We were in a cab on the way to my hotel room when he said it. He was sitting close enough that I could smell the scotch on his breath from a few hours before. I was a couple of months shy of two years sober —and irate that a person who knew why I was back in town felt it was okay to ingest alcohol upon entering me. We both knew that’s what he was doing there, anyway.
I stared out the window at the sidewalks I used to stumble down as I listened to him offer up a few excuses after I pointed this out. They ranged from “I didn’t think you’d be able to smell it” to “I felt rude turning down a drink from a neighbor that made me dinner.”
One thing was clear: He paid no mind to the fact that a national organization had flown me to Washington, D.C., to attend a conference with leaders in the field of addiction after I had made a documentary about how a substance use disorder nearly claimed my liver. Who cares if I was a person in recovery and in a triggering situation? He sure didn’t.
But then I heard the words that sounded as delicious as the scotch on his breath smelt: “I’d give up drinking for you.”
My gut told my brain to go back to my hotel room alone. But then I heard the words that sounded as delicious as the scotch on his breath smelt: “I’d give up drinking for you.”
The power in this statement was too tempting to refuse. For me?
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about relationships in sobriety it’s that boundaries are important and that you need to be able to communicate your standards. This entails being vulnerable enough to communicate and also have standards in the first place. Unfortunately, these are the two things my first few therapists continued to remind me that I was a total shit at.
But I’ve been practicing, I promise.
Let’s take my first relationship in sobriety, for example. Each time I saw my partner having a beer with his dad at dinner here, a glass of wine out with friends there, I felt anger, resentment, and discomfort. This was followed by tinges of disgust when he kissed me and pleasure when I could taste it.
I let myself feel this way for weeks before I actually had the courage to say anything. Emotions filled me to the brim before they came pouring out.
As I braced for anger and yelling when I told him how I felt, he met me with ease and sensibility. He actually thanked me for sharing my emotions and agreed he wouldn’t drink in front of me. His kindness always felt shocking, which spoke to the parts of me that had become used to bracing for emotional hits.
He actually thanked me for sharing my emotions and agreed he wouldn’t drink in front of me.
It was then I discovered just how wonderful it was to have a partner who was always on the same page. Never did I feel left out again. In fact, I felt even more connected to him through a shared experience of witnessing the madness that was drunken stooper of the people around us. But I wanted more.
We were in a coffee shop when I asked if he’d abstain from alcohol completely.
“Nah,” he answered and didn’t say anything else.
A few weeks later, we were on a walk when I mentioned it again. The answer remained the same. It was in those moments I realized my needs within our relationship were not going to be fully met.
During our breakup, I mentioned these conversations. To which he replied, “If we were going to, like, get engaged, I’d be sober for you.”
That information felt more hurtful than helpful at that moment.
So I thought I had discovered a new standard: No partners who drink.
And scotch-breath, who honest to goodness just seemed like a person who drank too much, was in. I peppered our conversations with how our relationship was nothing more than casual. Needless to say, it felt powerful to know that someone had altered their lifestyle just to take me out on a few dates.
And then he started asking why I didn’t want a partner who drinks.
At the time, it was hard for me to articulate — mostly because I knew he’d rather be drinking than not drinking. He seemed to only be asking so he could prepare his rebuttal.
But let me just get into a few reasons this turns me way off for the sake of practice:
- It’s truly annoying to factor in whether a person’s behavior was altered by alcohol. “Did he send that text after a few beers?” and “Would he have said or done those things without alcohol?” are questions I’d rather not sit there wondering.
- I don’t want to convince anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. Nor do I want to bargain with someone for the rest of my life about activities they should or should not engage in in order to make me feel comfortable.
- Being constantly challenged and explaining to another person why something that feels so triggering and visceral is not a fun activity that I’d like to engage in often.
“But why?” he asked and asked again. I can’t remember what I actually said. Probably something like, “I can’t really put it into words. It’s just something that makes me feel unsafe.”
And honestly, that should have been enough.
It’s truly annoying to factor in whether a person’s behavior was altered by alcohol. “Did he send that text after a few beers?” and “Would he have said or done those things without alcohol?” are questions I’d rather not sit there wondering.
But I’ve pinned down another reason why this standard was important for me at that time: I just want to be with someone who strives to be the best version of themselves, which would make me feel motivated to be the best version of myself, which is when I’m sober.
Eventually, scotch-breath detected I was probably only in our relationship to temporarily cure the sense of loneliness that plagued me. Moments after things were ended via a text exchange while he was on a vacation overseas, he posted a series of photos of himself on Instagram drinking a single glass of wine with the caption: “Shock > Denial > Anger > Bargaining > Depression > Acceptance.”
And with that, I realized WOW that was unhealthy and, ultimately, I really don’t want a person’s sobriety dependent on my existence in their life ever again. Especially if it’s going to end up in the Instagram version of a subtweet.
I just want to be with someone who strives to be the best version of themselves, which would make me feel motivated to be the best version of myself, which is when I’m sober.
So please, don’t give up drinking for me. It’s a nice thought and I’m flattered by it. Really, I am. But you should want to not drink for you.
My new standard? It’s being with a person who makes space for me to communicate my needs, which will most certainly change over time, in a non-judgemental and respectful way, while also being able to communicate their own.