Traveling for business? Tips on how to stay sober from Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar.
Only a few weeks after I got sober, I had to travel for a work conference. I would be ejected from my newly established recovery cocoon in New York City and parachuted like a first-time skydiver into the great unknown of San Francisco for four days. I was terrified.
Before recovery, I spent business trips in a wash of alcohol.
Until I crashed out from alcohol and cocaine, drinking was, not surprisingly, a big part of my work trips. Drinking commenced at the airport the moment I passed through security. (I had convinced myself I was a “nervous flyer” and needed multiple drinks to relax me.) Drinking continued as soon as possible after I boarded the plane. I always bought two drinks at a time because, really, who knows when row 25 would be served again? As I handed over my credit card, I would give the flight attendant a tight smile. “Nervous flyer,” I would say, lest he think of me as some kind of drunk.
And, of course, once on the ground in another city, all bets were off. Isn’t a work trip a party at heart? It was time to put that work hard/play hard ethic into practice! I would push through my hangovers at the hotel gym in the morning, drink vats of coffee to power through the workday, and count the minutes until the cocktail party or happy hour began. Unfailingly, that set off a long evening of imbibing, which quite possibly included saying regrettable things to colleagues, things that would make me feel sick the next day.
Huh. Now that I put it that way, it doesn’t sound like such a great party. But it was the only way I knew. Was I really supposed to fly across the country without drinking? I had to attend the happy hours and the dinners. Was I really supposed to not drink alcohol at those kinds of events?
I needed advice. So, I asked around and got suggestions. They helped immensely. I won’t pretend the first trip was easy, but it did end up being more manageable than I expected.
Here are a few ideas to help you navigate business trips sober:
1. Plan ahead and bring your tools.
Ask yourself, “What helps me at home that I can recreate on the trip?” One helpful thing is to call the hotel and ask in advance to have all alcohol removed from the room. At home, I don’t sleep two feet away from wine and vodka—why should I do that just because I’m in a hotel? Hotels get this request all the time for any number of reasons. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.
If you belong to 12-step or other support groups, research where nearby meetings are and pack any literature or meditation books you use. Figure out beforehand when you might exercise, where you can get coffee in the morning, or how else to recreate any part of your sober routine that’s important to you.
2. Leave yourself extra time.
Travel is stressful enough without feeling as if you might miss your flight or train. Pre-sobriety, I would leave for the airport early so I could start drinking. In sobriety, I’ve learned to leave for the airport early so there is no need to panic if I hit traffic or a seemingly endless line at security. For me, reducing my stress and anxiety is crucial to having a successful business trip sober.
3. Stay connected.
Your phone is your friend. Before you go, load it up with the numbers of people to whom you can reach out if the going gets tricky. Also load up on apps and online resources. It’s nice to know they’re at your fingertips. If you’re a member of Workit Health, let your coach know about your trip so they can help you prepare.
4. Navigate the social events.
Almost invariably, business trips involve cocktail parties, dinners, or other events that include alcohol. It’s likely you’ll need to attend at least some of them. I have learned never to go to these events hungry, even the dinners, because if I’m hungry, I’m irritable and uncomfortable. I don’t stuff myself in advance, but I do my best to get on solid footing. If possible, I arrive late and leave early, something that would have been unimaginable before I got sober for an event where alcohol was being served.
Also, one of the most surprising things I’ve learned on work trips is that not all of my colleagues drink. And it’s not because they’re all in recovery. Back when I was leading the party charge, I managed not to notice the people who were sipping club soda or skipping after dinner drinks at the bar because they wanted to get up early for the gym, or because alcohol doesn’t agree with them, or because they prefer Diet Coke. Who knew such people existed? Now I take comfort in not being the only person passing on the wine. In fact, I realize that many people who push others to drink are trying to feel better about their own drinking. I’m grateful not to play that role anymore.
Like so many other things in recovery, after your first business trip sober, the next ones aren’t as daunting. You may not look forward to them, but you can come home proud, with no hangovers and no regrets. And that never gets old.