Before getting sober, my last first date was at the age of 22. The guy and I met at an Irish pub and, thanks to pregaming at a tiki bar, I was a few drinks deep. I proceeded to get blackout drunk, stole a pitcher of IPA, and told him to drive me to his house. My final memory of that night is holding the sloshing pitcher between my two legs in the front seat of his car. Then I blacked out. This romantic evening turned into a five-year relationship that ended when I was 27.

When I started dating at the age of 28, I was at a loss for three reasons: I hadn’t dated someone new in six years, I was newly sober, and I realized I was queer. Initially, my OkCupid account was set as “interested in men and women.” A guy with a selfie undoubtedly taken in a basement messaged me, then 30 minutes later, emailed me about one of my Craigslist posts; I was looking for a roommate, and he thought he’d be a great fit. I immediately changed my settings so cis-gender men couldn’t view my profile, and I have no desire to date dudes for a long, long time.

The sobriety aspect was a bit trickier.

On drinking, agoraphobia, and getting sober

As my stolen pitcher anecdote reflects, I never had the mythical “off” button when it came to drinking. My consumption only increased when, at the age of 23, both of my parents were diagnosed with stage three cancer. I quit my job and moved back home, not considering for a second that I might need therapy. Instead, I developed daily panic attacks that progressed into a diagnosis of panic disorder with agoraphobia. I couldn’t drive on the freeway or in the left lane, I couldn’t go to the grocery store, I couldn’t take an elevator, I couldn’t stand in line, and I couldn’t fly. I was constantly in a state of flight or fight; once, a FedEx delivery driver scared me by simply knocking on my front door. I couldn’t stop shaking for fifteen minutes.

When I started dating at the age of 28, I was at a loss for three reasons: I hadn’t dated someone new in six years, I was newly sober, and I realized I was queer.

My agoraphobia led to an even stronger thirst for booze to dampen the never-ending torture of living as a prisoner in my own body. I consumed up to eight drinks per night on weekdays while weekends were a free-for-all to indulge before noon, racking up a drink total in the double digits. Every day at work, I waited until I clocked out to start the futile pursuit of drowning my demons. I occasionally succeeded in this task, and by success, I mean I could brown out just enough so I could drowsily close my left eye — astigmatisms are a drinker’s enemy — and view a world not trying to constantly attack me.

Coupled with this nonstop anxiety was the secret questioning of my sexuality. I’d only dated men, yet I only fantasized about women. I’ve taken Prozac since the age of 11 for depression and anxiety and, while I lost my virginity at 16, it took years for me to actually feel sexual. By the time I could legally drink, I felt like a teenage boy riding the puberty rollercoaster. I was deeply confused when I found myself lusting after women so I tried to drink that away, too. I now attribute this delayed sexual awakening to the Prozac, which is known to suppress sex drives. I just didn’t know what my baseline was so living in a perpetually arousal-free state felt normal to me.

My fear and my internalized homophobia fueled a downward spiral of self-hatred. Night after night, I sat on the same spot on the couch in my hole-ridden sweatpants and gulped down wine, whiskey, cider, or a combination of the three. I hated my lack of strength to stop drinking. I hated my attraction to women and, more terrifying, my lack of attraction to men. I hated the pain I endured watching my parents struggle through cancer treatments and, even though they were in remission, I still had to drink to cope with the excruciating memories constantly replaying in my mind. Each desperate sip was like taking a shot for my pain, both literally and figuratively.

I hated my attraction to women and, more terrifying, my lack of attraction to men.

I eventually crawled out of my addiction when I realized I could never recover from agoraphobia unless I got sober. The thought of leading a life quarantined to a five-mile radius of my house literally made me want to die. My dad was formerly addicted to heroin, and he got sober on his own with a kilo of the drug in his freezer. Like my dear old pops, I ignored the remaining bottles of whiskey on the booze cart and simply decided to stop drinking. I couldn’t sleep for the first few weeks and I ate frozen grapes by the bagful to combat sugar cravings, but I was done. I’ve been sober since August 7, 2016.

And then I started to date…

People who drink have a specific type of privilege. If someone asks them to go out for a drink, it’s not a big deal. In fact, meeting up at a bar is arguably the most popular first date option. If you don’t drink, it’s so much more complicated. If I meet someone new, I don’t want to tell them why I’m sober right away because the truth is deeply, painfully personal. There’s just no easy answer but the last thing I want to do is to start spewing, “I almost lost two parents, then I almost lost my mind, then one day I was in the fetal position in the grocery store in an inside-out T-shirt… By the way, my name is Bonnie and I’m an Aquarius.”

To address my teetotaling, I simply wrote on my OkCupid profile, “I’m sober. It’s okay if you drink but I really don’t want to hold your hair back while you vomit. Vulnerability is great, y’all. Feel those feelings.” I haven’t had an active OkCupid account in almost a year but I still remember those words verbatim because it took me approximately 10 hours to craft those three sentences. Nevertheless, women would message me asking if I’d like to go out for a drink (drinking is big in the LGBTQ community, by the way). I always followed this question with silence, as opposed to my burning desire to respond, “Yeah, that’s gonna be a no from me, dog.” I’m a writer, and if you can’t read six damn paragraphs, we are simply not meant to be.

If I meet someone new, I don’t want to tell them why I’m sober right away because the truth is deeply, painfully personal.

I know some folks participate in the “13th step” and date fellows in recovery. I only went to a few meetings and found them incredibly unhelpful, so I stuck to my own path. While I’m happy I don’t have to deal with the dogmatic diatribes of 12-step meetings, I do feel occasionally isolated from fellow sober folks. Still, dating someone who is sober was never a major priority; as I said, I just didn’t want to deal with problematic drinking behavior, because, duh.

I went on a handful of first dates that were mainly daytime encounters in grungy coffee shops. All of the people I dated were respectful but they seemed legitimately terrified to drink in front of me as if I would start shouting Bible verses at them or start foaming at the mouth the second a mojito touched their lips. When I first met my current partner, they didn’t drink for our first several dates. I told them I was far along in my sobriety and watching them drink a beer wasn’t going to make me fall off the wagon. If anything, I still get a little nauseous from the smell of booze. I just reiterated that I had no interest in holding them up as we trudged home from a party; hell, I don’t even want to go to parties. Fortunately, they were down for my two favorite hobbies: Watching documentaries and doing jigsaw puzzles.

My own personal happy ending

When I told my partner the E! True Hollywood Story of Yours Truly, they listened actively and deeply. I told them how I’d only been in relationships with men before and how I drank to cope with my suppressed sexuality, along with the agoraphobia stemming from my parents’ medical battles. I nearly choked on my own vulnerability but they looked me in the eyes and said, “Bonnie, I am honored to be sitting here with the person you are today.”

It was an acknowledgment of my past — a confused straight girl who beat up her liver — and I’ve never felt judged for my wildly inappropriate stories, such as finishing other people’s wine glasses left for the busser at a restaurant (yes, I did that). They were also acknowledging my preceding journey: Years of therapy, dismantling a relationship, and white-knuckled sobriety that left me questioning my existence at times.

Finally, it was an acknowledgment of the present: Sitting on the back steps of a 100-year-old duplex on a humid July evening, openly queer, La Croix in hand, the cicadas humming along to the beginning of a wild and new love story.