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Temptations While Traveling

Airports can be dangerous to even the most sober travelers. Melissa Burton white-knuckles it through a recent journey.

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Alcohol fuels the friendly skies ThinkStock

By Melissa Burton

05/22/11

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We live in an alcoholic world. Even if you're a sage of sobriety, it's incredibly difficult to resist the barrage of alcoholic images that wash over you wherever you turn—from the sexy studs gazing out at you from Budweiser billboards to the sweating glasses of Pinot Grigio  that a waiter traipses across your favorite restaurant. For a recovering alcoholic, images like these are a constant tease. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we go on autopilot when it comes to our cues and responses. Even the mere sight of liquor kicks up my cravings. When I'm at home, the familiar routines of recovery protect me from going off the rails. But when I travel it's a whole different story. Which is why, for me and many other alcoholics I know, flying can be such a tortuous experience.

Take my recent trip from New York to Los Angeles. As soon as I enter the terminal in JFK,  cocktails begin to beckon me as shamelessly as hookers at a Shriner's Convention. After enduring a half-hour line and a clumsy pat down at security, I sullenly trudge towards my gate, dragging my leaden bag behind me. As I make my way across the airport I pass an endless procession of cheesy bars and lounges. Despite their over-priced drinks and and ludicrous decor they seem strangely enticing—a restful oasis amidst all this airport awfulness. Suddenly a familiar voice starts up inside my head,  “Stop, relax, have a quick cocktail!" it whispers. "Does a watered down daiquiri at JFK even count as a real drink?" The flush-faced revelers at the bar all look so happy and content; a stark contrast to the sour dowagers biding their time  at the gate. Is there really any question about where I'd rather be? The serenity I have carefully cultivated during my many years of recovery starts showing cracks, replaced by a panicky craving. I take a series of deep breaths and try to ignore the enticements, keeping my fragile sobriety intact for the moment.

After settling into a cramped seat in the back of the plane, I’m  joined by a frazzled blond in her late twenties who sullenly plumps herself down next to me. As soon as she’s buckled in, she begins frantically stabbing at the flight attendant’s call button,  crossing herself as though seated in a pew at St. Patrick’s. When the stewardess finally arrives, she anxiously demands to know how long she has to wait to order some wine. After takeoff, the flight crew begins taking drink orders and dispensing colorful little bottles all around. In no time at all, everyone around me is flying high—the general mood brightens noticeably while mine continues to plummet. Once again I fight off the urge to join in, and resign myself to a long, boring flight, while the blond bimbo blithely sucks downs her fourth bottle of Merlot. Flipping through the channels on my in-flight TV, I stumble on a marathon of back-to-back episodes of Millionaire Matchmaker and spend the next five hours watching hook-ups that all revolve around drinking and bar hopping.  When we land in Los Angeles, I leave the plane with relief and head to the safety of my hotel.  As soon as I check-in, a buff bartender hands me a glass of complimentary wine and brightly informs me that Happy Hour has just kicked off in the lounge.

Cranky and disoriented from my long day of flying, I find it increasingly difficult to deny the magnetic pull that the tacky lounge exudes. I no longer have the strength I did when I began my day—I feel weak and uncertain as I pass the lounge and head upstairs in the elevator. Once I’m safely tucked away in my room, the key to the mini bar key beckons me cruelly.  To avoid tempting fate, I struggle not to open the fridge, only to find a bottle of Merlot prominently placed between the peanut M&M’s and bottled water. How many times in one day do I have to refuse alcohol while I struggle to remain sober?  For a few moments I contemplate I remind myself that if you’re trying to curb impulse shopping, you’re supposed to go back and make a few visits over the course of a few days before you make your decision. But how many times does a recovered alcoholic have to “visit” the concept of taking a drink before they are justified in caving in to the urge?

My addict brain wants to scream at every poster and every person who tempted me with a cocktail. I search my mind for some snarky retort to the poor person who innocently offered me a cocktail. Oftentimes, I think the cards are stacked against me. I get tested over and over again. My next relapse sits patiently waiting for a changing of the guard in my psyche. I berate myself mentally and wonder why I can’t just let it go and get over the controlling voice that keeps urging me me to drink. This is my daily mantra.

For me, staying sober is a daily struggle. My cravings are a an ever-present threat that I'm always trying to escape.  As I write this, I close my eyes and taste the warm, full, satiating flavor of a glass of really fine red wine, the soft burn it produces as it slips down my throat, the sweet bouquet that wafts from the glass. And just as quickly as I slip back into my mental love affair with alcohol, I must turn it off and return to my reality.

At tenuous moments like these, I try to remember the disasters that induced me to get sober in the first place. When I finally decided to stop drinking, I was a sad and lonely and desperate person. I was ready to give up.  I have no desire to retreat to that old life. Instead, I  am determined to stay healthy and happy, reconnect with my family and friends, and stop disappointing everyone who cares about me. I try to remember how great it feels to go to bed sober, and to wake up in the morning unabashed and with a clear head. Mornings have always been the best time of the day for me—I have a feeling of strength and growth and gratitude for making it through another day. In fact, a day after my flight, I feel my old self regaining control over my frazzled mess I'd become. I don't give another thought to alcohol for the rest of my trip.

As I'm constantly reminded, I can only hope for a daily reprieve from this disease. Since nobody can spend their lives free from the lure of alcohol, it's crucial to build up a core of strength and spirituality that will protect us from life's inevitable enticements. It's not always easy, but after some time and practice,  I've built up the strength to ignore the mini-bottles of Absolut and the open bars and hotel happy hours. I can fly without getting high. That’s the good news. The bad news is I have to fly to Mexico City next month.

Melissa Burton is the executive director of Loft 107, a sober living center in Brooklyn.

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