When A Lesbian Gets Sober
Queer culture is soaked in alcohol. I knew I had to quit drinking, but I feared losing the only identity I was sure of.
“How will anyone know I’m a lesbian if I don’t drink?”
I asked my therapist this eight years ago, pretzeled into a knot of anxiety on her couch in the fragile months of my new sobriety. Throughout my college years and early twenties, a heritage of alcoholism had swelled within me until I could no longer justify the misery. Some people quit drinking with a bang, but I stopped with a dull thud. Convinced that something was wrong, I’d skidded into therapy hoping to hear any advice other than “Get sober.”
“I’m 24,” I told my therapist. “I’m a writer. I’m a teacher. I’m a lesbian. I drink. My people drink.”
I adored gay bars and the social life I’d built around them. I loved the freedom of being in a room full of queers, the beauty of a bar populated with people like me. If I stopped drinking, if I stopped going to queer bars and parties, I was convinced I’d cease to exist. I’d never meet girls. I’d probably never date again.
I came out during high school in a small town, in a pre-Glee time. When I was accepted to a college in New York, it was my gateway to the real queer world I craved. Even before my first drink, I pictured myself in dark bars, surrounded by women and whiskey, love and heartache. My favorite novel was Michelle Tea’s Valencia, the full-throttle story of a punk dyke poet drinking and fucking her way through her early twenties. As a teenager I wrote short stories about waking up in strange girls’ beds and having to find my way home. When someone gave me a Fodor’s guide to New York City as a graduation present, I skipped the museums, the map of Central Park, and the pizza recommendations; instead I circled the few lesbian bars.
Three days after moving to Manhattan when I was 18, I had a fake ID and a gaggle of gay friends looking to get drunk. We quickly charted a gay bar or party for every night of the week. I blacked out the first night I ever drank, launching myself from the doors of a dyke bar in the West Village, arm in arm with a girl from my college. My memory flickered back to life outside of the flower stand at a bodega on Christopher Street, both of us hysterical with laughter because we were so drunk that we couldn’t remember the way home.
I wanted to capture that night again and again — the cute girl, the belly of laughter, the swinging allure of being wasted — but over the years I hit new lows while trying to find that first high. I snapped awake in the backs of taxi cabs, at the last stop on the 6 train in the Bronx, in the beds of girls I hadn’t remembered meeting. At 22, I started taking “Are you an alcoholic?” quizzes online. One quiz told me that I drank more than 90% of women my age in America, and I rolled my eyes — if they all drank in dyke bars in New York, they would drink like me too.
On hungover mornings, slumped over the nightstand I used as a desk, I began to throw the phrase “lesbian alcoholic” into search engines. It was 2004, and the only relevant search result was a decaying Geocities website for lesbians in recovery, featuring clip art of glittering roses next to the words, “We love women AND ourselves.” I slammed my laptop shut and hoped I’d never have to stop drinking.
I found I was capable of anything during my blackouts, from the innocent (making brunch plans) to the damaging (sleeping with my friend’s girlfriend). My assumption had been that in a blackout, I must be slurring, sloppy drunk, but apparently not. While blacked out, I could hold conversations, board public transportation, and use my credit card online. So it was during a blackout that I must’ve ordered a used book from Powell’s. When it showed up in my mailbox, I figured it was a gift, happily tearing open the envelope to find a lavender paperback inside with a bouquet of flowers on its cover: Out From Under: Sober Dykes and Our Friends. I’d ordered it at 4:13 a.m. on a Sunday morning, the same weekend that I got drunk enough to openly piss myself on a crowded L train. The slim book was filled with essays, poems, and one song, all focused on lesbians who didn’t drink. There were rants that a local women’s center fundraising party only served beer and wine, and gratitude for being no longer under the influence of “patriarchal poison.”
I shoved the book on the very bottom of my bookshelf, the damning spine facing backward. I couldn’t look at it, but I couldn’t throw it away.
One night, shortly before I stopped drinking, I tried to read the book in earnest. I flipped open to a random essay, and was struck by the community of sober women one lesbian found. They said they would love her until she could love herself.
A choking sob bubbled up in my throat when I read that line. I threw the book across the room, scared that I was about to lose the only identity I was sure of.
In my therapist’s office, after I explained that queer women had to drink, she smiled. She was a stylish woman with a sleeve of tattoos and a sense of humor. She told me that she was sober, and so was her girlfriend.
We spent the rest of that session volleying back and forth, my objections to sobriety met with her calm truth. A pit of fear grew hot in my stomach — fear of how I’d live and love in a world without alcohol.
Afterward, I stood on a subway entrance not far from her office. It was a Friday night, and my friends were waiting for me at a bar downtown. But something inside of me, a tiny sliver of grace, said, Just go home. Just this one time, just this one night, go home, and see what happens. So I did.
It was a humbling surprise — and remains a radical joy — that I haven’t had a drink since then.
My therapist introduced me to some lesbians who didn’t drink, and soon I had a little family of queer sober women around me. The very unicorns I’d wanted to disprove were now my quirky saviors. Many of them were coupled up or older than me, but they lit within me a small hope that I could be queer, young, sober, and in love. One sober couple became my queer fairy godparents. They let me lie on their couch, whining that I’d never have sex again — I don’t think I’d ever had it without being drunk — while they threw chocolate at me and told me it would get better.
When I eventually ventured back to queer bars, I found myself more attractive and stable than my drinking self had been. Despite my fears, girls weren’t repelled by my sobriety. There was the girl who’d never kissed a girl before (“I’ve never kissed a girl sober before,” I told her, “so we’re even”); the queer who I met on their boozy 21st birthday; the girl who ate a pot cookie before our date; the girl who wore a key around her neck and told me it was the key to her grandmother’s liquor cabinet (“Red flag!” my sober friends cried. “Red flag!”).
I’d only had a few relationships while I was drinking, and none of them lasted long, which is how it goes when you’re an alcoholic tornado tearing through the world. But dating in sobriety was yielding the same short-term results, and I worried the problem was that I was still meeting girls in bars. I tried tame coffee shop dates with girls from OkCupid, taking modern dance classes, and sometimes mustered the courage to ask out other sober girls on dates, but nothing stuck.
“There’s an odd number of lesbians in the world,” I continually complained. I was in this sour state of mind the night my friend Camille dragged me to a bar for a Brooklyn Book Festival party. Looking around the crowd of bookish hipsters, I spotted Emily.
She wore glasses, a plaid button-down shirt, and a yellow bow tie — magical queer dress code in a packed straight bar. A tattoo of Matilda peeked out from under her shirt sleeve.
Drunk Courtney could’ve sauntered over there. Drunk Courtney could’ve found a way to start a conversation. But as sober Courtney, I stood bashful and insecure on the other side of the bar.
“She is in front of a table of books,” Camille shouted. “The universe just gift wrapped this opportunity for you.”
“I bet she has a girlfriend.”
Camille smirked. “If you don’t talk to her, I’m going to march over there and tell her that you think she’s cute.”
She shrugged, and began to move toward Emily. I scampered behind, introducing myself with an overly enthusiastic hello.
It was a mediocre conversation — where are you from and what do you do? — but I’d learned from experience that relationships are rarely born out of sparks and danger (thank you for that lesson, girl with the key to her grandmother’s liquor cabinet). Relationships are born out of vulnerability and faith.
For our first date, Emily and I got dinner, and afterward, I wanted to spend more time with her.
“Do you want to get a drink somewhere?” I asked, thinking I’d nervously pound seltzers while she had a beer. It was like I was trying to speak a language in which I was no longer fluent.
Emily shrugged, then pointed to an ice cream shop across the street. “Do you want to get a milkshake?”
She was exceptionally good — the kind of person who’d never even had a cigarette, let alone drank enough to black out. Her relationship to alcohol seemed to be take it or leave it. I was nervous to tell her that I had a twisted history of self-destruction and poor decisions.
On our second date, we sat across from each other at a Thai restaurant, and I mentioned that I’d quit drinking a few years before. “It was kind of gnarly,” I admitted.
“I know,” she smiled. “I googled you.”
I’d once published an essay about when and why I quit drinking. Apparently it was the ninth item to pop up when my name was tossed into a search engine.
“I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been really drunk,” she said.
“Oh my god,” I laughed. “I think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve only had one drink.”
Emily didn’t judge me for my alcoholism, and actually honored my sober lifestyle. She would bring me a San Pellegrino Limonata if she was getting herself a beer. When I graduated from my MFA program, she drove up to meet me with a chilled bottle of sparkling apple cider for our hotel room. Shortly after we moved in together last year, I was celebrating my seventh sober anniversary. She joined my sober friends and me for tacos at my favorite Mexican restaurant. “I got you a present,” she said, grinning. “It’s waiting for you at home.”
When I came into our apartment, there were two small succulents sitting on the kitchen table. I opened the card beside them. “Succulents do best when they don’t drink,” Emily had written. “Just like you, my love!”
I had hoped to meet a girl who could tolerate my sobriety, but falling for a girl who loved me for it?
Be still my sober heart.