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  • Writer's pictureJennifer McCrackin

Setting Our Abound-aries: Dating and Sobriety

Love or the desire for love or the absence of love is what often sets us off drinking or using or giving ourselves away, cheaply, to the first person who says, “I love you.”

A boundary marks what is mine from what is yours; it secures us from threats beyond that howl at the fence.

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“Boundary” is a word rooted in “bound,” which is defined as the limit or furthest point of extension of a plot of land. How far does my homestead range? To the fence or the horizon? Boundaries begin at an initial marker, like an oak tree or my hopeful heart, and then travel a course specific in direction and distance, around and back again. Title disputes happen when the recorded boundary descriptions are ambiguous or inconsistent. Relapses, too, as we bind ourselves to our own self-set limits which sometimes shift to accommodate family, friends, and often, new lovers. We say, “I don’t drink, but it’s okay if you do,” knowing that it’s not okay, not really, because while we have lashed ourselves to sobriety’s stake, the fastenings can come undone with one kiss that tastes of scotch.

A boundary is rooted in a fixed, stable location. Those of us in recovery recognize the need to hold fast to our unwavering boundaries: not one drink, not one drug, not ever again. But boundaries get complicated when people we invite into our lives and hearts straddle our fence line. Particularly romantic partners, particularly for those of us sober because love or the desire for love or the absence of love is what often sets us off drinking or using or giving ourselves away, cheaply, to the first person who says, “I love you.” It’s like the song from Oliver, “I’d Do Anything”: “Would you lace my shoe? Anything. Paint your face blue? Anything. Catch a kangaroo? Anything. Go to Timbuktu? And back again.” Many of us still have that hole we hoped love would fill, and when it didn’t, drink topped us off. How to hold fast when affection, companionship, attention, desire, and yes, love, beckon to us?

It’s astonishing how quickly I recently shifted my boundaries away from my heart’s center, despite more than six years’ sobriety, for a fast-burning relationship. I am unambiguous about my sobriety when I meet a potential date, usually through an online site, even including this off-putting line in my profile: “I don’t drink. Not a problem for me. For you? Swipe left.” But this man seemed like the right one to accommodate because he was kind and funny and smart, and because he didn’t ask me to, I moved the fence for that flash of hoped-for-love.

“I don’t drink,” I said, in reminder since some men don’t bother to read profiles, glancing only at photos.

“Never?” he asked.

“Not ever, though I did once, and once too often, so I don’t. I’m sober.”

He gave a sigh of relief. “Things got messy with my last partner because of how we drank together. I feel lucky I met you.”

Lucky! He felt lucky meeting a recovering alcoholic?! The magic happy word buzzed inside of me. Yes, buzzed, that old, delicious dangerous feeling. I felt a rush of gratitude (though why I should be grateful is evidence that I am perhaps not altogether done with needing someone to fill that empty hole) and said, “But I’m okay with you having a drink when we go out.”

And I was, mostly, for those first few dates in restaurants over meals. He ordered one beer, drank it slowly, and of course, I paid attention. No gulping, not even finishing off the glass. He seemed uninterested, as if he could take it or leave it (though always taking it). This is a bewildering proposition to me because even now, if I imagine drinking a glass of wine, I imagine drinking the whole bottle, and maybe another. By the end of the evening, we’d had dessert, so the kiss tasted of chocolate and coffee.

As we slipped into what felt like romantic longevity, I noticed a shift in his drinking, or his explanations for it. At his apartment, a suitcase of cheap beer in the fridge. When I wondered at the quantity on hand for an erstwhile bachelor, he said it was more “efficient,” to buy bulk and because it was light beer, the alcohol content was nominal, akin to drinking water, so he never even got buzzed drinking two or three.

“If you drink a case, you still get drunk,” I said, and began to feel myself clutch for my lashings. But it was his apartment, and we were grownups, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell him what to do when he wasn’t with me. And besides, I’d never seen him drunk or even wobbly, so perhaps the value pack reason was true.

In his poem, “Boundary Issue,” John Ashbery writes, “We had groped too,/ unwise, till the margin began to give way,/ at which point all was sullen, or lost, or both.” My benign acceptance of his depiction of his drinking past and of his lackadaisical drinking present was akin to unwise gropings, to ambiguous or inconsistent boundaries. So that by the Fourth of July weekend, four months into our relationship, he arrived with a twelve-pack without asking if it was okay to bring it into my home and put it into my refrigerator and drink it in my house which was my sanctuary from the ever-present exhaustion of choice. Not a day goes by that I don’t have to drive past a liquor store, or walk down the aisle of CVS passing discounted bottles of wine, or read a billboard that promises a better night with beer. My house? No booze, no need for a decision.

Sometimes, when friends come for dinner, I say it’s okay to bring a bottle of wine—and truly it is okay because my friends understand my boundaries. While they have a glass of wine with my pasta Bolognese, I have seltzer and neither miss the wine nor the need for it. When they leave, my friends take their empty bottles and remainders. Perhaps this is grossly inconsistent, but thus far, I’ve never clutched to my lashings in these circumstances, never felt uneasy in my own skin, a sure sign that I might think about reaching for a drink.

So that Fourth of July, I kept watch. Three beers over dinner and beers the next day on a friend’s boat. My kids kept watch, too. My son opened the refrigerator after my boyfriend had left for the weekend. His remainders: two cans in the cardboard box.

“Mom,” my son said, “Why do you have beer?”

I could hear worry’s edge in his voice. He’d never really seen me drunk, and has mostly grown up with me sober, but he knows how much damage drink had done and how hard I’d fought to get my life back. He was doing what I had not been able to do: boundary maintenance. Not his job and not his worry to bear.

“Ah,” I said. “The boyfriend left them behind, and I meant to throw them out.”

He looked relieved. I threw them out in the neighbor’s trash, far beyond my fence line, and ended that relationship. When I explained its end to my daughter, and the twelve-pack, she said, “Yeah, Mom, I wondered about that. You need somebody who respects you.”

A boundary marks what is mine from what is yours; it secures us from threats beyond that howl at the fence; it keeps us safe inside our own fiefdom where we set the rules on what is allowed in our refrigerator and inside our hearts. But self-respect and self-love lash us to our boundary markers. Not so much a boundary as an “aboundary,” our refuge of spiritual abundance. Not a hole but a full heart.

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