Why dating sober in Toronto doesn’t have to suck

Giving up booze was one thing. Getting over my anxiety about meeting men without a drink in my hand was another


I recently read Sarah Hepola’s raw account of her battle with and ultimate triumph over alcoholism, Blackout: Remembering The Things I Drank To Forget. As a person who has had one too many nights not remembering how I got home, and a few too many mornings waking up wondering “Who the heck are you and why are you in my bed?” I instantly related to her drunk and sober lives (as I’ve recently given up drinking).

Toward the end (spoiler alert), she explains how she’s learning to live the sober life she never wanted, and accurately describes the fear of going on a date where you’re not drinking and the other person is. “I was worried men wouldn’t like dating a sober woman,” she writes. “After all, drinking was a part of our erotic social contract.”

This, too, has been my fear over the past month and a half sans booze – and it feels like an even larger battle than giving up the drink itself. It hasn’t been easy in a country that drinks more than the global average, according to a recent World Health Organization report. I mean, what excuse do I give? That I am pregnant? Allergic? A Mormon? I certainly wasn’t going to tell a date I was battling a severe drinking problem.

After living in Europe – mostly London – for a decade, I had perfected not only the art of binge-drinking, but pretending to be “normal” at work the day after a night that usually began at the pub knocking back a couple of pints and ended with a kebab stuck to my face.

When I moved back to Toronto, this behaviour continued – whether I was on a date or out with friends, alcohol was always a part of it. However, my school nights of partying and trying to make it through the next day at work without anyone being the wiser were catching up with me. At 38, the charade was getting boring.

So after some consultation with my doctor, friends and family, I made the decision to give up alcohol for 30 days. (I’m actually at day 43 as I write this, and plan is to keep going for at least three months and re-evaluate my relationship with alcohol at that point.) Until now, the longest I’ve gone without alcohol is a week. And I’d never been on a date and stayed sober – that was going to be the real challenge, mentally and physically.

To help with the physiological aspects of giving up alcohol, my doctor put me on a new drug called Naltrexone, which works in the brain to prevent the pleasant effects from drinking alcohol by blocking the dopamine rush that gives a “buzz” effect. It also reduces the desire to drink. After taking the drug for two weeks, I went out with friends, and after four beers, I didn’t feel anything. When the server came to take orders, I skipped that round.

That was one of many firsts. Like many people, I had never gone on a date and not had a drink. Was I going to be funny? Was I going to have a good time? Would I work up the courage to kiss him? What would I do if he kissed me first?

If I was going to do this without booze, I had to get creative.

A few weeks ago, I got my first opportunity. A cute 25-year-old and I arranged to meet for coffee in a trendy east-end neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon. I racked my brain for things to do instead of drink. Other than going for a walk at a nearby conservation area or the beach, I couldn’t think of much.

Of course, there are plenty of things to do if you can get over your anxiety. And it’s not as easy as it sounds. While many of my girlfriends have told me they limit how much they drink on a first date or go for coffee instead, neither of these scenarios appealed to me in the past. I just assumed men wouldn’t find me as attractive, funny or intelligent without a drink. I mean, if I had come across someone on a dating app before I gave up alcohol who didn’t drink, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to meet up.

The last thing I wanted was for my first sober date to take a turn for the worse because of how I thought he was going to respond. So I hatched a plan: assuming the date would end at a bar, I messaged the owner of my local (who I had gotten to know quite well) and asked if he would tell whoever was working to slip me a drink that could pass for a mixed drink, like a cran and soda, when I ordered. “No problem,” he said.

Naturally, all didn’t go according to plan.

After a coffee and chat, my date told me he needed to buy new jeans for work. Would I accompany him to the store? I’d never shopped with a guy on a date, but why not? On our way, he confessed his love of digging for cheap vinyl, and we found ourselves rummaging through pawn shops, getting to know a bit more about each other. Then he bought his jeans, and suggested we get ice cream. As we sat in the park, he said he wouldn’t mind a drink.

We were quite far from my local by this point. He suggested a bar. Once there, I fessed up and said I wasn’t drinking.

To my surprise, he didn’t mind and was impressed.

Huh. If this guy didn’t mind, then maybe other guys wouldn’t either, I thought. That’s turned out to be true.

Dating is one thing – sex is another minefield altogether. Considering I could count the number of times I’d had sex outside of a relationship sober, I knew it was going to be a challenge. But since I wasn’t getting the dopamine rush from the booze, I found myself craving it from sex.

Instead of asking the 25-year-old on another date, I texted him, “DTF?” My phone quickly lit up: “I thought you’d never ask.”

I invited him over to my apartment and we had a full seven minutes of uninterrupted sex. For once I had actually initiated it sober and remembered it all. Figuring I needed more practise, I texted another guy I had hooked up with back in the winter (both times drunk) and had some of the best sex of my life at his apartment one day after work.

Screw cocktail hour (literally) – this was far better.

Dating and having sex sans booze with otherwise strangers wasn’t as intimidating as I thought. Polling friends about things they’d done or how they’d reacted when a date wasn’t drinking has been helpful.

An English friend said he used to go out for tea and cake. A friend in Toronto said she has a two-drink limit and sticks to it, adamant about not losing control in front of someone she barely knows. My cousin once ran errands with a date to avoid going to the bar, which made me think of my 25-year-old shopping for jeans.

I used to think people who didn’t drink were weird and not to be trusted. But we really don’t need alcohol to find connection.

My most recent date was in the evening. He’d had a hard day at work and wanted to unwind with a drink. With the warmer weather, I also wanted a drink, but my resolve not to break my longest-ever period of sobriety won out. I have yet to avoid bars on my non-alcoholic dates. (My next date could be my biggest test yet: a British guy at a British pub.) But other than coffee shops, there are places that don’t suck if you’re dating sober in Toronto.

So pick your poison and know that the next morning you can feel smug waking up without a hangover and remembering everything (and everyone) that you did.

Where to get a buzzy feeling on a sober date in Toronto

Jump on a trampoline

Get your endorphin rush some place other than the bottom of a pint glass: go trampolining. This city has many places to explore. skyzone.com.

Get buck in a rage room

Vent some pent-up anger over idiotic colleagues (we all have at least one) by throwing an axe or hitting up a rage room. badaxethrowing.com or battlesports.ca.

Get trapped together in an escape room

Without alcohol, I’ve been feeling a lot sharper than normal. Why not take advantage and invite your date to an escape room where you have to solve a puzzle in a certain amount of time in order to exit the room. escapestation.ca.

Get outside

This is an obvious one – and a summertime classic. Go for a bike ride or a hike. There are umpteen places to explore. bikesharetoronto.com.

Take the plunge and go indoor skydiving

Feel like you’re flying without the dizzying effects of booze in a skydiving simulator (though this activity is on the pricier side, so you might want to save it for a third or fourth date). iflytoronto.com.

Pretend to be hamsters

Roll down the hill – not because you fell after one too many shots of JD but because you’re in a zorb, aka hamster ball. hamsterfun.ca

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