07/25/2014 05:38 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2014

Why Dating Sober Was Great for Me


"No major changes in the first year" is a common suggestion for newcomers in AA. It means holding off on moving, changing jobs, starting a relationship, etc. It's not a bad suggestion. If these things don't work out -- or even if they do -- change can drive people to drink or use again.

But I didn't take the suggestion. And I'm glad I didn't: Dating in my first year helped me find the love of my life. Now I'm happier than ever, and still sober.

My drinking and drug use escalated so quickly in college that my life seemed in danger of becoming a cautionary tale. I had been fired from my dream job at a theater company. I needed help. So I quit drinkin g-- and my other vice, cough syrup -- and started going to AA meetings in July 2010. I was 21.

As far as the no-dating suggestion, I considered myself exempt. I was about to enter my senior year of college. If I couldn't drink or use drugs, how else was I supposed to feel like a regular college kid? I just had to date.

My sponsor discouraged me, but I pushed back. After all, she had dated in her first year of sobriety. She'd found dealing with breakups hard, but she was still sober. So I figured I could do it, too.

I came into sobriety still reeling from a recent heartbreak. Mike* was in an acting company with me, and we had shared a brief, passionate, tumultuous relationship. I didn't respect his boundaries and would drunkenly sneak into his room even when he'd asked for a night of alone time. I would get drunk and cry hysterically in front of him. I was clingy and wanted to spend every second with him. Eventually he couldn't handle it. He said I was a "fire" and was "consuming" him, and asked me not to contact him.

Mike wasn't the first guy to be put off by my drinking. In fact, I'd never been able to hold on to any guy for longer than a month or two. I saw myself as a high-achieving, exceptional person who needed to "let loose" on the weekends. So I tended to go for guys who I thought could keep me grounded: a soulful guitar player; a focused, late-bloomer theater director; a teetotal vegan actor.

All of them ended things with me after the second or third time they saw me sh*tfaced. There was never a conversation about why they stopped getting back to me. Maybe they weren't impressed with the 2 a.m. booty calls that culminated in me just passing out on their beds.

There were other "incidents": I seduced a guy who had a girlfriend who was out of town; I had to be reminded of a guy's name while we were hooking up; I got so drunk I peed in a guy's bed. I pretended I didn't care, that I had no shame. But deep down, it hurt. I was lonely, and I wondered if anyone would ever really love me.

So after quitting drinking and drugs, I also wanted to quit my disastrous dating pattern. Still stinging from Mike's rejection, I decided to date -- but casually. Just a few weeks sober, I joined OKCupid.

When you create your profile, it asks how often you drink. I checked "Rarely," worried that no one would want to date a 21-year-old girl who didn't drink at all. I had two rules for my potential match: no a**holes, and no big partiers. I was hoping for someone who rarely or socially drank -- a "normie," in AA-speak.

AA was chock-full of single guys but I didn't want to date them. I didn't think I could handle someone with an alcoholic brain like mine. Plus, I wanted to keep meetings as a safe place.

But otherwise, I was open to pretty much any type of guy. I wasn't sure what kind of guy sober me was in to; I was like a teenager again.

When I went on first dates, I would treat them like anthropological experiments. I would remind myself, I'm here to learn. To feel comfortable, I would arrange to meet at my favorite local cafés or restaurants. That way, no matter what happened, at least I'd get some good food out of it!

I dated about 10 guys in my first six months, some for up to a few weeks. Some of them were shy. A couple were bad kissers. One was missing a front tooth. It was easier to talk to them than I expected. I set a limit of two hours per date, but would sometimes cut things short if I needed to. And I always kept a special dessert -- like Trader Joe's vanilla soy ice cream or snickerdoodle cookies -- waiting for me at home as a reward.

I was still learning to say no. At first, if I wasn't interested in someone, I would lie about why I didn't want to see him again, or just stop answering his calls. With one guy, I was so scared to end things that I just let it drag on for a month. A year later, I made an amends to him for this.

The biggest difference between drunk and sober dating was that now I never kissed or slept with a guy unless I wanted to.

Sometimes I did agree to meet a date at a bar. If he asked why I wasn't drinking, I had a few responses ready that I'd learned from other people in recovery: "I don't feel like drinking tonight," I might say, or "I have to get up early tomorrow," or just shrug casually: "I'm good, thanks." It never became an issue.

After 90 days in AA, I lost my "sober virginity" to Steve,* a funny guy in my Greek Theater class at NYU. We'd been seeing each other for two weeks and I felt ready. He had a couple of beers at his apartment and I snacked on Halloween candy.

Back when I'd lost my actual virginity, I had manipulated a guy into sleeping with me after a drunken debacle the week before. He dumped me two weeks later... for being too clingy.

But with Steve, I didn't feel any need to manipulate him. There was a mutual respect and ease between us. The experience was, surprisingly, pretty great.

Not long after, I got a vibe that Steve didn't want to keep dating me. But I didn't break down and cry and try to win him back. I just shrugged and moved on.

I didn't tell my sponsor about my sexual activity, at first. I didn't think it was relevant. But at about six months sober, I got to Step Fou r-- which involves writing out an inventory of your past behavior, including sexual behavior. I realized then that sexual conquests were a major factor in how I cultivated self-esteem.

When I was drinking, getting boys to like me was a part of how I made myself feel worthy-- I even wrote down all the names of the men I'd hooked up with in the back of my journals, categorizing them by month and tallying how many times we did it! And my behavior hadn't changed much just because I was sober.

Admitting this to my sponsor helped. She had me write out a list of traits I was looking for in my "ideal" partner. I filled a whole page. At the top were kindness, humor, confidence in his own skin and respect for who I am and what I do. Secretly, I was hoping for a nerdy dude who shared my love of comic books and dessert -- but I kept those details to myself.

Shortly after graduating college, six months sober, I spotted an OKCupid profile that blew me away. He was from the Midwest, like me. He was cute and loved Muppets. And he drank "Not At All."

On a freezing January night, I went to one of my regular AA meetings in Brooklyn. Afterwards, I met Joe for our first date at a diner just down the street. We split a plate of sweet potato fries and debated who had seen more movies. He was so comfortable in his own skin that I had no choice but to be completely sincere.

The date went so well that we went on five more that week. I found out he'd never had a drink or drug in his life. On our second date, I told him I was in AA and he wasn't weirded out at all. In fact, his step-mom is in the program, too, having been sober for over 30 years.

My sponsor was reluctant -- I was still only six months sober. But she accepted my decision to pursue a relationship with Joe, as long as I continued to go to meetings and work on my steps. I promised myself I wouldn't put him on a pedestal or make him the center of my life. Sometimes it was hard to go to a meeting when all I wanted was to spend time with him, but I forced myself. I knew if I lost my sobriety, I would lose Joe.

This month I celebrated four years of sobriety and three and a half years with Joe. Our relationship has enhanced my recovery. He helps me cut through the bullsh*t and face myself. In his company, I've felt brave enough to tackle problems beyond my alcoholism -- like my low self-esteem, my eating disorder and my control issues.

I still have a lot of work to do on myself and I still go to meetings regularly. But ignoring the suggestion to not date in early sobriety seems like one of the best decisions I've ever made.

*Names have been changed.

Grace Kemeny is a pseudonym for an actress and writer based in New York City. She performs onstage regularly in the New York City area, and can also be seen on various cable TV shows. She lives with her boyfriend in Brooklyn and loves to eat dessert, lift weights and go to comic conventions.