From Happy Hours to Sober Vacations

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Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

 

How an average social drinker gave up alcohol for a week and found a community.

Whether it be through the disease of alcoholism or some other occurrence, we all are kindred spirits of past brokenness and despair — feeling out of control and forsaken. It is in the rising from ashes that we forge a strengthened renewal and realize our common humanity.


My friends and family were stunned.

“Let me get this straight. You are going to Mexico and not having one drink?”

“Yes,” I feebly explained, “It’s an alcohol-free vacation.”

“Oh, I get it. You’re staying at an all-inclusive. That means the alcohol is FREE, right?”

“True, but all the booze will be stored away while our group is there. We are completely buying out the resort to make that possible.”

“But…
Tequila.”

I just shrugged and told them I would provide a detailed account of my coping skills once I survived the ordeal.

Just your average middle-aged inebriated woman

Eight months earlier, I had taken a position with a company that created week-long travel events for those in the twelve-step community. Each winter, they would do a complete buyout of a tropical resort. Speakers, workshops, shared activities were brought in and the spirits were moved out. The cocktails that usually greeted guests would be replaced by exotic juices and smoothies. Sober alcoholics could relax in their vacations, instead of always having to be wary about what may be lurking in their food and beverages. I was about to embark on my first such event.

Although a regular local Happy Hour patron — mostly for the social aspect — I wouldn’t say I am a heavy drinker. Still, I’ll have an occasional glass of wine with dinner, and once a month, an evening could include a handful of cocktails. Like the average traveler, my alcohol consumption increases exponentially while on vacation. After all, it’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? How would I fare where such inebriation was prohibited?

El Grande

I had been helping to prepare for the “Sober Village” since I started at this position. The annual big trip of 400+ clients traditionally was held in February. Not only was it our star vacation, but it also provided the majority of our funding for the entire year. With an over 80% repeat customer rate, some clients had been traveling with us for almost three decades. It was a combination of retreat, family reunion, and tropical vacation. This year we were going to Club Med in Ixtapa, Mexico.

Truth be told, I had been fretting over how I was going to perform during this all-important week. Statements such as “You’re going to have so much fun!” were often contradicted by “You’ll never work so hard.” “Our clients are the best!” was in direct contrast to the numerous lessons on how to handle a cantankerous guest. Many of the logistical details of the week were quite vague and I knew I would be flying by the seat of my pants.

Plus, there were personal doubts: I’m not an alcoholic. I’m not sober. Would I know how to interact with clients? Would I be accepted or ostracized from the tribe?

Taking great pains

I had arranged to sleep the night before at my sister’s house as I had an 8:00 am flight and she lived fifteen minutes from LAX. My brother-in-law had graciously offered to drop me off at 6:00. I was exhilarated with anticipation and barely slept, checking and rechecking if I had my brand-new passport and other essentials, As we were making our way to the car, I slipped and whacked the back of my ankle against the step leading down to the garage.

F******€K!!!!

There was no doubt what had happened as I had just recovered from the same injury six months prior. I had re-ruptured my Achilles tendon. My right foot dangled like a broken marionette. Seeing the profound horror on my face, my brother-in-law rushed to get me an ice pack, ACE bandage, and Advil. He asked if I wanted to call and cancel my trip. Convinced I would lose my job if I did, I sucked in the excruciating pain and asked if we would still make it to the airport on time.

My head spinning like a tilt-a-whirl, I somehow made it to our meeting place. The cacophony of a major international terminal agitated my interior turmoil. Fueled by pure determination and heady with pain, I was resolute not to disclose my impairment until the last possible minute. When they finally noticed I was a bit unstable, I downplayed it, “Just twisted it again,” I lied. “Clumsy me.”

We always arrived a few days before the Sober Village start date to allow time to get things ready for the buyout of the resort. The good part was this gave me time to adjust before clients appeared; the bad was it prolonged the trip to twelve days instead of seven. My first order of business was to find the Infirmary and see what assistance could be rendered. As it turns out, I would have had better luck at a Civil War field hospital. Crutches? Non-existent. Ankle wraps? No comprendo. Pain meds? Not available nor an option. The last thing I wanted to be was loopy in front of our clients.

Each night, I crafted a makeshift ice pack from the liner of my room’s ice bucket and cubes from the bar. In the morning, I would inch my way back to the Infirmary. Shuffle and drag. Shuffle and drag. I limped along like an upright Quasimodo.

Mexican resorts don’t have ADA standards. The entire place was a labyrinth of concrete steps and patios flanked by sand. Doing his best, the nurse would wrap my ankle in gauze as thin as single-ply toilet paper, give me a handful of travel ibuprofen packs and send me on my way. They ran out of supplies on day eight, so we had to rinse and reuse the flimsy bandages from that point on.

Opening Day

There is nothing like the crush of 400 travel-weary individuals registering for an event in 12 hours. Most are exhausted, hot and hungry — wanting nothing more than their name badge, room assignment, and where to eat. But they are also jubilant — grateful to escape an East Coast winter to the warmth of a tropical location. The onslaught was almost continual save for the brief breaks between shuttle buses. My coworker, Q*, and I manned the registration table along with an independent event contractor from Mexico. Nicknamed Mama, she also served as a translator and an extra liaison with resort staff. M.A.* handled customer concerns. S.A.*, our founder, greeted the arriving guests with a smile as broad as Ricardo Montalban in Fantasy Island.

Time and time again you’d hear the gleeful cries of old friends reuniting; their joy reverberating throughout the lobby like church bells announcing a celebration. Some of the earlier arrivals would linger in the reception area, eagerly awaiting the appearance of their yearly comrades. Often, Q would burst out from her post to join in the hugs and the festivities. It seemed like everyone knew everyone else — except me. As they graciously introduced the “new gal,” I wondered if I would be able to enjoy the familiarity they shared.

Trudging along

My nonfunctional ankle prevented me from walking on the sand, let alone join in excursions, so my outings were confined to the main area of the resort. Not that there would be any time, anyway. Mornings were spent at the information desk, answering questions and putting out any fires that may arise. Afternoons were spent getting ready for the evening’s events. Guests had their choice of daily 12-step workshops, morning meetings, and the nightly big meeting — the main event of the day — along with all the amenities Club Med had to offer. This was not a 9–5 assignment, as I was representing the company from the moment I left my room until I was in for the night.

I would hobble by the pool on the way to breakfast around 7:00 am and routinely be greeted by the early rising clients. After the initial “What happened to you?” questions, I’d be peppered with queries on how was I feeling or comments about the day’s activities. These chorus of good mornings were a lovely start to a long workday, albeit not quite yet the fellowship I had hoped to find.

We had received feedback over the years that our group could be “cliquey,” causing some newcomers to feel excluded. One of my roles was to engage as many clients as possible and make them feel welcome — especially at mealtimes. Normally, this was a no-brainer for me, but I was in pain, in unfamiliar surroundings and uncertain if they would accept a “normie” (nonalcoholic). Throttling back my fear of failure, I inserted myself into tables with an extra chair. Secretly, I longed for an invitation to join. Or, even better, a saved seat.

I can’t remember the circumstances, but day three was particularly difficult. Whimpering, I crawled into bed, resigned that I was to feel lost and alone for the entire trip. As I entered the dining hall the next morning, I received not one, but two requests to join and an invitation to dinner. The week progressed from there, culminating in an impromptu escapade into town that involved a trio of women, myself included, squeezed in a dilapidated Mexican bus wearing nothing but our bathing suits and cover-ups.

Last Call

The staff always stayed an extra day to ensure most of our guests got on their way back home safely. The last morning, as I shuffled and dragged across the pool area, I had to dodge numerous children and preoccupied adults. My greeting choir had flown home. No one recognized me. Then, it dawned on me — I hadn’t missed the alcohol, but I missed my people.

Discovering common bonds in adversity

I didn’t attend any meetings the first year, as I erroneously thought it wouldn’t be my place to intrude. By the second, I understood how off-base that assumption was and began attending the nightly meetings. I would hear commentaries about the speakers throughout the week and wanted to share in my clients’ — and new friends’ — enthusiasm.

One night, midway through my third trip, we had a spitfire of an Al-Alon speaker. She spoke faster than a machine gun and I took a liking to her immediately. Interwoven with hilarity and sorrows, she told her story of how she desperately tried to manage her husband’s disease of alcoholism. If she could just prevent this situation from arising… If she could swiftly diffuse an oncoming predicament… She could make her spouse well. An absurd premise, the more control she sought, the more powerful the disease became.

Tears flooded my face as I recognized that same mania within myself when my husband was diagnosed with cancer. I micromanaged and helicopter spoused nearly every waking minute in my quest to bridle his disease. To feel safe. In the end, the only illnesses we can govern are our obsessions.

With seven sober vacations under my belt, my list of client acquaintances has bloomed into a large circle of dear friends. Q is one of my most cherished confidants. Mama is a fellow normie. We all chat via Facebook and text throughout the year.


It took three years and seven surgeries to regain the function of my ankle. My fellow brokens prayed, cried, and cheered me on throughout the entire process. They admire the battle scar that runs the length of my calf. Proof that I, like them, have persevered.

On a trip, I am now the one frequently checking the shuttle schedule, ready to burst out and delight in their embrace. To share, once again, in the joy.


*Initials used instead of names in keeping with twelve-step protocol.

This post previously appeared on
Change Becomes You | The Good Men Project | @Medium

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