I am blessed (or cursed, depending on the day you ask) with a job that allows me to travel frequently to major cities in the U.S. For most of the day during these trips I’m occupied with job-related tasks, but evenings are usually free, and I often add a day onto the beginning or end of my trip to enjoy whatever city I’m in. I’ve also taken two trips internationally since giving up alcohol – to Portugal and Brazil – and nearly went to Japan a few weeks ago but canceled due to concerns over COVID–19 (coronavirus). Of course, PLEASE play your part in socially distancing to “flatten the curve” for the time being – I only hope to offer an ounce of virtual escape with this post.
I’ve also found myself in some truly challenging scenarios for a non-drinker. In Portugal, I attended a wedding at a winery in the Douro Valley and participated in the harvest, even stomping the grapes. I was in Rio for Carnival, and in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. These were all self-imposed challenges, and in some cases, big ones. I’m not recommending that everyone exploring sobriety should attend rowdy, drink-heavy celebrations when they travel. But being able to avoid alcohol at these events was deeply empowering and eye-opening for me – so I thought I would share what they felt like and how I dealt with emotions as they came up.
In some situations in life, you just have to suck it up and do things that make you a bit uncomfortable, or left out. The wedding in Portugal was only three months into my sobriety, and wine was my thing. Talk about hard – snipping grapes off the vine and macerating their squishy, yummy bodies in a two hundred-year-old stone tub – then not being able to taste it! Yes, I know – first-world problems – and perhaps the most woe-is-me, privileged-sounding sentence I’ve ever written. But obviously, that was hard in the moment.
What’s more, I was not experienced yet in talking about my sobriety. I still sounded uncertain, and the few times it came up, people looked at me oddly for turning down a glass of wine and pouring a soda. We were literally at a winery, at the source, and I was turning down the nectar of the gods. It was probably even a bit rude, as far as modern-day social dynamics go, and in the perspective of those who didn’t know about my past experiences.
But this was a family event, and our trip involved all kinds of sight-seeing up and down the coast of Western Portugal. We visited cathedrals and shorelines galore. It was worth feeling a bit of discomfort over a couple of days in order to celebrate the profound love of some of our closest family friends and experience so many of Portugal’s historical wonders.
When traveling with friends as a sober person, you have to make compromises. The reality of the modern world, at least in cultures like mine, is that most people drink. The non-drinker is the odd one out. When planning our trip to Brazil, I was most excited about going to the Amazon. I grew up on that wondrously addictive video game “The Amazon Trail”. I could probably have spent weeks in the jungle without wanting to come home, but seeing as I didn’t want to travel all by myself, I needed to weigh my own desires with what my travel companions wanted to do and see. So we went to one of the most exciting celebrations of culture and color and excess in the world – Rio’s Carnival.
We had plenty of opportunity in Rio to go sight-seeing and wander the beautiful coastline, but we also went to several wild street parties called “blocos.” I preferred the ones with music, dancers, and other welcome distractions to the fact that I wasn’t drinking, yet was surrounded by people who were – often very young, reminding me of my carefree and careless past. We never spent more than a few hours there at a time because my friends are amazing and supportive (and, thankfully, getting older like me – ready to leave parties at a “reasonable” time). My one friend often says she’ll turn into a pumpkin if she doesn’t leave a party by 10 or 11 p.m. My kind of woman.
Mardi Gras was much different, but only because I went with my mother, who also wasn’t drinking. We spent most of our time strolling up and down Royal Street – one road down from Bourbon, which we only visited once or twice. We were more focused on appreciating the history, the architecture, and the food – and, yes, the people-watching – in the French Quarter. I rarely felt a strong sense of longing to be part of the party, and maybe that’s because I was much further into my sobriety than I was on my other trips. We also did a ton of walking, rather than standing in one place, so I didn’t have a chance to get too “in my head” about what I was missing.
Now, to think a little more deeply about how I’ve felt on these trips. To be honest, in the first year of my sobriety, I had mixed feelings at major drinking celebrations. I’ll start with the negative ones. If I was stuck somewhere for long, I’d feel resentful, thinking about how I could be doing other, better things with my time like writing or reading. That’s still sometimes the case.
The intense stimuli around me can cause another wave of emotion that arrives almost as if carried on the scent of wine. I’ll miss being a “part of the party” and in the same mindset as everyone else, in that truly carefree and euphoric place. I’ll feel stuck with an energy drink or a soda that isn’t doing anything, not really – besides keeping me awake and giving me a little more energy so I can stick it out and socialize.
If I’m standing in one place, especially in a crowd, the smells and sounds of wild bars and parties can conjure vivid memories of very negative things – blacking out, being unsafe, hangovers, injuries, and more. External stimuli can cause a tug-of-war in which I’m both drawn to the things I’ve given up and repulsed by what I know was associated with them. If I’m really feeling stuck somewhere, I’ll try to make space for myself by focusing on something that distracts and interests me (the beautiful colors and costumes of a festival, people-watching, the lovely architecture) and to remind myself that I will be able to return to the safe space of my introverted “me time” soon enough. No craving, no discomfort, is forever.
Once I’m on the other side of those situations, the positive feelings start to emerge. I realize that I made it through one of the craziest parties out there without drinking. I stood there, I talked to a person or two, I often felt really good and happy – and I didn’t need alcohol to get me there. I also don’t have a hangover or any injuries or regrets to speak of (or, more likely, hide and let fester inside me). Getting through these events is a really intense kind of medicine that helps me heal, as I’ve come through the gauntlet and shown that I’m more powerful than the “pull” of alcohol. Something a former version of me couldn’t have imagined. Really, who but a masochist goes to Mardi Gras for anything but to drink?
Traveling to events such as these requires a careful balancing act that might not be wise for everyone early on the path of sobriety. I could have easily caved in Portugal or Brazil. But I know other people who’ve had similar experiences a few months into their sobriety, so it isn’t unheard of. It really depends on whether you have a desire to test your willpower, the nature of your cravings and urges, and the confidence you have in your ability to find determination from within when in uncomfortable environments. For some people, this just isn’t the best way to prove that they’re strong. They have better methods to prove that to themselves, or no interest in putting themselves in uncomfortable scenarios when it isn’t necessary.
I’ve put myself in these situations because of how empowered I feel after overcoming the social expectations and my own urges in high-pressure drinking environments. It makes me feel less like I’m missing out on the world, and that I can overcome anything. It takes a great deal of vulnerability, but that’s a prerequisite for courage and fulfilment, according to Brené Brown. I also get a chance to experience the things outside of alcohol that make these events so culturally important. The music, the community, the food, the tradition. Alcohol just happens to be one factor mixed into many cultural traditions. It’s probably there to stay, but if I can ignore it, I can appreciate the other parts of the recipe.
It’s like a vegetarian at a dinner party where chicken pot pie is the only thing being served. They can choose to eat it and pick out the chicken, but they are still going to get some chicken bits (at a drinking party, that might come in the form of wine splashed across their shirt). Still, they get some tasty carrots and potatoes. Sometimes I choose to avoid the pot pie entirely, and there are many perfectly good reasons for doing so. At other times, I don’t feel like eating alone.
If you are inclined to challenging yourself like I was or know that you might end up in drinking environments despite not planning or wanting to, here are a few pointers. You’ll probably have times where you recall fondly what you’re missing. Focus on the negative consequences you’re also missing out on. Don’t forget that you can usually opt out of attending an event if you aren’t up for it. Before you arrive, determine your travel and sightseeing priorities and make them known. There may be situations where you want to ensure you have an “out” or an opportunity for down time – or can at least balance experiences in less comfortable environments with site-seeing and non-drinking activities.
Figure out what you’ll say if others ask why you aren’t drinking. You can have more than one response ready for people who ask you in different ways. Some people may make you feel more comfortable and willing to open up than others. Having travel companions who respect your needs and who drink responsibly – or, at least, fairly responsibly – makes a big difference. Finally, determine your go-to beverages in restaurants, on airplanes, and in other environments, and get excited about them.
And don’t forget that in the end, you might save a lot of money – and feel refreshed and empowered when you return home!