9 Tips for Staying Sober While Traveling
By Rebecca Rush
For years I thought I loved the road more than anything. Then one day in Chicago it hit me that I didn’t love the road, I loved getting wasted with other comedians who didn’t know I had a problem.
Back shot of a woman walking down a busy street in Japan.
If I can stay sober while traveling, I am sure that you can too. This is how I do it. Image by Oskar on Unsplash.
As a stand up comic who works the road, and a woman with a strong sense of Wanderlust, travel is a big part of my life. For years I thought I loved the road more than anything. Then one day in Chicago it hit me that I didn’t love the road, I loved getting wasted with other comedians who didn’t know I had a problem. I had no defenses against drinking on the road, I accepted victimhood to my alcoholism. I relapsed on that trip as if it was something that happened to me—I started drinking after a show and when a man on the street pulled a large bag of cocaine out of his pocket and winked, I wordlessly ditched the group and followed him, half a day later stepping out into the cold light of morning with no idea where I was. Or who.
In Thailand a few months later it happened to me again. Dehydrated and exhausted from travel, I rented a motorbike—I can’t even ride a bicycle—and drove it directly into a copper wall. Limping down the street, I was sure I had earned a relapse. I bummed a smoke from an American retiree I had seen earlier that morning, and when I stood up, saying, “Well, I guess I better get good and drunk,” I looked up at the wall. I was standing in front of the English speaking AA clubhouse for the city of Chiang Mai. The man was a member of the group. We went to the meeting instead. I stayed sober a few days thanks to that, but, later, bored, not seeing the divine intervention for what it was, I started swiping on Tinder. Within hours, I was drinking beer with an Expat from New Zealand. That was the last trip I relapsed on.
If I can stay sober while traveling, I am sure that you can too. This is how I do it.
Empty the Minibar
No, not that way. Willpower is finite, and getting all the booze out of your room immediately ensures you won’t get caught off guard with a negative emotion you can’t handle—and a fridge full of booze you really can’t. It is incredibly empowering: you arrive in your room, call down (because you called in advance and asked and they didn’t do it and that’s okay because you meditate now) and have them send someone up with a basket to clear your room of all that poison. To me, it feels like sage-ing the air upon arrival.
Settle in, Get Comfy
Unpack, light a travel candle. Your hotel may not allow candles, but that’s okay. You’re no stranger to breaking rules in hotel rooms. Bring a small pillow to put on top of the hotel pillow that feels like home. Recreate your comfort zone, as much as you can. If you have a little dog that likes to travel, get a letter from a therapist so he can join you for free. I have never relapsed when I had my dog along with me. I have also taken along a human as a sober support and the dog was a way better idea.
Stay in Touch
A big part of recovery is fellowship, community, and accountability. When normal people travel, you don’t expect to hear from them all the time. But for us, it’s paramount that we stay connected to our support network. Call your sponsor and your network and your sober support – I know, I know, there’s so much to see and do and the time to make calls seems like it is taking you away from that. But if you relapse, you’re lucky if you only see the inside of your hotel room. Or leave without getting arrested.
If you are a person who goes to some sort of recovery meetings, get to those. And get to them within 24 hours of arrival. There’s something magic in that first 24 of a trip that sets the tone. Set your compass away from a drink or drug by connecting to the sangha that keeps you sober, whatever it may be. If you’re going to be away for longer than a week, think about checking in regularly with someone local who can be a safe support for you. Fellowshipping will give you the safest way to explore the area.
Before I found disordered eating, drugs, or alcohol, books were my primary escape from the chaos that surrounded me. They were the only things that made sense. After I put down the three horseman of death, books have reclaimed their rightful place in my life. When I went on a She Recovers retreat last fall, I saw the same books I was currently reading spread out on various lounge chairs by the pool. I instantly made a note to include them should I ever write an article on this subject. They are: Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. And then the books I devoured immediately after — My Fair Junkie by the Fix’s own Amy Dresner and I Swear I’ll Make It Up To You by the Fix’s own Mishka Shubaly. A good book is a constant companion, an immediate escape into another world, a barrier to insecurity and self consciousness, a nice place to cuddle into at night. Books. They’re like friends whose problems you never have to solve.
Listen to your bod (when it’s calling for you)
It’s so easy to get lost in our heads and lose the connection to our body. It’s even easier when facing the sensory overload of new places, new faces, and travel time. It’s so easy to think of drink when we are simply HALT-ing. Air travel is dehydrating and exhausting. Drink more water than you want to. It’s okay if you get up to pee every 20 minutes. I always get an aisle seat for that reason. Also aisle yoga. It looks ridiculous but completely changes how you feel upon arrival. Check in with yourself over and over throughout the day in quiet. Ask your body questions. Am I tired? Am I thirsty? Do I need a massage? Then listen.
Boundaries – it is cheating in a different zip code
If you wouldn’t do it at home, don’t do it on the road. Say you skip out on optional boozy networking events at home. Skip them on the road as well. You aren’t missing anything, and deep down you know this. If, when you’re home you leave a place where drinking is an option the second you feel anxious, then do that on the road too. You owe no explanations. They wouldn’t understand anyway. Plus, there are few less uplifting statements than “Your good time? My death knell.”
The Power of NO
Travel is great and fun and for some of us, unavoidable. That doesn’t mean that you have to say yes when you feel no. Bachelorette parties, sorority sister meet ups, boozy (and you) girls weekend with your old drinking buddies, weddings. Send a gift if appropriate and stay home. Nobody really wants a sober person at these events anyway, don’t kid yourself. I don’t care if it’s your stepsister’s bachelorette, you do not have to go. Sorry, that last line was just for me.
Treat Yo Self
Take a moment and come up with an estimate of how much money you would have spent on the trip if you were drinking and drugging. Let’s forget about the fact that if you were drinking and drugging the most likely trips you would be taking would be to rehab, the psych ward, and jail. Take that amount of money, half it, and treat yo self with the rest. That’s what we were attempting to do with our chemicals anyway, it was all misguided self care. Fly home first class. Stay at a nicer hotel. Get a massage. Hell, get two.
You’ve earned it. I promise you, it feels so good. Plus you are still saving.
In conclusion, be you, and be on guard. Paradoxically, the more I accept the power of my addiction and stay on guard to prevent it winning over me, the more freedom I feel. I have only relapsed on the road by letting my guard down, by thinking the same rules that applied at home in NYC didn’t apply a one hour flight away in Chicago. Yes, we travel for work and we travel to relax, and making time for all of this seems like more work and not relaxing – yet, there is nothing less relaxing, there is no more work than recovering from a slip. That is, if you’re lucky enough to come right back. Relapsing in a strange place can be catastrophic in more ways than relapsing at home. Staying sober on the road is magical. To walk into a meeting on the other side of the country or world and be instantly accepted, to feel safe enough to open your heart, to put it all down, and just love and be loved.
See you on the highway of happy destiny.