How Not to Get Reykjaviked

By Dave English 10/15/12

In my second year of sobriety, I traveled to Iceland for an artists' residency. Was I scared? Sure. From wild Reykjavik nights to a month without meetings in the Highlands, there would be plenty of triggers. Would I make it out alive?

SIZED Landmannalaugar.jpg
A view of the Icelandic Highlands from the summit of my climb in the
Landmannalaugar region.
Photo via the author

I came to Iceland via NYC with just a small bag and a backpack—and a year and three months of sobriety. Back in New York, I had been making three to four AA meetings a week; I had a sponsor I called daily; I shook the hands of dubious newcomers; I did service; and I meditated morning and night.

I’m not a perfect AA-er—far from it—but I was feeling stronger and healthier than I had in years. All this made the prospect of showing up alone in Iceland feel possibly—just maybe—manageable.

Was I running away? Yeah. Would it have been wise to stay near my home group, sponsor and fellowship? Definitely. But I was never one for following rules.

My drinking was like Reykjavik’s. Everyone I met in the small capital was so polite, mild-mannered and helpful during the day—but at night it was a whole different story.

So when I was accepted into an artist residency to pursue my photography and writing, I took it. I told myself it was OK because I wasn’t in my first year of sobriety, I had a computer to keep in touch and I could still meditate. I felt ready for solo international travel.

The way I deal with stress now is very different. Previously, any major life event would send me into a days-long drinking and drug binge. Now, I can control and choose when to worry—at least until the day or night before. By that point, by the time I get to the interview office-building lobby or the first-date front door and start to freak out, it’s already too late to run away. I have to face it.

I go inside, I do the interview, I deal with the first date. International travel by myself for a month is different, but the feelings are similar.

The main thing I was really nervous about is Reykjavik’s reputation as a party town. This is also true of NYC, but I had heard that Reykjavik is way worse. Quentin Tarantino once said, “Normally in America, the idea is to get the girls drunk enough to go home with you; in Iceland it’s to get the girls home with you before they get so drunk that they're passing out in your bathroom or vomiting all over you.” Although that would have sounded like a dream come true before sobriety, now it just sounds exhausting, sad and triggering.

My drinking was like Reykjavik’s. Everyone I met in the small capital was so polite, mild-mannered and helpful during the day—but at night it was a whole different story. One Saturday night, I went to a large club to see the Icelandic band Samaris, and after the concert let out, everyone streamed into downtown Reykjavik. What a sight.

The fair-skinned and famously beautiful blonde women of the day were dancing on bar tabletops and peeing in the small, previously picturesque streets. There were a lot of sloppy make-out sessions happening, and Icelanders literally falling down drunk. I heard bottles being broken, and realized the streets were covered in glass and splattered with vomit. It was definitely time for bed.

But despite the disgusting scene and the chaos, I could feel that old pull that only alcoholics understand, emanating from that part of me that loves watching shit go down, go too far; that wants to get in a fistfight—and, furthermore, that believes getting in a fistfight would mean I really experienced Iceland, that I had a really good time.

Although a part of me wanted badly to stay out and hook up with a girl—wasted or no—instead I went back to my friend’s apartment and slept it off. I had plans to hit an AA meeting the next day, and I didn’t want to do something stupid before it.

I went to the one English-speaking meeting in Reykjavik, even though pretty much every part of me didn’t want to. I came here to see museums and nature and to make art, not to awkwardly walk into a roomful of strangers and hold hands. But, my sponsor said go. So, I went.

The meeting was in a quiet, lovely part of town, far from the broken glass of the night before. Because I want to control everything, and am deeply afraid of being late or coming to the wrong location, I stake out new places embarrassingly early—in this case almost an hour ahead of time. I watched the building from afar to see if AA types came out—because, you know, knocking and asking isn’t an option. Sure enough, a group of young and old Icelanders exited all at once to chain-smoke and talk. This was definitely a meeting house.

I follow a man into the building. As we enter, I ask him if he knows where the English-speaking meeting is. He smiles and leads me past an all-Icelandic meeting to a smaller back room.

Of course, my guide is also visiting from NYC—in fact, four out of the nine of us in the meeting are from New York. Having come to the meeting full of terror that I’d be the odd person out—fear that was amplified by being in a foreign country where my skin and hair color make me stand out—I am extremely comforted by this. And the meeting is hilariously similar to the meetings I am used to back in New York.

Afterward I feel rejuvenated. But the following day I’m moving on from Reykjavik into the middle of nowhere—and what will I do then?

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