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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Trials and Tribulations of Traveling Sober

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Traveling in recovery can be a whole new experience! Here’s what Max learned on a recent trip.

I had the privilege to travel recently—my first trip since the pandemic began. At five years sober, you’d think this would be smooth sailing for me (forgive the travel pun). However, travel is a mixed bag for me, as I contain two extreme beliefs: One, that I am adventurous and curious about the world. And two, that I am overflowing with anxiety around travel, specifically around mass transportation. Throw in a couple of antisocial years from the pandemic? You’ve got yourself a story. And I’m happy to share it with you all.

I did a lot of things right, but I also wish I had done a few things differently. For me, it is part of the gift of sobriety that I can reflect on my wins with pride and also go into the future with new learnings. As it turned out, my travels included planes, trains, and automobiles. And much like the film by the same name, it was filled with hijinx!

Planes

Let’s start with airplane travel. This is the mode of transportation I find most uncomfortable despite the fact that it is reportedly the safest. Forget statistics; planes can be scary! There’s an understandable reason why even people without alcohol use disorder drink at airports before they get on a flight. Anxiety and outright fear around flying are very common. In fact, it’s also common for doctors to prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax for this reason. But what if “have a drink” or “take a pill” are off-limits (or just a bad idea) for you?

For my flight, I was prepared to dodge both inclinations—I am at the point in my sober life where I don’t mind telling people, “No thanks, I’m sober.” I even enjoy saying it sometimes! And when the drink cart rolled by, I easily requested a soda. But as the turbulence and the claustrophobia grew, did I wish I could “just have a drink” like the old days? I sure did. These thoughts and cravings can be disappointing, even though they are perfectly normal. But because I was prepared and had tools to help me, I didn’t give in to those thoughts.

Lesson for my next trip: I’ll stick to shorter flights and equip myself with more breathing techniques.

Trains

I have loved train travel since I was a small child. There is something romantic, nostalgic, and old-timey about the railroad. So when there was an opportunity to take a train vs. a plane? I was … shall I say … on board? My anxiety was mediated by the knowledge that the train’s wheels would be on the ground, but I was introduced to a new traveling-while-sober situation. There’s a “perk” about train travel that I hadn’t been aware of and it’s called “a free alcoholic drink with every meal.” So the lovely train attendants pushed this feature on me nearly three times a day!

Luckily, I was traveling with my sober partner and we were able to make light of it. We had fun coming up with new ways to say no to the multiple attendants. “But it’s free!” they would plead. I ended up suggesting they include an NA option among their beer list—let’s hope my suggestion reaches the corporate offices, heh! Until then, we kept the free soda comin’.

Lesson for my next trip: Though the trains may not get my favorite NA beer on tap by the next travel date, the cool thing about trains is that you can bring your own beverages! Next time I will bring a small cooler of favorites.

Automobiles

And finally, automobiles. Because I wasn’t driving, my automotive experience on this trip was limited to various rideshares. I’ve come to believe that we sober people are Uber and Lyft’s best friends. Why you ask? Because we are coherent enough to find the correct location AND the correct rideshare driver! And depending on our chattiness, we can engage in a fine conversation with our drivers without slurring our words or starting illogical arguments. I’ve gotta think we are superior clients because we can guarantee no drunken tomfoolery. At least … not anymore! I did tell one Uber driver to slow down—politely, of course. Sober Elder status acquired?

Once I was reunited with my own car and driving home, I reveled in the fact that I was not even a little hungover. A bit travel-weary, yes, but rested enough to get my family home safely.

Lesson for my next trip: I’ve got this!

This recent trip, much like sobriety, was an absolute journey, an epic adventure. And I learned so much about my boundaries, my sober superpowers, and even a few new tricks. If you’ve got upcoming travel plans, as a human in recovery, give yourself the best shot by considering your own triggers and thresholds for discomfort. Talk to your counselor, therapist, sponsor, or recovery group about traveling while sober. There are so many tools you can use—even apps—to help you navigate the stress that sometimes comes along with travel. We are a courageous bunch, we sober travelers, and we get to remember everything we saw, everything we ate, and all the stories in between! Happy journeys, y’all!

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Max is the Community Manager at Workit Health. They believe connection, kinship—and even having fun—are the key ingredients to long-term recovery. Max has a background in human-based design, teaching, and research.

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