Sober Vacation


The first time I tried to get sober, I white-knuckled a trip to New Orleans. I compensated by eating everything in sight. I actually proposed a “weight-gain challenge” to my boyfriend, and although we never confirmed our progress on a scale, I was clearly the winner. I ate po’boys and alligator sausage and fried oysters and turtle soup and beignets until I thought I would burst. You can’t go to New Orleans without eating, but the fact that I had to make such a big thing of it, to actually propose “a challenge,” reveals how much sobriety scared me. I didn’t know how to be on vacation without overindulging in some way.

Smothering booze cravings with food didn’t really work. I didn’t have the accountability or support of AA at the time, and on our last night in New Orleans, I let myself order a glass of red wine and have a modest sip of my boyfriend’s Sazerac. I was extremely proud of myself because I left the last sip of my wine untouched when we left the restaurant, which was probably the first and last time I ever did that. But doing so helped me re-convince myself that I could be a normal drinker. And so it began again.

Someone in AA recently asked: “What would happen if you drank tomorrow?” The truth for me, because I’m so excellent at denial, would probably be nothing. If I drank tomorrow, I might very well have one beer and then make such a big deal about it in my head that I’d soon be allowing myself to drink on more and more occasions. Before long, I’d be blacking out again. I’ve done this enough times to know how it goes, but still, my brain can’t quite accept that it can’t have just one because there were those rare times in the past where I did have just one, usually to convince myself I wasn’t an alcoholic. But in the long run, moderate drinking was never enough for me. I’d always fuck it up eventually.

This past week, my boyfriend and I went to Baja. It wasn’t my first vacation since getting sober exactly 11 months ago (!!!), but it was out first one alone together outside the country. I wish I could say I never wanted a drink throughout the trip, but that wasn’t entirely the case. Vacation is definitely a trigger for me. I associate it with letting loose, and letting loose, for 15 years, meant drinking. Another trigger for me is eating out, which we did every night. I did feel a sense of deprivation the first few nights when we were offered margaritas and mojitos and cervezas (all some of my favorite drinks). I felt like I was somehow disappointing the waitstaff every time I ordered a Coca or agua, which goes to show how people-pleasing and drinking go hand-in-hand for me.

Most of the time these days, I don’t feel deprived not drinking. My life and relationships have expanded so considerably that I often find myself thinking: “All I had to do to make this happen was not drink? Why did I never stick with this before?” (Not drinking is not actually the only thing I have to do, but it’s definitely the key to all the other things.) But in an unfamiliar environment infused with bars and restaurants, my cravings began to kick in. The toughest time for me is always that wait at dinner before you get your food. I used to LOVE this time when I was drinking, since I could drink on an empty stomach in a socially acceptable way. I often found myself wishing our food would be delayed so I could order more drinks, and when the food showed up, I had often lost my appetite and just wanted to drink more. But now, that little wait seems long and empty. I’m sure part of the reason is because I’m hungry, and getting an appetizer helps alleviate the drinking urge. But even after the food arrives, I’m much more business-like about going out to eat these days. Once dinner is finished, I want the check, which is not the way things are done in Mexico with its culture of sobremesa, long after-dinner conversations.

But things got better. Both in the short- and long-term. In the short-term, I reminded myself that the natural span of a craving is no longer than 90-seconds, and if I could just wait it out, it would get better. This was true, although for the first few nights, the cravings sometimes returned. But after a few nights, I grew accustomed to asking for non-alcoholic drinks, and it suddenly became less of an issue. After a while, I didn’t even want a drink at the start of dinner at all. I have to remember that, although I haven’t had a drink for 11 months, I’m still learning how to navigate life sober. I need to be patient with myself if things don’t seem natural right away. This week away proved to me that cravings do get better, if I give them a chance.

I also fulfilled a longtime dream of mine by snorkeling with a whale shark. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a spiritual pull to underwater creatures. When I was a child, I pictured God resembling something like a giant manta ray. I have no idea where this came from; it was just what came to mind when people talked about God. I love snorkeling, whale watching and aquariums, and never feel so mindful, focused on the world outside myself, as I do when I’m underwater.

We took a boat out no more than a couple kilometers into the Sea of Cortez off La Paz, where the juvenile whale sharks come to feed. Adults grow up to more than 40-feet, so the juveniles are still enormous. They’re also shy, and the first one we found dove out of sight below me shortly after I entered the water. Still, that glimpse was enough to take my breath away. Shortly after, we found another shark (you spot them by looking for their giant shadows), much larger this time, at least twenty-feet. My guy and I jumped in and ended up swimming face-to-face with this massive, gentle creature for nearly a half hour. It almost felt like we’d made a new friend as each part of the shark became more familiar: the pale spots on her back intermingled with sunlight, her massive gills and tiny eye, the faint scratches on her long, curved dorsal fin. You weren’t supposed to touch, but at one point, I couldn’t help reaching out a hand. She felt it, flaring her gills and thrashing her tail to descend a little, but she soon returned to swimming beside us. Her back was surprising hard and rough. I knew if I ever needed a place to be safe, I could mentally return to her, drifting peacefully through the Sea of Cortez, filtering tons of plankton. I just kept breathing through my snorkel: “Thank you thank you thank you.”

(Whale shark photo credit goes to this page. We did take photos of our shark, but they haven’t been developed, and I have a feeling they won’t be as majestic… But it looked a lot like that!)


4 thoughts on “Sober Vacation

  1. I love your beautiful description of swimming with the whale shark. What an incredible experience. I’m a tiny bit (a lot) jealous! I also love swimming, snorkelling and diving but live too far inland to do it very often.

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