I Dated In AA And Lived To Tell The Tale
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I Dated In AA And Lived To Tell The Tale


This post was originally published on September 15, 2014.

When you attend anything as much as many of us go to meetings in a 12-step program, it is hard not to feel like it’s your entire life—especially when what used to be your entire life is now just an empty barstool. When it comes to treating addiction, bonding with others who struggle with the same illness is an important component of creating a support system. But it can also make it tricky, even if you know that many don’t recommend it, to not get romantically involved with someone from your program.

When you are new to 12-step, it is generally frowned upon to make any big changes within your first year—moving, changing jobs, chopping your hair off, ending a relationship (barring obvious exceptions) and especially beginning one. This is just a suggestion (as everything in 12-step is) but it was invented for a reason—to avoid hasty, emotional decisions you will probably regret. Early sobriety can be challenging enough without inviting in the complications of another person. But, since I have never been the kind of girl to keep her panties on in a crisis, I needed to test out this unwritten rule.

I was a year-and-a-half into recovery when the relationship I’d been in pre-sobriety ended and I found myself single in sobriety (which should be the name of a reality show). Since I had always met men at bars and drinking parties, I was kind of at a loss as to how I was supposed to start dating again—something I needed to do ASAP if I wanted to avoid having to spend time with myself (something I was not prepared to handle). Between 12-step meetings and fellowship (aka going to a diner after the meeting), I was spending an average of 15 hours a week with AA people, so it seemed only logical to use this time as an opportunity to scope out potential partners. When my sponsor told me that dating another recovering alcoholic was not the best idea, I responded, “That doesn’t make sense. If I am sober, why wouldn’t I want to date someone else who is sober?”

“Because we aren’t swimming in the ‘well’ pool,” she said, referring to people in AA, “and two sickies don’t make a wellie.”

I laughed so I wouldn’t tell her to fuck off. This was terrible news and I resented how casually she was delivering it to me. Two years earlier, I could date anyone I wanted and now I was apparently a “sickie” who couldn’t date anyone who drank or anyone who didn’t? This made me want to drink. Maybe she hadn’t had success finding love in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous but she wasn’t me. I’d show her!

At six years of sobriety, I got involved with someone who had 29 days (please, hold your applause for several of us here). Now a perpetrator of the 13th step, I vowed to be prudent, to commit to the relationship and be extra sensitive to his process—because I thought the reason we didn’t date newcomers was to protect their sobriety; I didn’t realize it was to protect our sanity. I was so unwell at the time that I actually told myself that my vagina was helping him get through early sobriety (not joking, wish I was). I took him under my wing and brought him to all of my meetings, introduced him to all of my sober friends and then violently kicked myself for doing so. Because when we broke up—which trust me, we did with a vengeance—guess who was at all my meetings and hanging out with all my friends? He was even on a texting basis with my sponsor. It sucked so hard.

See, when it comes to staying sober, having the person who drained you emotionally and financially (which is what alcoholics can do) and broke your heart sitting in the same room with you day after day—the room you used to retreat to for safety and support in times like these—isn’t just annoying or a mere inconvenience; it’s downright gut wrenching. It can catapult you into the kind of rage and pain that is relapse-worthy or, at best, God-awful. When you date someone from your meetings and it doesn’t work out, you don’t just lost your partner—you lose your meetings. If you live in a big city like New York or LA, finding new regular meetings is a pain in the butt but it’s possible. If you live in South Bend, Indiana, I imagine this proves to be a lot more challenging. You might be forced to stick it out, watch him flirt and take up with other women—sometimes even marry them, like someone I know had to experience. In terms of my situation, after three months of excruciating pain of maneuvering the AA meetings and social scene thing, he relapsed and I swore I would never date in AA again. And I didn’t—until I did.

Technically, I never really started dating Lance—we were friends until the night he fingered me on my couch—but suddenly we were more than friends. I never actually got the chance to decide whether or not I wanted to date him; the train just sort of left the station. But this is the danger of casual sex in the room of AA—with the unique dynamic of 12-step relationships, this is often how sober couples get started. You think you are just program buddies and then you realize that you’re having unprotected sex with the secretary of your home group and feel like you are in love; definitely weird.

So I found myself in another relationship with an alcoholic but this time, he wasn’t a shivering newcomer—Lance had a decade-and-a-half of sobriety. So of course I concluded that he was the one. And the odds were certainly better with Lance than they were with Johnny Mc29 Days or any of the drinkers I had been dating. But substantial sobriety doesn’t guarantee anything. In fact, sober relationships are up against all the same challenges as “normal” ones except that they have the added spice of maneuvering the disease of dual-alcoholism and then judging how well the other one works his or her program. If you have ever dated another sober person, you well know that hearing Have you talked to your sponsor about this is a horrible question few of us can resist.

While Johnny Mc29 Days was, on his best day, a scared shell of a human, Lance had the confidence of someone with real recovery. But the clashing tides of our respective alcoholic egos became a ticking time bomb that exploded every two weeks. It was one of those high drama, fight-fuck relationships that I thought had died with my drinking. Part of me loved it and the other part of me—the adult recovered part—knew it was not healthy. While the newcomer lacked self-esteem and a place to live, Lance lacked self-awareness and a willingness to take responsibility for his actions—both cases of disproportionate ego, one of the textbook symptoms of alcoholism.

Of course, I am no angel either. I may be known to have a nice ass but have never been known as easy to date. I am a wounded bird with good recovery in some areas and almost none in others. Even after years of psychotherapy and 12-step work, I still have trauma triggers, high expectations and daddy issues—and nothing is better for bringing up a gal’s daddy issues than a romantic relationship with a man, especially (for me) one with someone like Lance, who’s in many ways like my father (well, except sober).

What’s funny about recovery is, when I was less than two years sober, I honestly didn’t think there was anything undateable about me—and now that I am nearly 11 years sober, I’d have a hard time narrowing down the list of reasons why I am. It’s not that alcoholics should be labeled defective for life, but even at its most treated, alcoholism is a disease that affects our perception and the way we process information. If I continue to work my program, I will get better every year but I will always have challenges. And when I date another alcoholic, I get to factor in their challenges as well. I have no idea where they are at in their program—i.e. how recovered they are or in what ways—and when I start to see the areas that I think need improvement (LOL), I can only try to mind my own business about it because in AA “we don’t take each other’s inventories.”

My final words of wisdom on the matter? If you are into pain and frustration, my little sober chicklets, date away. But there is an easier, softer way—allegedly, anyway.

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.