What I learned from dating someone with a drinking problem

I was holding a plastic tray full of miniature bottles of alcohol—including SKYY Vodka, Beefeater Gin and Johnnie Walker—as part of my Halloween costume. I was a 1970s retro stewardess. My bowl of peanuts was still full, but all the bottles were nearly empty. I watched as my then-boyfriend chugged the last one. I should have known to bring decoys filled with Coca-Cola and water, instead—even though I knew that wouldn’t solve his drinking problem. His MacGyver disguise couldn’t hide it, either.

I should have broken up with him after he downed those mini bottles. Up until that moment, I’d seen and heard enough signs and glimpses of his drinking-induced temper: the times he’d been curt for no reason (alcohol), more impatient than usual (alcohol), oh, and after hearing the story about the time he punched his cousin (alcohol). But it was Halloween, my favorite holiday, and who wants to break up on Halloween?

After the party, a group of us walked back to his house. We were on Sunset Boulevard amidst a crowd of jovial Alice in Wonderlands and men dressed as The Golden Girls. We started discussing his female neighbor. She “stopped by” a lot, particularly when I was not around. He got defensive and raised his voice. He flipped my plastic tray and sent the bottles flying. I watched as they shattered and decorated the asphalt like glitter. I knew then that I was done.

I walked the other way and went home, alone. The next morning, I said good-bye to him for good and made a vow to myself: no more alcoholics, and certainly no more enabling such guys by carrying around a tray of their vice. I wasn’t helping them or myself.

A few months earlier, when we had started dating, I ignored the hints that he was an alcoholic. He drank a lot sometimes, sure, but I didn’t know just how much and that he often did so alone. I didn’t realize that his having a beer after work was more a daily coping mechanism than a random occurrence. I thought he’d stop, and that I could help him. But you have to want the help in order for it to work.

Though we’d met at a mutual friend’s party—at a bar, no less—we’d both been Internet-dating at the time. When we decided to be exclusive, he showed me his profile before disabling it. He had three mentions of alcohol in it, and multiple photos where he’s holding a drink. Plus, his face was flushed in most of them, a drinker’s blush on his cheeks. You know the kind.

Suffice it to say, I’d ignored the signs.

That wasn’t the first time I’d dated someone with a drinking problem. Guys like my ex were charming, nice and fun—until they didn’t know how to stop drinking and “a couple drinks before we go” turned into nearly a half-bottle of whiskey for them and a half-finished glass of wine for me.

They say we date who and what we know—consciously or unconsciously. I thought back to my childhood. My parents divorced when I was three and I didn’t grow up knowing my father. My mother didn’t drink much—but her boyfriends did. One left slurred messages on our home answering machine, encouraging her to “just leave ‘those little brats’ at home and meet me out at the bar.” Another could barely utter a coherent sentence when attempting to say hello to my brother and me. Yet another smelled so strongly of Jack Daniels I thought it was cologne.

At the same time I’d started dating my ex, my friend started dating a sober guy. She said that it was challenging—she wanted a glass of cabernet with dinner now and then—and that the guy didn’t mind if she had one, yet she’d feel guilty if she did. Just hearing “sober” sounded so boring. I imagined them sitting around, playing a board game or drinking grape juice with their steak entrée.

When I got to thinking about it, though, I’d gone on plenty of alcohol-free dates: coffee, hiking, biking, walking, movies, you name it. However, for first dates, guys often suggested “drinks” instead of dinner, though even dinner usually involved “drinks.”

But my ex had been a great test in my becoming more discerning about whom I would spend my time dating. I became more cautious when reading guys’ online dating profiles—did a lot of their leisure activities involve drinking?—and more conscientious when meeting guys offline—did he just down four beers in an hour?

I also decided to reframe future first-date activities, suggesting non-alcoholic date options. After all, my favorite activities didn’t involve drinking and were done 100% sober—the Lake Shrine, the Griffith Park Observatory, the cool thrift store or diner in Topanga Canyon. Such dates opened me up to getting to know guys sober, on their end and mine, to see if we were a match.

After going on a sober date with someone new, it was then good to go on a drinking date, so to speak—or to a place where alcohol was in the background, not the foreground, to see how the guy handled it. And how I handled it. I wasn’t there to judge other people’s drinking, but rather to take control of my own issues with dating men who drank beyond what I was comfortable with.

In the years since dating my ex, my radar drastically improved. In dating non-alcoholic guys, I found I relish sober activities more than drinking-centric ones. More importantly, I’ve prioritized what’s important to me when it comes to a partner, and broke an unconscious pattern of my own. And I’ve never carried around the temptation on a tray since.

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