The Ghost of Drinking: Reflections on Sober Travel

Before I left for this overseas trip, I called my phone company and actually physically visited my bank branch to notify them I was traveling. I was so damn proud of these distinguished acts of adulting—things once only reserved for other, conspicuously responsible folk—that I knew I’d have to write about the whole before sobriety/after sobriety travel phenomenon while on this trip.

The phenomenon has revealed itself over time. In the beginning, traveling was nail-bitingly stressful and not fun at all. It took time for me to appreciate the concept of traveling without imbibing, to rewrite all those tracks in my brain that said the only way traveling would be a full experience was if I was drinking my way through it. For a while—like a couple years—I associated new places with the uprush of intoxication. It felt sad, boring, and incomplete to imagine travel unpunctuated with cocktails.

As with everything else, things shifted. I was once afraid of traveling. Airports alone were an attack, what with everyone drinking at me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called my sponsor or other sober women at JFK airport, begging them to remind me what I’m doing, and why. Austin was even a bit nostalgic and painful recently—I’d spent so many trips there drinking, and my memory of those trips is always way more romantic than the reality.

And with that, I bring you this before and after list: what it was like to travel before sobriety, and what it is like now.

Drinking Travel

  • Wait to pack until ten minutes before I should leave for the airport.

  • Fail to pack at least three of the following: toothbrush, underwear, phone/computer charger, shoes.

  • Leave house in shambles, dishes in sink, trash in trash.

  • Drink on flight, hungover on arrival, inevitably realize I’ve left something important on the plane.

  • At hotel: fumbling for credit card with enough room on it to use for the incidentals charge—have to step aside during check-in to call said credit card company(ies) to explain/beg.

  • Throw suitcase down in room, live out of it for the rest of the stay.

  • Get very drunk on the first night because TRAVEL! Spend next day(s) dreadfully hungover/anxious and awaiting next appropriate time to drink.

  • Think about running or working out every morning, but nah.

  • Debit card declined because I never notified bank I was traveling; credit cards declined because: maxed out!

  • In said destination: make lots of plans but back out of most because “Tourist stuff just isn’t my style. I prefer to explore like a local.” Translation: “No boozie? No thankee.”

  • Phone gets shut off because I forgot to pay bill (again, oops!). Call AT&T to get it straightened out, am informed I have to pay approximately four million dollars to get it turned back on because “You’ve accumulated quite a few roaming charges, ma’am, are you traveling?”

  • Have a big last night (final hurrah!), wake up late, scramble to pack, leave several items in the bathroom, including phone charger I bought for $100 to replace one I left at home.

  • Check out of hotel and get served with a seven million dollar minibar tab. Act shocked and request to have six million worth of charges removed.

  • Run through airport, barely make flight.

  • Shake and sweat the whole way back, dreading the re-entry to my daily life.

  • Arrive home to have the electricity turned off, forgot to pay the bill (again, oops!) AND a horrible stench.

  • Spend the next week recovering and bragging about how wonderful it was!

Sober Travel

  • Call phone company and bank days in advance to notify them of my travel plans.

  • Clean house, make bed with clean sheets, shut off heat, take out trash, and (bonus) notify landlord I’ll be away.

  • Pack a full hour before I’m supposed to leave for the airport (not great, but progress!). Forget charger, but nothing else.

  • Read and sleep on flight. No items left on plane.

  • Check into hotel using any number of my credit cards because balance on each one is a beautiful zero.

  • Unpack suitcase in room (on this trip I even used the fucking iron…twice!).

  • Don’t get very drunk, or drunk at all—not on the first night, not on any night.

  • Think about waking up and working out every morning, then actually do it.

  • In said destination: make only the plans I actually feel like doing, which, to be fair, still never includes the classic tourist stuff, but also doesn’t include the bars (unless the bars have amazing food) and thus, I see a hell of a lot of the actual place.

  • Phone never gets shut off. No million dollar roaming bills either.

  • Big last night means a great dinner and an early bedtime. 

  • No scrambling to pack, no items left, except perhaps my empty miniature toiletries which I actually bothered to purchase instead of using the hotel ones that strip seven layers of skin off and/or leave me smelling like the teen section of Bath & Body Works.

  • Check out of hotel with no surprise charges or mock horror.

  • Walk through airport, calmly get on flight.

  • Sleep the whole way back, excited to re-enter my normal life.

  • Arrive home to a clean house, electricity on, and no leftover trash stench.

  • Spend the next week feeling grateful that my daily life doesn’t feel too different from my vacation life.

I write this from a bar in Ireland. The hotel bar, mind you, which is mostly a restaurant. I haven’t felt the specter of drinking even once here, not when I booked the trip (knowing I was going to a place notorious for the pubs, the Guinness, the whiskey), not when I arrived and saw the iconic-looking hotel pub, replete with Gaelic decor and multiple fireplaces, and not when I’ve sat down to dinner each night with my newfound friends, most of whom are heartily embracing drinking themselves.

The retreat host, Peter Rollins, said something yesterday I will never forget. He said, “A ghost is the presence of an absence.” I’ve never heard it articulated that way before, but we all know—in the room, we all knew—exactly what it’s like to be haunted by a ghost.

This is what I wouldn’t have imagined: that I would one day no longer be haunted by the ghost of drinking—of escaping into the drink.

But it’s true. There exists the memory, but no ghost.

Belfast, while on a run.

Belfast, while on a run.