How to Stay Sober on Vacation

By Kristance Harlow 06/30/17

You cannot predict every misfire, but you can arm yourself with coping strategies.

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Your vacation might be a disaster, or it could be the best experience of your life. Either way, you can stay sober and content.

Summer is here and the warmth radiating into the office window conjures up dreams of poolside lounge chairs and remote sun-kissed beaches. While you mentally plan your dream getaway and add pins to your vacation planning Pinterest board, guilty and anxious thoughts about drinking can trickle in. You don’t want to throw away your sober lifestyle for two weeks at an all-inclusive resort. If thoughts of getting loaded on vacation are making you uncomfortable, you aren't alone.

I recently got married at an all-inclusive resort. Not only did I stay sober, but I had the time of my life. It is possible to vacation and stay sober around people who drink, but it requires a bit of forethought and a lot of acceptance.

Traveling while sober can be daunting. The first time I had to travel after getting sober I was only a couple months away from my last drunk. I had to go from Argentina to Uruguay and back again to renew my visa. It’s a trip I had taken half a dozen times before, but on previous journeys I always drank. Relaxing in the tranquility of the Uruguayan pueblo, Colonia del Sacramento, went hand in hand with drinks to unwind and wine with dinner. Realizing that I had to take that trip again, without drinking, gave me immense anxiety--until I asked a sober friend to go with me.

These are some tips that have helped me protect my sobriety while on vacation:

  • Pre-Trip Organizing

Knowing you aren’t going to return to a dirty home or an unmanageable pile of work can help you relax while on vacation. Do what you can to leave your daily life comfortably organized. Make sure you have an idea of what the environment and different activities will be where you’re going, to relieve and plan around any possible triggers while on vacation.

I am patient with myself on this step. I don’t push myself into the stress zone just to clean my apartment. However, I do make sure I take care of key things before I take off on a trip. I create a list of must-dos like taking out all the garbage, throwing out food that will spoil when I’m gone and doing the dishes. I know the frustration of returning to those things is not a good place for me to be.

  • Don’t Pack Your Expectations

Your vacation might be a disaster, or it could be the best experience of your life. Either way, you can stay sober and content. If you can keep yourself from being emotionally tied to expectations, you will safeguard yourself from being dragged to dangerous extremes.

I’m such a perfectionist that if I put too much pressure on myself and don’t live up to it, I’m in danger of falling back down the rabbit hole. It isn’t a race, it’s about the journey and it’s about right now. Leaving my expectations behind helps me to focus on what is happening in the moment. My peace and serenity must be found within me. The location or situation does not get to determine my serenity. The outside world can only enhance this center, not diminish or control it.

  • Expect Surprises

You should be ready to not be ready. Travel always entails an element of surprise. A sense of humor is a great tool for staying tolerant of disruptions. If we want to live peacefully in the present we must acknowledge and correct our problems when they happen. We don’t have any choice about the thoughts that pop into our minds, but we can choose what to do next.

Doing a little planning for the unknown won’t take long and can prove immensely helpful. Planning ahead can include anticipating possible issues that might arise while you are on vacation. You cannot predict every misfire, but you can arm yourself with coping strategies. Some strategies might include: texting a supportive person; downloading guided meditations to your phone and keeping headphones in your pocket; a list of contacts to call in an emergency.

  • Make Yourself Comfortable

My favorite tool to help me around drinkers is to bring my own drinks. I like to attend get togethers armed with my favorite beverages. I have much less anxiety when I know there will be non-alcoholic drinks that I like. At my wedding, I made sure the wedding planner was aware that I was not to be given any alcohol. That simple but non-negotiable request took the anxiety of being served alcohol out of the picture. When the other guests were handed glass flutes of champagne, I was given an all-natural tropical fruit juice.

If there is a party you will have to attend, think of some tools and strategies you can use to take care of yourself if at any time you feel uncomfortable. Maybe ask a sober pal if they would talk with you before, during, and after the party. You can also plan to leave the party at a specific time; that way you can let someone know beforehand so you won’t feel pressure to explain yourself when the predetermined hour comes. 

  • Keep a Small Routine

Try to maintain a semblance of a routine, even if it’s only for five minutes in the morning. If you can’t make this happen each day, don’t worry, because we can only start from where we are and no one is supposed to be perfect.

I was extremely worried that the day of my bachelorette party I would be too anxious to enjoy a single moment. That morning I woke up and stepped outside. I wanted to do some kind of meditation. I wasted 10 minutes scrolling through my downloaded podcasts. I found a short one and put it on. In my pajamas, I stood barefoot on the balcony with the morning sun warming my skin. The meditation was only six minutes and then I just said a little prayer. My day was a hundred times better than any other had been. It was a simple action, but it made a noticeable impact on my ability to navigate life.

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Kristance Harlow is a freelance writer and mental illness advocate. She fights stigma and writes about uncomfortable experiences. She lives in a foreign land with her husband and rescue pupster. Find Kristance on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.