After Party Chat

A fresh look at addiction and recovery

I Dated An AA Newcomer

Ignore the recommendation not to do this at your own risk

“I’m hot and you’re hot,” the message read. “Plus I’m sober and you’re sober.”

This was a missive that appeared in my MySpace message box back when referencing MySpace didn’t make you feel old. And look, I knew it was an incredibly douche-y introduction. But, my friends, you did not see the face (and body) that accompanied it. Since I can’t do this justice in words, let me just say that it was enough to render the message both charming and clever.

Of course I wrote back this beautiful stranger who was 3000 miles away. And of course he responded to that. And so before you know it, we were engaged in the type of relationship addicts excel in—fantasy and artifice masquerading as a true connection with illusion maintained by the fact that we were communicating in highly controlled environments (i.e. the computer and phone). We could both be the versions of ourselves that the other hoped we were and I could even ignore the fact that he was an actor. (He works, I told myself, as if the only actors to be wary of dating were the unemployed ones.)

During the very beginning of our obsessive communiqué, I told him my circumstances—essentially, that I’d moved to New York from LA three months earlier and was returning to LA in a few weeks to pack up the remainder of my belongings, get rid of my car and head back for good. His response: “I live in LA but am from New York and have been wanting to move back forever.” It was on! 

Did I mention that he had two months of sobriety and had been heavily addicted to heroin? I don’t think I did and that’s perhaps because it wasn’t something I chose to mention to myself, really, during this whirlwind romance. And look; I knew about dating newcomers. In fact, I’d judged many people for doing it! So I fell back on one of my favorite delusions: It’ll be different for me. And that’s how it happened that when I landed in LA a few weeks later for that aforementioned trip, he was at the airport to pick me up holding chocolates and a sign that read “Mrs.” followed by his last name. Our plan was for him to help me pack my belongings and then we’d fly back to New York together. But we weren’t going to be alcoholic about it—he would not move in with me. No, to start this relationship off in a healthy way, he was going to instead stay at a hotel down the street for a month as he looked for his own apartment. 

I think I also forgot to mention that he chain smoked and I’d quit smoking six years earlier, transitioning (after 13 years of a pack-a-day habit) into that hypocritical ex-smoker who held her nose and gave disapproving looks whenever she happened to pass people puffing away on cancer sticks. His current smoking was admittedly harder to ignore than his troubled past during that two-week period we were in LA, especially because we spent the majority of that time holed up in his apartment. But I found a way.

When we flew to New York, I dozed on his shoulder and marveled over how my life had changed so quickly. Clearly, I realized, all I had to do was make a radical move like leave the place I’d called home for the previous decade for the universe to reward me with a gorgeous boyfriend.

So he settled into his hotel as I unpacked my belongings; he wasn’t nearly as helpful unpacking in New York as he’d been packing in LA since coming over to my apartment meant not smoking without the hassle of having to take an elevator downstairs every few minutes. After a few days of our going to dinners and meetings and cafes, I realized that he wasn’t all that helpful in conversation, either; the guy really did not, I learned, like to talk. A week or two after that, I discovered that he didn’t like doing much of anything. He confessed after one dinner where he’d only grunted a few words that he wasn’t really one for eating out and much preferred to have pizza delivered to his hotel room. So I started spending a lot of time in that hotel room, too, where we ate pizza and watched TV as I tried to convince myself that second-hand smoke really wasn’t that bad. Also worth mentioning: He’d semi lost interest in sex by then—a side effect, he said, of the medication he was taking.

Ah yes, the medication. What I didn’t know until he was settled in New York was that he was on a bevy of meds—not just the SSRI’s that many people I know (including myself) take but several others, including Klonopin. My stance on drugs like Klonopin and Xanax for sober people is that it’s fine as long as it’s absolutely necessary and you’re being honest with your sponsor about it. He assured me that he was and also that his shrink—who, I learned, he had phone sessions with three times a week—strongly supported him taking it. I chose not to question if this Klonopin-taking meant he was really an active user and not a newcomer.

By this point, he’d left the Do Not Disturb sign on the hotel door for so long that the cleaning staff had learned to ignore the room’s existence and so it had essentially become a large ashtray with a bed and pile of empty pizza boxes mixed in. I knew we were miserable together but New Year’s Eve was right around the corner and it was freezing cold and I just didn’t think ending things with a guy who’d sort of moved 3000 miles to be with me would be a good idea for either of us right then. Maybe, I thought, he’d cheer up and get more engaged in life once the weather improved? 

It was on New Year’s Eve, though, that I reached my breaking point, finally telling him, after a silent pizza dinner, that I didn’t think we were compatible after all. He didn’t disagree with me but said, and I quote, “Look, I think we should be unhappy together a little longer and break up later.” I didn’t think that was a great idea so the conversation was over by 11:30 pm. There didn’t seem to be much of a point in staying until the ball dropped so I walked back to my apartment in the pouring rain while revelers all around me excitedly counted down and kissed at the strike of midnight.

It took a little bit longer for the real uncoupling to occur; he did, in fact, sign a lease on an apartment and even start leaving it occasionally. But it wasn’t long before he decided to go back to LA officially and sublet that place to a friend.

Now the old-time-y slogan about dating newcomers—“Behind every skirt is a slip”—suggests not only that men are going to be the ones 13th stepping but that the 13th-stepper’s sobriety may not survive the transgression. This was not true in my case but, at a certain point in recovery, I stopped thinking of relapse as an option. Many of us, remembering how depressed using and drinking made us toward the end, skip right from “I should have a drink” to “I should just end it all.” And while I wasn’t suicidal over the dissolution of my My Space romance, I was extremely sad. It wasn’t about him, really; that kind of sadness never really is about the person. I was sad about the dissolution of the fantasy that I could fall for a beautiful stranger without having to go through any painful and stressful dating, courtship and intimacy development. I also used to excel at bringing that sort of sadness to a boil—usually by convincing myself, when I was in dating mourning mode, that this was all surely a sign that I’d be alone forever. So no, I didn’t feel close to a slip. But isn’t that sort of emotional slip almost as bad?

He and I stayed friendly and he actually called me a year or so later, saying he was in trouble and asking if I could take him to a meeting. He sweated all the way through it and I didn’t get too many details about what had led up to this. My emotional ties to him had pretty much disintegrated, which is to say I was able to just worry about him the way I’d worry about any semi hope-to-die addict I knew. I didn’t hear from him for a while after that but his career was clearly going well so I reasoned that he hadn’t fallen completely off the rails.

Then one day, when I was sitting in a coffee shop in LA writing, my phone rang and I saw it was him. Not knowing if he was calling to tell me he was finally sober or that he needed emotional support (somehow those seemed the only two possibilities), I answered.

“Oh great, you picked up!” he exclaimed, sounding as ecstatic to talk to me as he had back in our MySpace courtship. “Can you do me a favor?” 

I was a bit frightened. “Um, maybe?” I said.

“Okay so my friend and I have been playing online poker but the game has shut us out so we need someone to sign in through another IP address.”

“What?” I asked, as much confused by what he was asking as I was dumbfounded that he’d asked me. I hadn’t spoken to him in over a year. Was he high? Had he become a gambling addict? “Why you’d call me?” I finally added.

“I was trying to think of people I thought might be in front of their computer,” he responded, not sounding remotely apologetic or uncomfortable.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of reason you hope to get when an ex calls you out of the blue but did he even really count as an ex? I didn’t know the answer to that but I did know I couldn’t help him. And let’s just say I communicated that so effectively that I haven’t heard from him since.

I also haven’t dated another newcomer or judged anyone else for doing it. Who am I to say what works for other people? I can only learn what works—and doesn’t work—for me. Alas, I seem to ignore warnings about why not do things since I’m still often convinced that the standard rules don’t apply to me. For better or worse, I’m someone who needs to touch the burning oven to know it’ll hurt me, too.

As for MySpace—well, I don’t even remember my password.

This piece originally appeared on AfterPartyChat

Anna David is the author of two novels and three non-fiction books and frequently speaks about addiction and recovery in the media and on college campuses.

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