Sarah Hepola

“I fear I’m becoming undateable”:
Letter to a young sober woman

After my story about dating sober ran in Elle Magazine, I heard from other women also learning to navigate the Tinder era without a glass of wine in their hands. I know many ladies (and gentlemen) struggle with these issues, too, so I asked one of them if I could share our correspondence, and she agreed. (I’ve removed her name.) Her letter, and my response, is below.

“I just gave up drinking, mostly bc of a health problem but I related way too much to your saga of relying on alcohol to guide romantic interactions and now that I tell men I don’t drink, I fear I’m becoming undateable. So my question to you is, can I show up to the date at a bar and tell them THEN and just sip a water while they have a beer? I feel like most guys don’t want to drink in front of a sober person, makes them feel predatorial like “c’mon, I can’t drink alone!” so I’ve been telling men before the date that I don’t drink and suggest coffee or food and they seem completely put out and often times cancel on me, because to them, I’m just a coffee date, I’m not a real date aka they won’t get laid on a coffee date. So how do you even get them to meet you!? I’m leaning towards not saying anything and when they undoubtedly offer to meet for drinks I just show up and order a water and hope they don’t mind drinking alone. Le sigh, anyways I’m sure you’re fielding actual pitches and not quarter life crises from weird sober single women, but anyways your article really spoke to me during a time I was panicking I would never meet a man ever again. Thank you!”

I actually love hearing from weird sober single women. They are some of my favorite pen pals. Weird sober single women have to stick together, because we have something that bonds us in a world where so many people are the same. Most of the dating world looks like this: Have a drink or three while you’re getting ready (nervous! feelings!), have a drink or three at dinner (OMG do I like him? does he like me?), have a drink or three at the bar afterward (shit, should I go home with him? should I sleep with him?). Here’s what the dating world looks like for you: NOOOOO DRIIINNNNKING. It’s just you, and the volcano of your nervous, uncomfortable feelings, and nothing to save you but a glass of Canada Dry. Wow. No wonder you’re panicking. I did, too.

But before I respond to your questions, I need to assure you: You are not undateable. Or rather, the only way you could be undateable is if you made yourself that way. I chose that for a while. I put up the force field and holed up on my couch with my documentaries and my creamy pasta. Being undateable was magnificent. Nobody could hurt me. Eventually, though, I needed to push myself out there again, and as if the dating world weren’t cruel and torturous enough, I had become a tainted woman — a woman who doesn’t drink. Le sigh, indeed.

Women who drink are cool. Women who drink are fun. Some of my favorite women — famous and in real life — are drinkers, which is part of why it meant so much to me to be one of them. When I gave up drinking, I thought it meant that I became the opposite. I was NOT cool. I was NOT fun. This is a lie. I have seen many women get sober now, and I know they only get better: Their hearts grow in surprising ways. They become more reliable friends, better listeners, kinder and more forgiving people. They are as cool as they’ve ever been. Sometimes even cooler. It’s true that a very small number of them are banging the dude they just met on OKCupid, and if that’s what a guy is looking for — the maximum fast track to banging — then a sober woman is, indeed, probably not the right match. To him we say: Good riddance.

I know it doesn’t feel this way, but guys who won’t meet you for coffee are doing you a favor. They just saved you time and effort by telling you exactly who they are, which is someone who has no interest if sex is not on the table immediately, which is a small-minded, douchebag way to be. Or maybe these hypothetical bar-only men are not douchebags. Maybe they’re just heavy drinkers like I used to be, who struggle with shyness and insecurity and have passionate feelings about artisanal brews and can’t even conceive of being close to a person without a drink in their hands. I’m sorry, but that person is not a good romantic partner for you right now. You are staring down an undisclosed health issue (possibly a big deal) and the major lifestyle change of no longer drinking (definitely a big deal). You need more from the men you date, not less.

My standards were not always so high. I’m not talking about my boyfriends — good-hearted, funny, challenging men — but the ones who came in between. Those guys. The ones I sometimes met in a bar and banged. I liked the drama of having men around, even questionable ones, because it made me feel desirable and exciting. When I quit drinking, I had to give up the idea of hanging out with those guys for three or four weeks, maybe-sorta seeing if my feelings changed, if something magical happened to make me like them more, or vice versa. When you stop drinking, you lose the luxury of such pretending. This turns out to be a small sacrifice. The dating world is a large majority bullshit, and it’s not such a bad fate to cut down on your slice of bullshit pie.

How you choose to disclose your sobriety — and where you want to meet men you date — is a personal decision, and I wouldn’t presume to know what was right. I liked getting it out of the way; other people keep it under the hat. I can make arguments either way. But I noticed you’re quite worried about making your date comfortable, and my question to you is: What makes YOU comfortable? You are doing a very hard thing. You are not drinking in a drinking world. Do you WANT to be in a bar? Comfort is essential to you now. You can no longer drink your way out of a bad date, which is how half the other folks on OK Cupid will spend their Friday nights. It was a while before I felt comfortable meeting guys in bars, but now that I do, I find it’s not a big deal. I get a seltzer, he gets a beer, and we talk. Now, is the guy thinking to himself, “Man, this sucks. We can’t get wasted and fuck.” Maybe. But does it occur to anyone — does it occur to you, now that you’re seeing things a little more clearly — that “getting wasted and fucking” is a questionable way to get to know someone?

You are about 25. I am 40. I am lucky on this dating beat, because men I go out with have often been knocked around by life in a way that has beaten out the weaselly, asshole part of them. They have had a divorce, maybe even two, a layoff, some hair loss. They have had their heart stomped on, which turns out to make them MUCH better dating material. Would you consider dating an older man? Would you consider dating a sober man? Both of those guys can make very good dating material. Because the good news is — the way in which YOU are lucky — is that you are 25. Twenty-five! That’s the most dateable age on the planet! My friend, if I can date at 40 — which is NOT, I assure you, a “dateable” age, but more like the age when all your female friends remove the year they were born from their Facebook page — then you can date at 25. It’s a simple fact that by quitting drinking, your dating pool just got smaller. So it’s time to reconsider your dating pool.

I spent a lot of my younger years worrying if men liked me. A roomy section of my brain was roped off for this purpose. Did I wear the right thing? Does he think I’m hot? Is he having a good time now? When I got sober, that question turned around a bit. I started wondering: Am *I* having a good time now? Is he worth all this trouble? I found that the answer was often no. I met a lot of interesting men, but they were not interesting enough. Often we wanted different things. Many of them wanted to date a woman who was drinking, which is a little bit like telling me you want to date a tall, dark-haired, exotic woman named Linda. That’s fine. It’s just not what we have in stock right now. Not dating those guys freed me up to find someone who might be interested in a short, blonde, non-exotic girl named Sarah. It’s all I have to offer.

Here is another truth. You will be shocked how many people don’t drink. They don’t drink because of medical diagnoses, they don’t drink because they don’t like it, they don’t drink for religious reasons, or because they come from a country where pouring golden liquid down your throat until you puke is seen as not that awesome of a thing to do. Many people are comfortable not drinking — they can take it or leave it. Maybe it doesn’t seem that way right now, because you are young, and surrounded by people who consider binge-drinking three nights a week to be some kind of constitutional right, but as time passes, and you grow more comfortable with yourself (an inevitable and beautiful outgrowth of sobriety), you will find these other magical people, who don’t require liquor to explore the world. They will be interested in taking walks, and laughing at how bad they are at bowling, and sitting in coffee shops for three hours at a stretch because neither of you was watching the time. Falling in love sober is the greatest. THE greatest. And the truth is, I fall in love sober all the time: With new friends, with new songs, with the blue sky, with Louis CK sketches and Joan Didion lines, and every once in a great long while, with a human person.

People who stop drinking have the opportunity to find calmness and acceptance in ourselves. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s hard. But the truth is, dating was hard when I was drinking, and it was hard after I quit. You are not undateable. What you are, however, is a person who is no longer like the rest of the herd. You are blue in a green world. This can be terrifying, traumatizing — and it can free you up for a life that is better than you ever dreamed.