This post was originally published on March 26, 2015.
The trip was exactly how what I anticipated. It wasn’t bad by any means, but it wasn’t a vacation. I went with my boyfriend to the UK to meet his parents and visit his extended family. There was a lot of travel involved. Besides crossing the Atlantic, we took a plane from London to Inverness, Scotland, and then a train down to Edinburgh, and then another plane back to London, to stay with his parents in New Barnet, a suburb about an hour’s drive from Heathrow Airport. Feeling jet lagged and motion sick? Yeah, me too—practically the whole visit.
On top of everything else, Arran, my boyfriend, was somewhat moody and troubled for much of the time we were away, probably because he was also jet lagged and it just feels weird to go home. I was glad to be there, glad to support him. I was also glad to see that I have enough recovery to be generous, and that I’m learning how to take care of others and be flexible and considerate of others.
It’s difficult to be out of one’s routine—especially, I think, for those of us in recovery. It’s hard, as an alcoholic, to tolerate physical discomfort, to be around new people—especially people you’re trying to impress. All of these things can make a person feel unsafe and in need of relief. All of these things are reasons why we relapse when we travel.
Though I’ve never relapsed, I know people who have—some of them while away on a trip or vacation. According to one source, 90 percent of alcoholics relapse at some point in the first four years of recovery, a figure that just astounds me and makes me feel very lucky to be in that blessed 10 percent. Most relapses, experts say, are triggered by some combination of three high-risk situations: anger/frustration, temptation and social pressure. According to these experts, one of the best ways to prevent relapse is by maintaining stability. “No big changes” is one of the top suggestions you’ll hear at meetings. We’re encouraged to resist the urge to move or change jobs, to not get into or out of romantic relationships—and, yes, to avoid travel.
It may seem funny and simple but I’ve written before about sleep— how sobriety gave me back the gift of a good night’s rest—and so it doesn’t surprise me that exhaustion is considered a common cause of relapse. Just a few months before I got sober, I went to Mexico to do research for a book but those good intentions quickly unraveled. By my second day there, I was drunk and shacked up with an Australian backpacker, a complete stranger who I invited to move into my hotel room within hours of our meeting. Together, we spent inordinate amounts of my money on booze. The fourth day of my trip, I got very sick. Even then, I couldn’t stop. It all started with an exhausting flight, followed by the stress of the project I was working on, amplified by the pressure to relax—I was in a beautiful setting, after all! All that pressure and stress. As an alcoholic and a sex addict, I didn’t know how to relax—I only knew the relief in indulging my addictions.
Sometimes travel means rest and relaxation, but other times—especially for an addict or alcoholic—it most certainly does not. Luggage gets lost. Flights are delayed. The hotel’s not what you expected. A taxi driver rips you off. When things don’t go as planned—or worse, bad things happen—it can be seriously taxing. It’s common sense that preventing relapse means taking care of one’s self, both physically and emotionally. When I’m traveling, like most people perhaps, I find this harder to do.
On this latest trip to the UK, I was so focused on my partner’s needs that I did find myself at one point stretched to the limit. Arran and I had been fighting that morning and so he’d gone off on his own. The “old” me might have used that time to work myself into a further frenzy, obsessing about our earlier disagreement, cataloging all the ways I was right and he was wrong. Certainly, before I got sober, I would have gotten drunk or at least had a glass of wine (or three) to relax. The “new” me went to a grocery store and bought myself the ingredients to make a healthy salad, something I had been craving since I’d left the states. I went for a run, enjoying the scenery while reconnecting to my breath. In other words, I went back to the basics, as it’s recommended we do.
In my daily life, self-care means eating well and getting exercise and adequate rest. It means participating in support groups and making time for reflection. Away from home, it’s not always as easy to do. Although I always bring a journal when I travel, I rarely if ever make time to write. There just doesn’t seem to be the time—because there isn’t, unless I make it. Back when I went to meetings, I wasn’t the kind of person that would do so when I traveled. It always felt like it was more effort than it was worth. There was one time, however, when I traveled for work to Ann Arbor, Michigan, and I did go to a local meeting. That experience was great. I felt more connected to the place I was visiting while reconnecting to myself.
Checking in—whether it’s with oneself in a journal, going to a meeting, or calling a sponsor or good friend back home—keeps an alcoholic honest. The opposite of this, which is another symptom of relapse, is dishonesty. Most obviously, dishonesty means out-and-out lying to or otherwise deceiving family and friends. When I travel, however, I sometimes feel the temptation to enact another, subtler kind of dishonesty. Though it’s not exactly lying, I find that when I’m away from home and everything familiar, and I am forced out of my routine, it can feel as if my very sense of self is destabilized. I am no longer me. Everything from eating and sleeping patterns to ways of speaking or being is suddenly novel. I’d venture to guess that even non-alcoholics are tempted to act like they might not otherwise act, and do things they wouldn’t normally do, when away from home. For me, this “stranger in a strange land” quality is one of the most interesting aspects of traveling—but as an alcoholic, it’s tricky. I’ve done a lot of things abroad that I wouldn’t have done at home, and that I’ve ultimately come to regret (that Australian backpacker being one of them).
They say relapse is a risk that never really goes away. Though I’m relatively far from my last drink, I still have a healthy respect for the truth of that statement. I did okay this last trip, but I see upon reflection how I could have done better. There was a moment in Scotland when Arran and I ducked into a pub to kill time and to escape the rain. It was my idea and, to be honest, I can’t say why I suggested it. Arran ordered a beer and I might have had a water. I didn’t crave alcohol in the least but in this moment I did think, hypothetically, about having a drink. I think I said something to Arran along the lines of “What if I ordered a drink? Would that concern you?” I forget exactly how he replied, but at the time he seemed nonplussed.
I started dating Arran about a year ago, well into my sobriety. Things are going pretty great—he did, after all, take me halfway across the world to meet his parents. I attribute a huge amount of our success to the fact that I’m sober. Arran’s never seen me drunk. He has no idea what I’m like under the influence, except for what he’s read about in things I’ve written.
After the pub visit, Arran and I had a conversation where he made very clear how much he respects and values the fact that I’m sober. In that moment, if he felt any fear at the thought of my throwing away nearly eight years of sobriety for a sip of his beer, he didn’t show it. He trusts me. He also knows that it’s my job to protect my sobriety, not his, which is just fine—I don’t need him or anyone to tell me that drinking would be a bad idea. Thanks to recovery, I know myself well enough to abstain—even when I’m in a Scottish pub.