When you miss a flight because you drank too much the night before and slept through your alarm, it’s easy to write it off as a mistake. You screwed up. You’ll be more careful next time. It won’t happen again. When you later get drunk in the terminal and wake up only to discover that you’ve missed your replacement flight, those go-to excuses are a little more elusive.
That’s what happened to me at the conclusion of my junior-year spring break. The outdoor adventure club at my school, for which I served on the executive board, had embarked on a weeklong road trip through the Southwest. We’d rented vans in Denver, explored Canyonlands and Arches in Utah, admired the view from Horseshoe Bend, camped out at various first-come-first-serve sites throughout the region, and even taken an overnight kayaking trip on Lake Powell just across the Arizona border. Then, on the last day, we’d driven back to Denver and dumped our gear in hotel rooms before hitting the town for a final celebration.
It’s tempting to chalk up what followed to the altitude — it’s true that alcohol hits you a lot harder when there’s less oxygen in the air — but I doubt I would have fared any better had we been in Jacksonville, Florida, instead of the Mile-High City. Alcoholism, for me at least, was always the pursuit of a particular feeling. From the moment I felt the warmth of that first drink, I dug in and refused to let go, my mind focused only on hunting down another shot. It’s no surprise that one of my worst drinking episodes came at the end of an exhilarating adventure — in fact, if I can point out any connection between addiction and travel, it’s that feeling you get at the end of a journey, when you’re not quite ready to give up that wanderlust-fueled euphoria and return to life at home. When we decided to party on that final night before going back to school, it was the deadly convergence of these two impulses that set me on the road toward disaster.
When I woke up in my hotel room, my original flight had already taken off — and I was still drunk. I cursed myself, called an Uber, slurred my way through a conversation with the driver on the way to the airport, and went to the United customer service desk to get a seat on a new flight. Once I’d been handed my new ticket, I breathed a sigh of relief, sat down, and let my eyes fall on the airport bar across the terminal. Thinking fondly of all the movie characters I’d heard cheerily use the term “hair of the dog” before gulping down a bloody mary, I walked over and ordered the strongest beer they had. I’ve been through a lot, I told myself. I deserve to relax a bit. It wasn’t yet noon.
When I came to, slumped in a seat in a random United gate, it was two hours after the new flight had taken off. The stale taste of grease in my mouth implied I’d bought McDonald’s at some point, and an email alert on my phone told me that my debit card had been declined for the Uber charge from that morning. I felt gross, inside and out, but I did the only thing that seemed appropriate — I walked back to the customer service desk and asked for a new ticket. The next flight out wouldn’t be until the following morning.
The 18 hours that ensued were filled with headaches, nausea, and a lot of self-loathing. In a clean narrative, this would be the turning point in my life. With no money in my bank account to buy any food or even a book from the Hudson News, I would spend the layover taking a good, hard look at myself, recognizing my problems and charting out concrete steps to fix them. In actuality, I spent that time doing whatever I could to force the shame of the previous day out of my mind. I finally flew home the next day, joked about what had happened with my friends, and then went out and drank again the very next weekend. It would be another three and a half months before I finally decided to quit drinking. Today, it’s been over 15 months since my last sip.
Alcoholism is a difficult illness to address. Despite how much we know about the way genetics make some individuals more predisposed to addiction than others, it’s trickier to think of an alcoholic as a victim of an illness. It’s why I’ve written way more about my anxiety and depression than my drinking. Other mental illnesses happen to someone; at the end of the day, the alcoholic is choosing to pick up the bottle. Ostensibly, they have control over the situation. But what the healthy drinker doesn’t always see is the inner turmoil that holds an alcoholic back from seeking help. Once you admit you have a problem, the only logical step is to stop drinking, and to do that is to permanently give up a feeling that you love to chase.
My point in all of this is to say that with alcoholism, as with any mental illness, there is no simple cure-all. Therapy and medication work for many people. For others; they don’t have a major effect. Same goes for meditation and wellness, for exercise and routine, for vitamins and supplements, for creative immersion. All of these are potentially beneficial routes for those suffering from mental illness, but none is a guarantee. What’s most important is having the bravery to start down the road of self-improvement, to reach out to loved ones for support, and to find what works best for you. And there is something that will work for you, so know that you’re loved, and don’t give up.
One of the most detrimental narratives I’ve heard is the idea of travel as an antidote to mental illness. Inspired by stories like “Wild” and “Eat, Pray, Love,” many people believe that if they take a trip, they will return cured and happy. To be sure, travel is super beneficial to our well-being. It opens our mind to new places and new ideas, reshaping the neural grooves our brains have developed that often make us feel so stuck and hopeless. But Cheryl Strayed didn’t find happiness because her journey along the Pacific Crest Trail magically washed away her grief and loneliness and struggles with substance abuse. If that’s how things worked, I would have returned from my enchanting spring break around the Southwest a newly happy man. No, she got better because she made the difficult decision to address her demons and work toward self-improvement. The adventure was simply the oil that greased her recovery.
My decision to get sober didn’t follow any big tragedy or screw-up. It came after just another night out when I woke up and had to ask where am I? I was tired of that feeling, tired of the shame that arrived whenever I thought about who I was when I drank, and I decided to admit to my family that I had a problem, that I was scared, and that I wanted to stop.
I’m exponentially happier now, though as anyone who’s treated a mental illness has discovered, life isn’t magically perfect now. There are still deadlines to meet, chores to do, bouts of anxiety, mornings when I don’t want to get up. Now, though, I know that trying to fix it all with a drink is only going to make things worse, so instead of looking for an escape route around my problems, I work my way through them.
Plus, it’s nice to know that when I order just a seltzer water at the airport bar, I won’t have to worry about missing my flight.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)