In my first rehab, I sat and mourned that getting sober meant I couldn’t drink wine in Italy. If I kept down the path I was on, I was never going to make it there in the first place.
When I was active in my addiction, travel didn’t seem available to me — either all my funds were going to drugs and alcohol, or I was underemployed. When I did travel, it was a mess of dramas and couch surfing and relying on the kindness of strangers with their own motives. Once I got sober, I wanted to do everything that my addiction had prevented — and one of those things was to see the world.
I quickly found out that the true gift of sobriety is freedom. Traveling sober means seeing the world without the fear of waking up in a strange place with a strange person and a pounding head — or worse — in a foreign jail. I watched a couple in Thailand have their passports confiscated over a dime bag of dirt weed. As the sober movement gains steam and coincides with the self-care movement — after all, there is no greater act of self-care than sobriety — traveling sober has become an industry.
Once I got sober, I wanted to do everything that my addiction had prevented — and one of those things was to see the world.
And so have sober retreats.
There are sober cruises, sober retreat centers, sober retreat companies, sober sports tours, and hotels geared toward sober customers with plenty of AA history. And then there is the glory — and risk — of traveling completely alone.
Of course, if you’re in a 12-step program, you never have to stay alone. I’ve been to AA meetings in four countries, and plan to add two more this fall. However, for most of us, time and money are limited resources. So how do you know what is right for you? Here are some pros and cons of each that I hope will help you decide how to create the getaway of a lifetime — at least until next year. Plus, if time and money allow, you may create a hybrid vacation — starting or ending with a retreat and coming early or staying on to explore the location on your own.
Sober Retreat Pros:
1. A built-in community with whom to share the experience.
Two years later, I’m still in touch with several women that I went to Bali with on a She Recovers retreat. The morning yoga sessions, waking up early to watch the sunrise with a cup of coffee only to find a new friend already there to share it with you, the evening group sessions full of heart-wrenching vulnerability… These things meant, and continue to mean so much to me, an alcoholic who spent much of her life feeling like an outcast.
2. Little to no planning required.
All I had to do to go to Bali was to make sure my passport was up to date and book my flight. Everything else was taken care of by the event organizers. There was a sign waiting for me at the airport to transport me to the resort, all our meals were provided family-style, with optional daily activities on aboard. It was so easy.
3. There’s someone in charge — and it isn’t you.
The women facilitating the retreat were always there — to help resolve an issue, to lend an ear, and to simply hold space. Having people invested in the good time that you have — that aren’t you — is priceless.
Sober Retreat Cons:
1. Yes, it can cost more.
All that comes with a price — my first week in Bali cost more than the three subsequent weeks on my own in equal accommodations.
2. You’re stuck with each other.
You may not get along with your roommate, and you’ll most likely have one. Mine hated that I went out at night to smoke, I hated that she read with the lights on. By the end of the trip, we hated each other.
3. The lack of freedom.
You don’t get to do whatever you want or explore the country; it’s about the group, and for those of us who had controlling parents, the inner rebel may protest.
Solo Travel Pros:
1. You can do you in whatever way you want.
You have absolutely no one to worry about, no one to answer to, and no one else’s needs to consider. It’s glorious. You can actually do whatever the hell you want.
2. The cost is definitely a lot lower.
Traveling alone is so much more cost-effective than paying for organizers to, well, organize. You’re paying for their retreat, too. And if they didn’t get a great deal on the accommodations, that is passed on to you as well. Thanks to the internet, it’s easy to find the best in your budget, and if you don’t like it, you can leave and try somewhere else.
3. It makes you feel like a badass.
There’s something about going it alone that inspires endless faith in your ability to do anything. It deepens your trust in yourself, plus helps repair the years of damage that drinking and using did to your self-love.
Solo Travel Cons:
1. If it goes south, you’re all alone.
You’re alone in a foreign country and you have to figure out everything on your own. If you can’t figure out the trains, the money, or anything, you have to figure out how to get help from someone who isn’t particularly invested in your good time and may or may not speak your language.
2. Loneliness can definitely strike.
There’s loneliness, and there’s another side of the world despair. There’s no one to share, well, anything with that’s built-in. You have to go out and find friends. That’s not always easy when you’re down.
3. Relapse can also happen, unfortunately.
In Thailand, I was so lonely that I turned to Tinder. And then I relapsed. Addiction’s old “no one will know” mind trick can be pretty loud when you are physically removed from everything you know. Drinking or using can seem like a great idea, especially if you convince yourself it’s special, and if it’s a big part of the culture. You know, like my ideas of Italy.
In order to avoid risking relapse, I have a few tips: I take an active part in preventing travel relapse by making time to check-in with sober support systems back home, having my minibar emptied of booze when I check in to a hotel, and keeping away from nightlife. I also always get massages while traveling, which keeps my stress in check.
If you can afford it and you’re in your first six months of sobriety, I highly recommend going on a retreat rather than solo. If you really can’t imagine yourself flourishing in a group environment and don’t want the added expenses, I would wait to go until you’ve got a handle on sobriety. The world isn’t going anywhere.
And most of all, have the time of your life. You got sober. You can do anything.