Your first sober business trip: How not to f*ck it up

Your first sober business trip: How not to f*ck it up

First, a story from the vault

Years ago, I traveled to San Antonio to speak at a conference attended by thousands of children. I wasn’t even trying to quit drinking at the time; this was not a sober business trip. In fact, it was more like Game On.  Unencumbered by family responsibilities or routine, after checking into my hotel, I headed out to explore the city.  I ended up at a laid-back bar near the river, but off the tourist crawl, where a handsome bartender mixed me a Manhattan.  While watching the television behind the bar, I sipped my cocktail and learned the 49ers were in the Superbowl later that week.  I mused that despite hailing from San Francisco, I hadn’t been aware of the game. I chatted with some random people at the bar. And I drank a few more Manhattans.

At some point, I went to the bathroom. While navigating the unfamiliar, dark hallway, it occurred to me, “Hm, I very drunk.” Too drunk. I had crossed that invisible line that we enthusiastic drinkers relentlessly strive for, yet are inevitably surprised when we tumble over.

I left, probably giving my new bar friends the old Irish goodbye, and weaved my way back to the hotel where I unceremoniously passed out. Probably in my clothes. I woke up with enough time to pull myself together for my presentations, although my eyes were puffy and my head throbbed. I couldn’t remember if I disappeared before paying my bar tab for all those Manhattans, and to this day that fact makes me cringe.

This isn’t a story of disastrous consequences.  But it could have been.  No one knew where I was, and I was irresponsible and careless with my safety.  My employer paid for my time and expertise to attend this conference, and the young attendees deserved better.  I knew all this, which is why underneath my functional facade, I deeply loathed myself.  Why else would I be poisoning myself on a semi-nightly basis?

The three-headed hydra: Lack of support, absent routine, and total anonymity

If you recently quit drinking, a business trip can be a tricky thing to navigate. On vacation, you’re probably traveling with someone who’ll witness and take issue with your ugly behavior. But on a business trip, loved ones are at home. You’re free to reinvent yourself among the strangers in airport and hotel bars. This lack of routine and total anonymity can be exhilarating! And very precarious… 😧

So, let’s figure out how to slay this hydra!

Bring your support with you.

Friends, we live in a digital world, and every kind of support can be found in that glowing rectangle glued to your hand. Listen to recovery podcasts. Text your friends from AA. Email your therapist. Call your husband or wife. I’m not a meeting person, but they exist on all corners of the planet. No excuses! Hell, you can ping me if you want, I’m almost ALWAYS online.  And I’ll remind you of the LAST business trip you went on.remember? Oh, you don’t? I’m pretty sure there are pictures though…Yikes.   (Anyways, my contact button is in the sidebar. It goes straight to my phone, cuz we’re living in the future 🛸. You can also find me on IG @virgincoladatravel.)

Recreate your routine.

I’ve mentioned before that I pack bottles of diet tonic when I travel. It’s hugely inconvenient, yes.  But I do it because that is my routine. At the end of the day, I have a diet tonic and either read or play on my phone.  (Riveting, I know.) So that’s what I do when I travel.  What’s your routine? Then, plan ahead so you can replicate it in Houston, Helsinki, or Honolulu.

Burn the ships.

Burning the ships refers to the legend of Cortes. Upon arriving on Mexican shores, Cortes told his crew to burn their ships, so they had no choice but to press on. (It’s also an episode of a favorite Recovery Elevator podcast of mine, check it out!)

When you share your recovery, you burn the opportunity to sneak back to your old ways without anyone noticing. For me, this blog is a way of burning the ships. Telling people I work with that I don’t drink is another.  When I was worried about my drinking, the idea of workmates thinking I drank too much was unbearable. Now that I’ve been sober for years, my anxiety about my secret drinking has mostly gone. Now I’m just incredulous I was ever willing to live that way. I knew I had turned a major corner recently, when applying for a corporate writing position, I included this blog as an example of my writing portfolio. 😲 I know. And they still called me for an interview! (I think it was my judicious use of four-letter words, but I can’t know for sure.)

Want to read more about handling stressful travel without drinking? Right this way.


Sober travel with your in-laws

Sober travel with your in-laws

A few of my most awkward travel memories involved extended family. Because,well…in-laws! When I drank, the weird dynamic became even more difficult to navigate. How do you remain hospitable while wanting to hide with a bottle of wine? How many drinks is too many before someone raises an eyebrow? Even worse, what if they’re heavy drinkers as well, and then the evening devolves into a messy scene from COPS? It’s a lot to handle.

I recently returned from a in-law visit which I wasn’t particularly looking forward to.  (That’s something about sobriety no one tells you about–you aren’t magically turned into a saint. 😧)  It had all the makings of being super annoying: two flights in two days, small house with lots of people, forced dinner conversation, and in a destination even the most charitable travel guides skip over.

But, if you want to continue to trick your significant other into thinking you’re a generous, loving person, you have to suck it up and occasionally be a team player.  So that’s what I did.

Fake Stress

And in doing so, I discovered another example of what I refer to as “Fake Stress.”  “Fake Stress” is a situation I once thought I needed alcohol to cope with  but turns out–surprise!–it’s actually a more pleasant experience without it. (“Dinner” or “horror of facing the evening once you get home from work” are a few other examples of “Fake Stress.”)

If you’ve been sober for awhile, say longer than six months, you’ll have noticed you’re much more patient with life, in general. This means that you’ll be able to smile serenely when you’re defecting questions about your weight and Uncle Larry’s jokes. You might not even be faking!  You might not laugh at the fifth knock-knock joke of the evening, but I bet you’ll at least enjoy the hamburger casserole.

Nothin’ to Hide

The luxury of having absolutely nothing to hide is a favorite part of sobriety.  It’s a relief after several decades cagily trying to get away with bad behavior.   Forget awkwardly counting how many bottles of wine are left for all these people. No giving Aunt Glenda the side-eye when she fills her wine glass up to the brim and then barely touches it. No tiptoeing into the kitchen for a topup. And no more empties to get rid of the next morning. It’s positively luxurious to have so few secrets. And makes you a much lesser maintenance house guest.

Though, because we like to plan for happy sober travel, here are a few tips to ensure success the next time you must visit your beloved’s family:

1) Pack your favorite non-alcoholic drinks.

I strolled into my in-laws’ home with two litres of diet tonic water. Sure, they had iced tea and water.  But diet tonic makes me happy, so where I go, it goes.

2) Go to bed as early as you need to.

Blame your exhaustion on the travel. Or say you need to catch up on some work reading before bed, and then retire to your room at 7:30 if you have to.

3) Insist on a hotel, if you need it.

Having your own space to return to at the end of the day can be a game changer.  Need an excuse? Use one of these:

  • I’m taking an online class and I have a paper due on Monday, so I need a place to work.
  • I need to use the gym and pool to get in my triathlon workout–it’s coming up soon!
  • The kids are really excited about the hotel pool.  (This only works if you have kids.)
  • I have a voucher for a night at XYZ hotel, and I want to use it before it expires.

You’re welcome.

Want to read more sober travel advice? Check out this article on how to keep cool despite the stressiest of travel stress.