I’m here, it’s happening. A recovery conference in New York City for 500 women. Before things begin this afternoon, I’m headed out for a walk in the rain to stand next to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Trade Centre Memorial and feel my size next to theirs. It’s one thing to see pictures, but to experience the human scale of me:thing is another entirely.
I remember being scared that travelling would be boring sober. Hah! Last night 7 women – new friends – piled into a cab and made our way through the Trump-protecting barricades to an iconic ice cream shop where we sat over tea and sweets laughing until midnight. Fabulous.
Here is the view of the river from my hotel room. I slept with the window open and woke to horns and hustle. Little kids walking to school by themselves. Runners. Delivery trucks. Business people strutting past.
Time to grab an umbrella and go join them.
In 10 hours, I’ll be listening to Glennon Doyle Melton speak. I hope I can keep my composure and avoid acting like a fan girl at a Beatles concert.
Life give us so many opportunities. Thank God I removed my wine-blinders!
You’re on a plane and you start to notice that the fellow in front of you looks very familiar. Well, at least from behind. You didn’t see him sit down so you’re not sure what he actually looks like but each time he turns his head the glimpse of his profile reminds you of someone. And his mannerisms…He touches his ear again, just like that guy in your math class back in university. Wasn’t that guy a farm kid? You remember him telling some story about a tractor. This guy could be a farmer – he looks very healthy and tan from back here.
By the end of the flight you know him better than he probably knows himself: should you tell him his barber missed a hair on the back of his neck? Maybe his farm-wife clips his hair for him on their front porch (you’ve noticed the sensible gold band). And that mole looks worrisome – his wife would surely have noticed it when she cut his hair. She likely booked him a doctor’s appointment. Country doctors are so kindly. You are so happy that your former classmate has a nice life.
The the plane lands and you wonder briefly what he’ll say, what you’ll say, if (when) he recognizes you as he turns to wait hunched under the overhead bins while the other passengers lumber into motion. You prepare to act a little surprised at that moment of hello, since you suddenly feel weirdly ashamed of watching him so intensely. You are also busily gathering your belongings and these thoughts are so fleeting you barely notice them.
You watch. He turns. And…looks completely different than you imagined. There is nothing familiar – or farmer-ish for that matter – about this man. He is a a complete stranger, and now he is looking at you because you are looking at him. You look away, suddenly feigning disinterest.
This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Or am I the only one who composes stories for the partly-seen strangers before me on planes and in theatres or restaurants?
It occurred to me last evening (as the lady in front of me at The Lion King in Vancouver whose elegance I’d been admiring turned to reveal an unexpected visage) that this experience is not unlike the way we view our own lives at times.
Sometimes we get stuck looking at ourselves, our lives, our relationships from a limited perspective – like considering our parents from only the child’s point of view, or ourselves from the inner critic position. Maybe we are inclined to only see things as the victim or the hero (have you read my post on The Drama Triangle yet?). Our experience can be painful, which is why we then seek relief by drinking (or a myriad of other coping behaviours like shopping, eating, working, escaping by any means) and that process keeps us stuck. It becomes a vicious cycle.
Recovery is all about stepping back, sideways, forwards and seeing things differently. It is about looking at the whole picture and changing the perspective. Sometimes it is a huge AHA! moment just to become aware that what we thought was real was really a skewed version of the truth.
There’s nothing wrong with inventing a story for the back of a stranger’s head – it’s one of my favourite pastimes. However, when the moment of truth comes around may it serve as a gentle reminder for all the ways we fool ourselves with limited thinking and perspectives.
- No Wasted Moments…or Money
Let’s face it: travel is expensive so it is important to make the most of every second. As I sipped cappuccino and welcomed each morning, I felt rested and refreshed. When our afternoon adventures ran long or we found one more sight to visit before returning for dinner, I had no feelings of rising anxiety or obsessive thoughts about when and how I could start drinking. I was fully present for every wonderful moment.
- Mmmmm….That Food!
When we were finally showered and sitting to dinner, I could focus and appreciate the subtleties of handmade pasta, fresh ingredients, and regional specialties. (Pictured above: a 12-course seafood appetizer and yes, we followed it with entrees!) I happily drank water with dinner to rehydrate after hours of endless walking Venice Streets and hiking the mountains of Cinque Terre. Afterwards, I regularly indulged in desert knowing I saved all those alcohol calories for something better.
- No Pressure
I had built up the idea that I would offend restaurant staff by declining wine, as though I was turning up my nose at the pride of Italy. In fact, I was never pressured anywhere and my requests for “Tonica, per favore” – dramatic slashing hand gestures – “NO GIN! NO ALCOHOL PER FAVORE!” were consistently granted without incident.
- More Energy for *Other* Things
Italy is very romantic…wink wink …say no more…
- Early Morning Church Bells
In my little corner of Canadian suburbia, churches are generally modern buildings without bell towers. What a treat to wake up at 7 a.m. by the ringing of authentic church bells from multiple nearby locations! The ringing continued several times a day – for morning prayers, at noon, evening prayers, and mass times. Joyous, old-timey, community-calling ringing of the bells. Gorgeous! The morning clangs were doubly lovely knowing that I would not have appreciated them nearly so much in my wine days.
- A Lighter Load
I am wildly proud of having managed a 70L/55lb backpack throughout this trip, partly because of the physical effort required and mostly because of the necessary packing restraints I had to embrace. I wore the same leggings and sweater for most of the trip and washed socks and undies in the sink at night. Where the hell could I have tucked in the necessary 6 boxes of wine that 16 days abroad would require?! Thank God I am sober! My back couldn’t take another ounce!
- Long Walking Days
The best way to see a new place is on foot at a leisurely pace. Stroll, feel the breeze in your hair, smell the sea and the bakeries. Hear the languages being spoken around you. Stand at the foot of a historic building and experience its scale against your size. Reach out your hand and touch the ancient stones. Climb the steep terraces that locals have travelled for centuries. (Step aside as a 90-year-old local rushes past with impressive agility.) Spot something in the distance and say, “Let’s go see what that is!” I promise, you’ll be blissfully asleep by 9:30 pm – no emotional numbing agent required.
- My Sweetheart
My husband and I had spoken about our expectations for each other ahead of time. We had a plan to ensure we both experienced the vacation we wanted. It is important to travel with someone you trust, who values and respects your sobriety, and is willing to look out for you.
- A Flexible Mindset
I have developed a lot of routines and habits that support my sobriety. Morning coffee, evening tea, time alone, and self-care are vital parts of my day, and missing out on these things can spike my anxiety. I realized that I would have to be flexible and sacrifice some of my routine. Tea before bed was rarely possible, my husband and I were together 24/7, and there was little room in the backpack for my giant bag of cosmetics, flat iron, nail polish and body lotion. I had to make do, and often do without – or at least do differently. I had to get dressed and go in front of other humans before morning coffee (gah!) but Italian cappuccino was worth the effort.
- Living the Dream
We waited our whole lives to explore the world, and I didn’t want to miss a thing. Prior to the trip I had worried that being sober would spoil my trip to Italy, and that Italy would spoil my sobriety. It occurred to me as we drove to the airport that the two were not at odds, but a perfect union. Being sober made everything better, more real, more memorable.
My husband and I met as teenagers and have spent the last three decades dreaming of the day we could travel the world together. It was always a “someday” vision – raising kids and running our business has kept us on a relatively short leash. Now our dreams are in sight, and I realize I’ve changed the game by throwing in the wrinkle of sobriety.
We will both soon be celebrating our 50th birthdays – his is this spring and mine follows in summer 2017. We’ve heard many people say that it’s a mistake to wait too long to start travelling – it’s hard to change the work habits of a life time – so we’ve agreed to use these upcoming milestones as incentive to shift into a “next stage” mentality. After thirty years of working shoulder-to-shoulder, it is now time to actually live out those “someday” dreams.
We asked, “Where do I want to be on my 50th birthday?” The first answer for both of us is “at home, surrounded by our kids and grandkids” (assuming there will be more by then!). True, true but it was time to think BIG, so we turned our attention to those dreams that have been dangling beyond our reach for so long we’ve almost forgotten they are real places.
“I want to ski the Matterhorn on my 50th birthday,” said my husband smiling.
“I want to hike the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu on mine,” I answered with the twinkling eyes of a child on Santa’s knee.
We started planning, but I could see something was bothering my husband as we mapped a route from Zurmatt, Switzerland south to Cinque-Terrre, Italy. Finally he confessed his concerns about touring a region famous for food and wine with me. Would I be able to enjoy myself there? Would I expect him to also say no to wine with dinner? Would I resent him if he sampled the local treats that are off-limits for me?
Fair questions, I wasn’t offended. Given the pitiful misery of a travel companion I was in Cuba last year (recounted here), his concerns were justified. I’d vowed never to go against my gut again, and here my gut was telling me that Switzerland and Italy will offer many pleasant distractions. We had to talk it out and plan how we will make it work.
It is give and take. If we are sitting at an outdoor café enjoying the evening air, I can savour a cappuccino while he has a glass of local wine. If he wants a second glass and I don’t wish to stay, he may well have it alone while I wander or retire for the evening. That’s our equilibrium, and it is different for everyone depending on individual needs and the dynamics of the relationship.
My husband has a neck and shoulder problem. We haven’t even addressed yet how he will manage his backpack. It just is what it is and we will have to figure it out and prepare accordingly. Travelling as a person in recovery must be looked at with the same mentality: my sobriety is a simple reality to be considered. Plan ahead, be prepared, and look out for each other.
Here we are, finally embarking on an adventure we’ve worked for our whole lives and dealing with the reality of my recovery. Nobody dreams of being an alcoholic when they grow up. Still, I won’t tell myself I am spoiling our travels by being sober – that is ridiculous. If I wasn’t sober, I would spend the entire trip obsessing about when and how to drink, surrounded by abundance but trying to hide a desperate wish to hide in my room alone with a bottle. That would be worse, no?
And besides, I have to stay in shape for hiking the mountains of Peru.