I just returned from a four day, three-night trip to the Midwest for an event. I work with technology for Nonprofit Organizations and my role is to assist them in the successful use of the software, as well as success in their fundraising efforts. I was given an opportunity to travel for an event to work side-by-side with one of our largest organizations for their annual charity gala. A big party where they would be using our technology to process credit cards and large amounts of money on-site.
This would be my first work trip in my position with this company, and my first ever work trip sober.
When my Director asked me if I was available to attend the event I jumped at the chance. I have always loved to travel and I especially like hotels and even more so I was excited to be present with the nonprofit people I only connect with via email and video calls.
Airports and Airplanes
It’s normal and common to have anxiety around flying. It’s most likely the reason so many people drink in airports before their flight and on planes. I’d like to say that I’m not judging alcohol consumption of my fellow travelers because I’ve been taught in sobriety that criticisms of the current social norms around drinking are not helpful, and will be outright rejected by most drinkers. But I will say this. As a non-drinker, my observations of how much people are drinking while traveling is staggering and unsettling.
That used to be me.
That used to be me which is why I guess I hadn’t noticed the behaviors of other travelers before. It was normal to drink a mimosa or bloody mary or a red beer or two (plus shots of tequila?) at the airport at 7 am because time doesn’t really exist in airports, right? I mean, that’s what people do.
It’s normal and acceptable to consume alcoholic beverages before a flight, and during. I used to really enjoy the mini bottles of vodka delivered to me with a cup of orange juice on my flight. Or a glass of wine with my headphones in listening to my favorite podcast or album. Sometimes crying into my glass or talking loudly to the person next to me because I’m a bit loose now and I like them now and we will probably exchange emails and keep in touch.
I’ve missed flights due to drinking too much at the airport. Once, I was on my way to Mexico City from Spokane, Washington. I was moving to Mexico as this big grande gesture to start out the new year. It was New Year’s Eve and I had a layover in Denver. My friend was waiting for me at an Airbnb in Mexico City and we were going to watch the fireworks from the Zocalo and party on our rooftop in downtown and then on New Years Day, January 1st, 2017 we would travel by bus to Tenochtitlan and stand on top of the Pyramid of the Sun.
I got drunk in Denver instead and as I stood in front of the Airline Attendant pleading with them to help me as I watched my plane leave from the windows she stared at me very solemnly and said, “Miss, are you inebriated?”
They flew me to Houston, Texas and I spent the night sleeping on a cold airport chapel pew because the next flight to Mexico wasn’t until morning.
It feels good to travel sober. I pass the smell of booze coming from the bars in the early morning and instead head to the Starbucks or whatever coffee line. I grab a cup of coffee and a banana or muffin and go sit where I can enjoy my breakfast (or lunch) because in this case, regarding my most recent business trip, it’s morning. I watch the sunrise and the sky change colors over the Orange County airport and I breathe. I breathe deep peaceful breathes to prepare for my trip and I try to center my mind and spirit. I think about how grateful I am for the opportunity.
On the plane, I listen to some music as we take off because I’m most nervous about flying at take-off and during the landing. Then I watch an inflight movie and relax while drinking the water that I brought with me but not too much because I prefer not to get up and use the bathroom if I can avoid it.
We land and I’m rested and ready for my work. My skin looks great because I properly moisturized before the flight and we all know that alcohol dehydrates the body and the air inside the cabin can suck the life out of your skin so I like to hydrate and moisturize. This is me traveling sober.
The pressure to Perform and Work-Related Stress
My background is in Production and Events. I majored in Nonprofit Leadership in college with a focus on grant writing and event planning. Events are such a huge component of most nonprofits’ fundraising strategies. I’m good at events, I shine under pressure, and I appreciate having to troubleshoot major issues as that is an inescapable component of any event.
This is why I enjoyed Production Management when I worked in Film and Television for a brief four years after college. Productions are big events that you put on daily often for 12 or 16 hours each day and you must coordinate every single step and feed every single mouth for however many days you are in it. You must also plan for every single possible thing that could go wrong and even if you do that and you do it well, you better believe something will arise that you had not planned on at all.
You also better drink. There is no better way to release that stress and tension than to down a couple of cocktails or beers each night or very early morning. At least, that’s how I managed stress while in production.
In this case, for this event, I am sober. I am almost two years sober and my normal outlets for managing stress are no longer in my toolkit. I don’t reach for a drink. I don’t get to the hotel and check-in and put my bags down and head to the hotel bar to unwind before having to meet the team the following morning. I don’t meet up with the team that evening to mingle and drink and bond.
Instead, I unpack. I found that settling into my room helped me to settle into my role and responsibility. I put my clothes away, hanging items in the closet and putting delicates and socks in the drawers. I put my toiletries in the bathroom and laid out a face mask I would apply later and I splashed my face with cold water and washed my hands. I made sure I had plenty of water to drink and some healthy snacks so as not to get irritable, or hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I then phoned down to the front desk and asked them for the best local delivery recommendation for dinner, because I wanted to eat in my room and not in the hotel bar. Then I jumped on my laptop and caught up on some work. And finally, I got a good night of sleep.
In the morning I hit the gym. Instead of being hungover or exhausted from travel, I was energized and had a plan. I jogged on the treadmill while going over the day in my head. Yes, it will be a trip full of major pressure and responsibilities. It will be a trip full of small talk and strangers. It will be me working with one of the biggest clients alone in the midwest while not drinking.
It Will Get Awkward
My biggest fear was dinner with the clients, and it played out how I expected. Mostly. The day went well, however, and I was grateful for the group of people I was working with. All strangers, although I had met in person a couple of the people, I had then only worked with them via email up until the event. I was meeting everyone else for the first time.
We spent the day prepping for the event, going over the run of show, testing the technology and meeting the event site staff and owners. There was plenty of time to get to know each other as we traveled by car to and from the event site and spent hours touring this incredible spectacle of an event hall.
Then it was time for dinner. Dinner with strangers. I’m an introvert by nature and small talk is extremely painful. Which is a testament to why I drank in social situations so heavily. I am also alcoholic so I have no off button, and one drink turns into many.
I so clearly remember the tension between sitting down and waiting for the waitress to take your drink order till being able to take that first sip. From there it was smooth sailing as the nerves subside and the conversation flows. By the second drink, I’m prettier and smarter and more confident than ever and I and the people that were strangers are now bonding over funny stories and our love for vino.
In this scenario, however, I am sober. I’m at a table with a very prominent and well-known person and their team of people that view me as an outsider. They may even question why I’m at the table at all. Or maybe that’s just me feeling like an imposter. I’m nervous and I feel my skin crawl. I try to breathe and smile and not talk too much, but talk if spoken to. I am polite. I drink the water on the table and I listen to the discussion regarding the wine list. The waitress comes and she starts to move around the table taking the orders as my heart races. It’s my turn. I order sparkling water, their finest sparkling water actually, and I order quietly but with grace and poise.
I am the center of attention now as questioning faces assess my choice and my person. I am asked why, and I say it’s because, “I don’t drink.” There is awkward silence as the waitress comes back to the table with an embarrassingly large bottle of sparkling water. I ask her if she can simply pour me a glass and not leave the bottle on the table in front of me as it seems to call too much attention. She removes it and pours the sparkling water into a wine glass. I’m at ease. I’m confident. That is what I tell myself as I raise my glass to toast.
Everyone drinks throughout dinner and I relax as they relax and the focus is no longer on me because the group is tipsy and enjoying themselves. I laugh and chat and have good conversations. We have fun and we get back to the hotel safely and I slip into bed having made it through the hardest part.
Success and Celebration
The event goes well and the organization raises a good amount of money for the cause. I am there to do a job and I do so to the best of my abilities within my allowed space. There are things I can’t control. I assert myself where I can. I don’t drink. Others are drinking to the evening. I smile and focus on the work.
The night is over and we go back to the hotel for the team after-party. I’m used to wrap parties. I have drunk at many of them and before them and until the early morning. This is where you are really able to loosen up and pat one another on the back.
I ordered a coca-cola and made a joke about getting wild on sugar and they laughed. We talked about how fun it is to treat yourself to a soda and how I don’t normally drink soda and they related. We ate too many appetizers and joked and talked about real life issues. We got to know each other better now that the event was over and everyone could breathe a bit easier. I was relaxed. I was confident. I was proud of my work and the event and of myself for not having to be dependent on alcohol to celebrate our success. I could simply sit and enjoy the moment and sink into accomplishment.
It is still less acceptable to not drink than it is to be drunk
And that’s not my problem. It honestly is a bummer that in our society the amount of alcohol consumed on a daily basis has been so normalized that obvious dependency to do anything without it is accepted. I was the only person not drinking alcohol in the group I traveled with for business.
I didn’t drink at the airport or on the plane, or on the private plane I was invited on for the ride home. I didn’t drink because of stress and I didn’t drink to celebrate or to bond with others. I didn’t drink to feel pretty or funny or fun. I didn’t drink to calm my nerves or to relax or for something to do. I just didn’t drink. And I survived, and honestly, I thrived.