Looking for love in recovery: A guide to sober dating

Dating and alcohol go hand-in-hand for many people who are on the lookout for a partner. But what is dating like for singles who are in recovery for alcohol use disorder? Melissa Rice, co-presenter of the BBC podcast Hooked: The Unexpected Addicts, shares her experiences.

When I first embarked back into the dating world after a sabbatical of sorts, I thought to myself: “Is there anything more tragic, more sad on paper than an alcoholic (addict) in recovery?”

At a time when we base compatibility on what people appear to be ‘on paper’, how would I stand a chance?

Here are the facts. I am an alcoholic; the kind who required chemical detoxes and rehab. I burnt my life completely to the ground, after a lot of hard work I am now in recovery and I am in Alcoholics Anonymous. What a catch right?

Although all of the above is my truth, the fact is, I am the happiest, most confident and focused now than I have ever been. Right here and right now, I am the person I always wanted to be and without being arrogant, I am rather proud of my life and who I am today. However, trying to convey my truth, as well as getting a swipe left or a second date is like walking on a tight rope and let’s not forget, balancing of any kind is not my thing.

My romantic relationships have been just as troublesome as my toxic relationship with vodka. I hold my hands up; I was a nightmare girlfriend. If you’re in the recovery club like me, you will know all too well that recovering from alcohol is a hell of a lot more than simply putting the drink down. Recovery requires a lot of delving into our past, processing trauma and looking at our part in our own downfall without pointing fingers at others.

Early recovery warning

In early recovery, it dawned on me pretty quickly that I had no relationship with myself. I did not know who I was, what my boundaries were; I barely knew what my values were.

When I entered rehab in 2017, it was explained to me that addiction stunts our emotional growth. I started drinking at 17 and to me it was no coincidence that up until I entered recovery, I handled things like a moody 17-year-old. I was all too familiar with suppressing and avoiding my feelings with alcohol and therefore I had little resilience and zero healthy coping strategies.

With all this new found sobering truth, I was in no position to have a romantic relationship.  My priority was to develop and nurture the much-needed relationship with myself.

I took on board the suggestion of waiting for a year before I would even begin to contemplate the idea of dating. I am so thankful that I did, as those early recovery days, were tough. I was so very sensitive, so tearful, I was feeling emotions I hadn’t felt for years, all whilst coming to terms with what happened to my life in active addiction and trying my very best to manage my overwhelming sense of shame.

If I was to enter a relationship in those early days, I would probably have expected that relationship and that guy to ‘fix’ me and that wouldn’t be fair. In addition, if I had been ghosted or had my heart broken during this risky stage of my recovery, I doubt I would be typing this blog for you now. Relapse is very real.

Starting out

Feeling confident in the relationship with myself and in my recovery, I began dating. Yikes.

Creating an online profile alone was pretty daunting at first. I wasn’t ready to share with the dating world that I was in recovery. I suppose I didn’t want to be rejected or judged. If I was to get a match  I would then happily disclose I didn’t drink, but avoid mention of the whole rehab spiel.

Clearly, my shame, low self-worth and fear were preventing me from owning my recovery. Over time, I reached a healthy place of acceptance and now I unapologetically say: ‘I’m in recovery’.

While I am anxiously awaiting a response to my recovery disclosure I remind myself: “Those who matter don’t mind, and those that mind don’t matter.” A simple and effective mantra for me. The way I see it, my recovery is my most cherished possession and I have to protect it at all costs.

Side note – I much prefer online dating apps that require you to answer if you drink or take drugs on your profile – pretty useful if you ask me.

There have been a few occasions when my recovery has been ‘too much’ for some people to comprehend and I totally get it. Before entering recovery, I had no idea what recovery was; I had zero understanding of addiction and ashamedly my perception of addicts was ignorant and quite frankly, disgusting.

That’s not to say that everyone will judge or be put off by recovery, I have met people who have really celebrated my recovery and thought it was a wonderful attribute – this shows in turn that they have positive attributes themselves.

Where do you even go on a date?

I never realised how intertwined dating and alcohol are until I came into recovery. “Fancy going for a drink?” is the go-to pick up line right?

I understand why many consider this an ideal first date: it’s informal, sociable, and gives people Dutch courage when meeting a potential partner.

As a non-drinker, is a bar really the ideal first date?

I suppose the answer to this is completely personal to you. Reflecting on my past first dates, I am always impressed when someone acknowledges my recovery and suggests an alternative. What I have found is when I go to a bar or pub on a first date, the fact I’m not drinking can become the elephant in the room. By going for coffee, mini golf or a park walk, alcohol becomes a non-issue for everyone.

Dealing with dating perils

Dating sober may feel like a daunting prospect, I know for me, I realised I hadn’t sober dated in my entire life. With this in mind, it was important for me to have people to talk through my insecurities with.

One of the best gifts of recovery is the gorgeous friendships I have cultivated with women who, like me, suffer with the disease of addiction. Due to romantic relationships being so emotionally triggering it is vital that I utilise my support network, to let them know what’s going on for me, and to hear their experiences.

In recovery, I try my best to ‘do the next right thing’ and ‘do what feels right’. I never really trusted my gut in the past – probably because it was filled to the brim with vodka – but now I have a sober gut and I have boundaries. If I feel like something is not right, or something isn’t sitting well with me, I make a change.

This may sound so simple and a lot like common sense, but many of us addicts are people pleasers and ‘ending things’ can be rather painful. Keeping things simple and honest is how I try to live my life and therefore, I have to apply this to dating and relationships.

The beauty of sober dating is that everything is authentic; there’s no booze or narcs to cloud your judgement and you can actually remember what your date looks like. There’s no drunk texts or calls from our part. We are fully present in everything that we are doing and can enjoy the date wherever it may be and whatever we may be doing. We won’t wake up full of beer fear and shame about ending up paralytic and asked to leave the bar. All this saves a lot of embarrassment, arguments and time as we’re able to figure out quickly who we click best with.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all

Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could end this blog by saying: “I found the one and I’ll be spending this Valentine’s Day with the love of my life”.

Sadly, that’s not how this blog ends. If, like me, you’re single and in recovery this Valentine’s Day, don’t let this get you down. Treat yourself to your own flowers and chocolates.

I drank myself to oblivion because I didn’t love myself enough. Today I am sober, I am alive, and I love myself. That’s the greatest Valentine’s gift of all.

Melissa Rice is the co-presenter of BBC Hooked: The Unexpected Addicts, a podcast dedicated to debunking the stereotypes of addicts and guiding listeners through the highs and lows of addiction and recovery. Episodes are available online.