Gemmika Champion has been dating while sober for most of her adult life.
She had to face her anxiety and fear of being uncool to stick to it, she said.
Coffee dates and meetups at comedy shows and salsa clubs keep things exciting.
Shortly before 10 p.m. on a brisk Friday, Gemmika Champion and her date arrive at Brasil's, a Latin dance venue in Philadelphia's Old City neighborhood.
Under the glow of red and purple lights, Champion grabs her date's hand and leads him to the floor, passing by tables littered with clear plastic cups adorned with lime wedges, evidence of the cocktails fueling fellow salsa class attendees' dance moves.
But Champion doesn't need that liquid courage to hit the dance floor with a crowd of strangers. Filled with nothing but espresso shots, a couple of pizza slices, and mischievous enthusiasm, Champion clasps hands with her date, a man she met just a few days before on a dating app.
Champion, a sober and single 29-year-old who views first dates as opportunities for fun and exploration, is in her element.
"I have a pungent personality, and you're either going to like me or you're not. I would like to have a life partner one day, so I think it's important to lead with who I really am and not waste anyone's time," Champion told Business Insider.
But alcohol-free dates like this one haven't always felt like no-brainers to Champion. Eight years ago, she decided to stop using alcohol, cannabis, and any other substances that could have an immediate mind- or mood-altering effect on her. She's found it so helpful and enjoyable that she plans to stay sober for life.
Like Champion, an increasing number of young people are choosing to eliminate alcohol from their lives, BI previously reported. Just 60% of people aged 18 to 34 are drinking alcohol, compared to 70% of people aged 35 to 54, according to a 2021 Gallup survey. Others are taking a sober-curious approach, participating in Dry January or trying a "damp" version of the seasonal trend, BI previously reported.
Champion told BI how she's refined her sober-dating methods over the years, to the point that she no longer feels anxiety before a first date.
The benefits of sober dating
Champion, who got sober after entering a treatment program at 21, said sobriety has benefited her dating life greatly, as it allows her to weed out incompatible matches quickly, while also letting loose and showcasing her exuberant personality.
"Getting sober, I built a better foundation for my understanding of who I am and what I want," Champion told BI.
But reaping those benefits takes dedication and self-reflection. Champion said facing the feelings that drove her to drink in excess — her constant anxiety and fear that deep down, she was boring and uncool — was her first step in feeling comfortable with dating while sober.
"Alcohol was able to take away any insecurities that I was feeling. I could be funny and have a bigger-than-life personality. I would go up to a guy who I thought was cute and not think twice about it. Alcohol gave me an escape but it also made me feel closer to the person that I actually wanted to be," Champion told BI.
She said this process was uncomfortable. But understanding her drinking motives has helped her stay sober while dating, even when fellow singles question her decision or tell her they'll 'get her drinking by the end of the night.'
Therapy, making sober friends, and filling her time with hobbies — like bowling, drawing, tennis, and cooking — helped Champion learn who she really was, in turn boosting her self-confidence, she said.
Choosing dates that focus on mystery and unpredictability — or getting a caffeine fix
For the most part, Champion doesn't miss how she felt when she drank.
But sometimes, she still craves the feeling of unpredictability that can come with a night of bar hopping. Choosing dates that mimic this feeling — like a salsa dancing class, comedy shows, and open mic nights around Philadelphia — allows Champion to experience a bit of welcomed chaos sans alcohol.
"I love to see people bomb, and I love to see people do well. These dates have an environment that feels it's a little risky, or like I can't predict what's next," Champion said.
Her go-to date is morning coffee, and said that she's been on more 9 a.m. café meetups than she can count. Once she and her partner grab lattes, Champion will suggest a walk around the neighborhood, saying it allows her to really get to know her date. For an evening date, she might suggest grabbing a decadent dessert and coffee.
Setting boundaries with dates
Though Champion is full of sober date ideas, she also doesn't mind meeting at bars or restaurants that serve alcohol. These settings can help her gauge her dates' relationships with alcohol, and give her a better idea if they could be a long-term match, she said.
Ultimately, she treats it on a case-by-case basis and said she isn't against dating someone who enjoys alcohol or cannabis from time to time. If she learns that they have a daily habit, or they get sloppy drunk often, Champion ends the connection.
She also omits her sobriety from her dating profiles, and instead uses early conversations, both over text and in person, to gauge if it will work.
"I can tell very quickly if other people's relationships with alcohol will trigger me or not. I have no judgment against that lifestyle, but it's not going to work for me," she told BI.
She said she's asked dates to brush their teeth before kissing if she smells alcohol on their breath, refuses to have sex with dates who are visibly inebriated, and cuts off dates who try to push her to drink.
Champion's boundaries mean letting other people down and running the risk of coming across as rigid or boring. But now that Champion is sober, she clearly sees that she's quite the opposite.
"I want to be the funkiest and most real version of myself because I have people who love me for that. And if I'm drinking and you like me, you're going to like somebody who's not actually me," Champion said.
Read the original article on Business Insider