Travel for Work? 5 Tips to Do Sober Business Trips Successfully

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED ON THE TEMPER.COM

Work trips are so much better sober

by Lisa Smith

I dread traveling for work. Whether it’s for a conference or an out-of-town meeting, I’d rather stay home. I watch my colleagues as if they are creatures from another planet, buzzing around making dinner reservations and plans for tours in unfamiliar cities a month in advance. Look! I think. They will not rest until they find a way to spend 18 out of 24 hours in each other’s company! I love my work friends, but I’d prefer a pass on the extreme camaraderie.  

On the bright side, though, I can report that work trips are exponentially better in recovery than they were when I was drinking and using cocaine. At that time, as soon as I knew I’d be traveling, I could only think about the awful consequences I expected to suffer because I couldn’t control my drinking, not even in front of law firm partners to whom I reported. I knew I would try. And I knew I would fail.

I always promised myself I would say goodnight before I crossed the line into inebriation. But just as surely, I would wake up in a hotel room strewn with clothes from the bathroom to the bed, dirty glasses, and empty wine bottles stinking of stale cabernet.

I love my work friends, but I’d prefer a pass on the extreme camaraderie.  

My brutal hangover would be tinged with extra regret, shame, and recrimination as I would try to piece together what I said to whom the night before. How loud was I at the dinner table? How many people did I interrupt or shout over in order to tell them the all-too-personal story I thought they just had to hear? Do I need to worry about getting fired? Is there any more wine left in that bottle?

When I stopped drinking, the dread around work travel didn’t disappear. It just shape-shifted. My routine in early sobriety was carefully constructed to give me the best shot at not picking up a drink a day at a time. I woke up early, pounded coffee, went to an early morning 12-Step meeting, put in a full day at work, made it home in time to eat a decent dinner, and got to bed early.

Slowly but surely, I added in social events with people I wanted to be around in settings that didn’t threaten my sobriety. Life got bigger and better, with no small thanks to maintaining sobriety-focused routines. I learned I am a creature of habit and the healthy ones I developed became precious quickly. They remain precious 14 years later.

Business trips shake routines like snow globes. They generally start in an airport terminal, a place I consider to be a long bar with an extra-wide hallway. It can be downhill from there. Maybe I forget to pack toothpaste or bras or protein bars. Maybe my bag gets lost or I sit on the tarmac for three hours. There are so many opportunities for inconveniences and frustrations large and small. In the past, I called them “reasons.” Reasons for why I would be half in the bag before I even got on the plane, and fully loaded by the time I reached my hotel.  

Over the years, I’ve taken advice from others and learned how to cope with days of disrupted sleep, food that’s not normally on my menu, and endless hours of forced bonhomie with colleagues.

Here are a few ideas to help you stay sober and find some peace on the road:

1. Plan ahead.

I’m pretty good at expecting the worst, so it’s easy for me to imagine running into trouble. For example, at home, I don’t sleep with a mini-fridge full of tiny Jack Daniels and Absolut Vodka bottles eight feet from my head. Why would I want to subject myself to that under the stress of a work trip?

You can call the hotel in advance and ask that alcohol be removed from your room. Hotels get this request all the time. They’ve heard it before, they don’t ask questions, and they’re happy to do it.

2. Respect the things that keep you sober.

No matter what you do to avoid substance use—exercise, meditate, attend support group meetings—consider how you can keep to as much of your routine as possible while away. If I don’t have a plan for coffee when I inevitably wake up a 5 a.m., I can’t sleep the night before. I know this about myself, so I plan for it. I don’t try to “power through” not knowing where my morning jolt will be found.

However minor the thing may seem, if it helps keep you sober, it’s a big deal.

3. Don’t rush yourself.

It’s not always under your control, but when it is, try to avoid racing for your flight or train. I used to head to the airport early so I could start drinking. Now I do it so I don’t freak out if I hit traffic or a line at security that stretches to the terminal door.

4. Stay connected.

Whom do you regularly speak with at home? Your family? A sponsor or other sober friend? Your therapist? Plan specific times to talk while you’re away.

In my experience, “I’ll call you at 8:00 tonight,” works a lot better than, “I’ll call you when I can.” There’s less risk of not actually connecting and getting the benefit of the familiar voice ready to listen and support you.

5. Navigate the requisite booze-soaked events.

I have never taken a business trip that didn’t include cocktail parties, dinners, and/or other events that include alcohol. I pass on as many as I can, but that’s not always an option. If you can address any potential triggers beforehand, the event is easier to attend.

For me, being hungry and tired are massive triggers. It’s not that I think I’ll pick up a drink, but I will be miserable and uncomfortable. We didn’t get sober for that. Whenever possible, my work event pre-game is a nap and a protein bar. If possible, I also arrive late and leave early, two things I never would have considered before I got sober.

Much to my shock, I discovered not everyone drinks on these occasions. And often it has nothing to do with recovery.

Also, much to my shock, I discovered not everyone drinks on these occasions. And often it has nothing to do with recovery. People sip club soda and skip drinks at the bar after dinner for all kinds of reasons. I was relieved to learn I wasn’t the only one not drinking the wine. I was even more relieved not to be that annoying person badgering others into drinking so I could feel better about my own binging.

I will never get excited about business trips. That’s fine. I don’t have to be excited. I just have to show up, make my contributions to the effort, and most important, stay sober. Like so many other things in recovery, it gets easier over time. And I promise you that coming home with no hangovers and no regrets never gets old.