Meeting for drinks” is both neutral ground, and grants permission for each party to self-medicate throughout the ordeal. 

It’s natural to want a strong drink (or in my case a strong drink and maybe a powerful pill) to relax. When I’m home getting ready, agonizing over my hair, outfit, and what to say, “just one” would go a long way towards numbing my nerves. But “just one” steers me down a dangerous path. Before I know it, I’d be back on stage at POP-Solo karaoke, blackout wasted, singing “Sexy Back” off key. (ALLEGEDLY! There’s no evidence.) It’s just not worth the risk. 

Deciding when, or whether to “out myself” as sober to a guy is always a gamble. He had mentioned “wine” more than once as a suggestion for our first activity. (An early red flag I adeptly ignored). Refusing a glass in the moment can be difficult and awkward, so I casually commented prior to the date, “I actually don’t drink…but if you want wine, it’s cool.” When he didn’t respond with the all-too-common: “Really?? You don’t drink ever??!!??” my optimism was buoyed.

So I waited for Taco Guy with zero alcoholic pre-lubrication, counting breaths as a healthy coping mechanism instead of throwing back shots at the bar. He arrived, tall and attractive. He had a large bag of local Mexican food in one hand, a spirited canine attached to a leash in the other. He even brought me a Fresca, remembering my preference for sparkling water. Fresca is no La Croix, but he got points for thoughtfulness. 

The date started out smoother than expected. As dinner wrapped up, he clumsily remarked he wasn’t sure what to do next. “Normally I’d take you to a bar, go wine tasting…something revolving around drinks.” My teetotaling ways left him at a loss. 

I remember those days, pre-sobriety. Alcohol: a necessary ingredient for every situation. I once turned down an otherwise solid, yet sober guy over this. “Sorry, beer is seriously that important to me. I practically live at breweries. We’ll have nothing in common!” 

Taco Guy was stressed about what we wouldn’t get to do together in future meetings. “Wine tasting? BBQs and Beer? How do you have fun without drinking?” 

In nearly two years of sobriety, I’ve hardly been bored. I secretly questioned his capability for booze-free entertainment, but stayed aloof. “Anything you can do with alcohol, you can do without. I promise. I’m super fun.“

“Do you do anything bad?” he asked skeptically. I laughed out loud, thinking how he’d probably never know the truth about my former IV drug use and three years left in probation. 

“Trust me,” I assured him. “I’m not all good.”

He had a teasing smile. “Oh yeah?” Sweetly persistent and skilled at flattery, he convinced me to bring our dogs to his place. They could play in the backyard and we could watch Netflix. 

What the hell, I thought. Prove you can be fun!

Within 15 minutes, I was standing in his small, tidy apartment. He’d called me beautiful and made his interest in me obvious. Did this mean we were going to make out? Was I ready? Do I make the first move? What are the rules?

In the past, this was easy. Drink, flirt, and use alcohol as an excuse for whatever indiscretion occurred. Sober dating is not easy. Sober sex is on a whole other level. 

He spoke, blessedly interrupting my thoughts. “I’m going to have a whiskey, do you mind? I’m really nervous.” 

“Go ahead, of course!” I answered bravely, but thought REALLY?!?! Not fair!! I’m stone cold sober, trying to navigate first date rules, and you get to wash away your worries with hard liquor while I sip water to tame my cottonmouth. UGH!

He poured a hefty amount of Jack Daniels over ice, and I took the opportunity to use the bathroom. 

Shutting the door behind me, I leaned against it, worrying. Is he going to kiss me? Or more? Is my deodorant still working? Should I wash under my arms? I should use his mouthwash!

The mirror reflected back glossy color on my freshly styled hair, nervous rosy cheeks, and a trace of pink lipstick that had mostly wiped off on the Fresca. I looked decent. I’m not a bad catch, for a sober chick. Wait, what if he tastes like liquor? Is it weird if I ask him to use mouthwash? No that’s crazy. Or is it? 

Leaning into the sink to wash my hands, a familiar sight stood out on the countertop: the bright, cunning orange of a medicine vial. Right there, in plain sight. No cupboard snooping necessary. 

My vision went fuzzy on the edges. Drying my hands on a towel, I waited for the buzzing feeling to dissipate. I’ve been sober awhile, but I’m not immune to triggers. Medication bottles are not just benign bathroom articles. 

I chewed on my bottom lip and thought over my next move. One of the labels was readily visible: “Metoprolol.” Phew, I thought. Heart medicine. No big deal. Without warning, my hand took over and snatched up another bottle, turning it label side up. 

Hydrocodone-acetaminophen. Otherwise known as Vicodin.


I set it back down, but picked up another. 

Oxycodone hydrochloride. Percocet.

Double fuck. 

Opiates were my drug of choice, my former best friend and the most seductive, manipulative, toxic lover I’ve ever tangled with. 

Setting the menacing vial down, I stepped away from the sink, clenching my hands at my sides. 

I could take a couple. 

It only took a second for the thought to formulate. I envisioned the euphoric, care-free feeling. Pictured worrisome “first date rules” slipping away, letting go and enjoying the moment.  

Picking up the bottle once more, I shook it lightly.  

How many are in here? I bet he wouldn’t notice any missing. 

The thought was brief. But it was charged with deadly potential. Lucky for me, mindful recovery teaches me I don’t have to believe my thoughts. I have a choice.

I don’t want this. It isn’t me anymore.

I extricated myself from the bathroom, delivered from temptation. 

Taco Guy was on his second tumbler and had stepped outside to smoke. Menthols. Of course! My brand. At least they were, once upon a time. This date presented landmines everywhere I turned. 

Against my better judgment, I stayed long enough to play with fire. Taco Guy is pretty hot, kind and gainfully employed. I wasn’t planning a future together, but I hadn’t yet ruled out seeing where the night would go. Holding a menthol between my fingertips, I said flirtatiously “It’s been awhile.” I took a drag, hoping I looked dangerous and sexy. Coughing, I just ended up likely looking like a silly girl who hadn’t inhaled in awhile. 

I stayed long enough to smoke the cigarette and regret it. Long enough to sulk and wish things were different. It’s not fair. I don’t want to be an addict. I want to be normal – I want to be able to get drunk and make out. I wished, for a moment, that Taco Guy and I weren’t so incompatible.

While I pouted privately, I knew I was kidding myself. The truth is, we are incompatible and I was uncomfortable. I don’t really wish I could drink and have an excuse for my behavior. I definitely don’t wish I could take his pills or go back to using. What I guess I really wanted was just to be on a date where I could be my honest, open, sober-out-loud self. 

I don’t want to date if I can’t be real. That probably means when I’m genuinely ready, I’ll date guys who are also in recovery. I’d questioned this when I first became single and sober. Who do I date? Can I date someone who drinks regularly? I got my answer this night.  

Crushing the cigarette in a well-used ashtray, I reached for my keys. 

He looked rejected. “You’re leaving? I promise to be a gentleman. We’ll just watch a movie.” 

Within a couple hours in his presence, I’d given in to smoking. Next, I might ask for a sip of whiskey. Once the brown liquid passed my lips, burning the back of my throat, I’d slink into the bathroom. Tilting the bottle of Vicodin back and forth, contemplating the siren song as the pills clicked against one another. 

Nope. Not gonna happen. I love myself too much to go back there. 

Driving home, I felt a mix of relief, pride, and sorrow. And a touch of nausea from the cigarette. When was the last time I’d looked a bottle of pills in the face and walked away? 

The date turned out to be a boobytrap of triggers that I wasn’t totally prepared for. But mindfulness, resilience, accountability – recovery - kicked in when I needed it most. I was tempted, but not overwhelmed. I won that battle.  

A few days later, Taco Guy texted. I had to be firm and honest. “I can’t date someone who drinks. That’s become very clear. Thanks, and good luck.”

To my surprise, he replied with a compromise:

“I shouldn’t drink either. I’ll try to stop. You could be a huge support and help to me with this.”

As if the triple threat – alcohol, cigarettes and pills – wasn’t enough, co-dependency alarms rang in my ears. The final red flag was flown. 

Firmly informing him that his request was wildly inappropriate, I blocked his number. 

Over the last 20+ years, I’ve made really disappointing, damaging relationships decisions. Looking back, all I manage is, “What the fuck were you thinking?” 

Just for once, I’d like to look at my life and think, “Well done, girl. You’re doing your best. It’s not easy, it’s not painless, but you’re making smart choices.“

I think that time might be now. I could be doing it right for once. Saying “yes” to a drama free, recovery-centric era of radical self-love. Saying “no” to drugs, alcohol, and self-destructive behavior one nerve-wracking date at a time. 

Tiffany Swedeen, RN, BSN, CPC/CPRC is a certified life and recovery coach, She Recovers Designated Coach, and a registered nurse in recovery herself from opioids and alcohol. Tiffany lives “sober out loud,” proudly sharing her story through advocacy and blogging and is passionate about helping others do the same. Her goal is to eradicate shame and empower all to live a life of radical self-love. You can contact Tiffany through her website Recover and Rise, read her blog and follow her @scrubbedcleanrn. 

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Tiffany Swedeen, RN, BSN, CPC/CPRC is a certified life and recovery coach and a registered nurse in recovery herself from opioids and alcohol. Tiffany lives “sober out loud,” proudly sharing her story through advocacy and blogging. She is passionate about helping others do the same. Her goal is to eradicate shame and empower all to live a life of radical self-love. You can contact Tiffany through her website Recover and Rise, read her blog and follow her on Twitter