I’ve been away for a few nights. Away from children, away from demands, spillages and arguments. I packed a small bag, and like Dorothy at the end of The Wizard of Oz, kissed each member of my family that were lined up on the driveway goodbye. The gap between my ears and shoulders got bigger as I turned the key in the ignition. Just being in the car felt as good as having a massage. The peace! The tranquillity of choosing my own music and playing a podcast instead of listening to ‘The Chicken Wing Song’ at full volume. These small changes filled my sober soul with joy. As I reversed out I smiled, knowing that just for two days my mind could take a little holiday. I picked up my friend and we cruised down the motorway towards the city nibbling nuts, chatting about everything and nothing.
Where I live, in a small surfing community north of Brisbane, there are no bright lights, pumping venues and after work drinkie-poohs. Most restaurants close at 9pm, the bar life doesn’t get rowdy or too messy, I mean, even on a date night I’m trying to stretch out the freedom until 8pm. It’s not confronting where I live. Its easy to be sober there. It's safe and predictable.I can getaway with a quieter existence in which my most outrageous act is to have a biscuit after dinner.
As we drove towards higher buildings and the landscape changed from green to grey my heart lifted at the thought of soft hotel sheets, buffet breakfasts and mints on pillows, then an ugly image crossed my mind... the mini bar.
You see, my brain is wired towards a drinking. No matter how sober I am, it automatically takes me to what it knows…alcohol. Old routines take hold when I’m plonked into a new environment. It’s antagonising and highly triggery.
I take a deep breath as I pull into the carpark and push the annoying habitual contemplation down so deep I can no longer see it and it quickly disappears underneath the looming hotel along with me.
At check-in I look around the lobby. It’s one of those old-fashioned hotels that has been given a makeover and it looks like someone got handy with some black lacquered MDF and a glue gun. The thick carpeted floors remind me of cinema trips in the 80’s, but there is a poshness that allows me to feel like I’m getting a treat. I grab the key card, book in a facial at the spa and then go up in the lift to the 11th floor. The door clicks open and the room spells like clean washing, I step into the space and my eyes are met with a round table in the corner with (would you fucking believe it?) a cocktail making kit spread out on the surface. There are tiny bottles of alcohol lined up in rows, a shiny metal shaker, curly straws and mixers. As I stare at it, I wander what on earth to do. Should I call reception and get a swat team in to remove it before my friend and in dig in? Should I complain? ‘Don’t you know we're alcoholics??’
I do neither, I just stare at it. Sort of hoping it will go away and sort of wanting to drink it.
I heave my case onto the bed with a sigh as I realise that being away is not simply a relaxing time without the children, it also might be a challenging tussle with unexpected alcohol.
After unpacking our bags and topping up our lippy, my friend and I decide to head out for some dinner. We are both sober so we hope to hunt down a cosy nook with an array of teas and some spicy Asian street food. We walk, people spill from bars, a punter is puking into the gutter, people wobble on curbs as they thumb for cabs. All scenes I haven’t witnessed for a while, all reminders of the past. Even though we try we can’t find anything that suits our needs. We end up in a Mexican restaurant on a rooftop that has rattan pendulum lights and women with botox having pictures taken holding chilled Margaritas. We sit down and a young waitress instantaneously asks
‘What are you drinking tonight ladies? The Moscow Mule is our speciality, or a chilli Tequila shot will get your night off to a great start!’ I almost order one. She made it sound so tempting. It would be so much easier to say, 'Yes, I’ll have the Moscow mule and a shot please.' But I hold back. I want to come back from this trip uninjured and without having an affair, so I ask if they have any alcohol-free drinks.
When the waitress reappears with our glasses of fizzy water, I feel a little sad. Firstly, because I wanted something snazzier than water with lime and secondly because being out, surrounded by people drinking makes me feel left out. I can’t help but feel everyone is having more fun than me and their night is going to lead to adventure whereas mine is going to lead to a bath and bed.
We eat some stale Nachos and complain about our miniscule tacos, then get a disappointing desert and leave.
I can hear laughter from the tables of people as the doors on the lift close. We reach the ground floor and step out into the night. The city is warm. We wander around, get lost in China Town and watch the night begin for the reveller’s we pass. The smiling start, the euphoric first sips. I know that their opening drinks will feel good and the comradery within their gang of mates will feel strong and unbreakable, but I also know they won’t remember half the night, will be sick in a cab and feel like death the following day. Nights that begin well never end in the same way. It's funny looking on from afar. Sobriety means I see the artificial side of alcohol, how it changes people, how it tricks its victims into believing they’re having the best night of their lives. I recognise it because I remember feeling it too, I bought into that feeling for 25 years, it is very enticing and so very damaging.
We go back to the room, deflated. Being out amongst the throng was overbearing. The city weighed heavy on our sensitive sober souls and the only answer was mint tea and opening the expensive bar of chocolate from the fridge.
The following day we changed tack. We had to. It was either that or undo the seals of those taunting miniatures. We knew we had to approach the city with a fresh look, work out a new way of handling the metropolis, a way that didn’t involve us feeling overwhelmed or left out. We had coffee, went shopping, saw a movie and then whizzed along pathways next to the river on electric scooters. We took in the city from a different angle, a sober point of view and we had fun. My friend and I took our time choosing the restaurant for the evening and found a place with food we liked and a quiet bar with a mocktail menu. We stayed out until 10.30pm. A sober miracle!
It took us a whole 24 hours to understand the city. It used to be a place where we could dissolve our hedonism into the crowd. Wash away our insecurities with top-ups and lines. A place where we fitted in to the chaos, and danced until dawn. The mistake we made on arrival was to try and be the girls we were in a city of tipsy smiles and lost memories.
Being sober in an environment that is pushing alcohol use in our faces at every turn was hard. It triggered our sensitive sides and made us stick out like two very sore thumbs, or a couple of country bumpkins that were separated from the herd. Booze was very present in the city, very raw. A world that was running on beer and Pinot Gris, where the suited and booted let down their hair and the hoypoly were mentally escaping the rat race one bottle of red at a time. I understand why living in such close quarters, with high rent and stressful jobs makes for a perfect drinking culture, these things walk alongside each other like best mates, one influencing the other. Each round making way for the next.
On the drive home, after a swim and a hangover free lie-in, I felt relief that it wasn’t going to be ‘my round’ ever again. As the landscape turned back from grey to green I was thankful, happy that I hadn’t cracked the seal, or popped a cork. Pleased that I could be someone other then my old self in this overpowering environment.
As I pulled up at home I realised that sobriety is not about who I was, the raucous laughter, the endless nights, and overpriced cocktails. It’s about finding peace in a place that used to be hectic. Changing my perspective and accepting the quiet that exists beneath the bustle. Finding out who I am under the bright city street lights is another sobriety challenge that I think I might now have the swing of. It was just a matter of doing what I wanted rather than doing what the city was demanding me to. I swerved the alcohol, tried a few new activities, swapped my expectation for reality and my old thoughts and habits were forced to evolve. Before I left I called reception about that cocktail set, I told them that not everyone drinks you know. Of course they looked at me as if I was mad and I refrained from shouting about the normalisation of alcohol in society... there where children nearby.
Anyway - I made it. I managed to enjoy my time away.
My sober weekender was threatening at times. It took a while to adjust, but eventually I found my stride under the shadow of tall buildings and survived being sober in the city.
The latest episode of Sober Awkward is all about Sober vacations. It will be out on the 2nd of March.
Here is a link to the last episode on Hangxiety.