Testing my Sobriety

I celebrated 4 years of sobriety on July 8th, 2021. It wasn’t easy. I’ve been cigarette-free for almost 20 years and, in contrast, that has been a lot easier. The social constructs for the two habits are vastly different. One habit is the elixir of social engagement while the other is shunned. I remember vividly the moment the acronym of H.A.L.T. slammed me in the face. I was in a hotel lobby in Scottsdale, Arizona traveling alone on business last fall (pre-pandemic). I was in the hotel lobby desperate for dinner. It was ten minutes to 4 PM and the lobby snack bar was closed. The only place open was the bar, which was to have a bar menu. I was Hungry (because I had just flown in from the east coast), Angry (because the only place to get food was the bar), Lonely (because the bar was packed with happy hour folks all there for a convention) and Tired (because I had been up since 2 AM Pacific time). It was the perfect storm for someone trying to stay sober. If I had a rental car I would have headed to McDonalds or Starbucks, ANYWHERE, but there. I survived the experience still sober but the acronym is important to remember, regardless of what vice you are trying to kick.

Here are my lessons from H.A.L.T and testing my sobriety:

Hungry

My children have always been very attuned to my state of satiation. I get an edge to my voice, I get impatient, I get antsy. I can hear my daughter Natalie saying, “Mommy, are you hangry?” If so, all bets are off. We may be in a two-hour line at Disney World but we are going to find Mommy some food. Now that I am a plant-based eater, it can be even more difficult. This was the case in the hotel lobby. Most bar menus are meat and cheese based, you know chicken wings, nachos and sliders. I was thinking “my kingdom for a kale salad!” There was a salad on the bar menu as I reviewed it on the stand outside the bar. I stood there looking for a table tucked in a corner away from all those happy folks drinking. I took the plunge and headed to a small table hoping for the best.

Angry

I sat down waiting for a server. There was one buzzing around the many tables of drinking folks. I finally got their attention. She came by to take my drink order. I asked if they were serving food and she concurred. I ordered a club soda and asked for a menu. It took about 10 minutes for my drink. I reminded her I wanted a menu. After another ten minutes, she obliged me with the menu. I waited. I waited. Two servers flitted around the bar refilling drinks. I started to steam. Percolate. Rumble with anger. I was so hungry and, now, angry. I overheard “my” server telling her various tables that it was the end of her shift and she needed to close out their tabs. Ugh. I will never order my food. She will never be back to my table. I sat there another 10 minutes. I knew that the restaurant opened at 4:30 PM. It was now 4:30 PM. I cannot stand skipping out on a check on a server. I spent way too many years as a server and restaurant owner to want to skip out on a check but my sobriety was at stake here. I got up, left money, left the table and the drink and went to the restaurant.

Lonely

When I approached the hostess stand at the restaurant, I explained that I had waited 30 minutes to order food at the bar and that I was hungry (and seething and precariously close to wanting a double martini). They sat me immediately and brought water and bread before quickly taking my order. I was alone in the restaurant, but I had actually felt more alone in the packed bar. Perhaps it was the free-flowing booze, or the camaraderie around a substance that I so freely imbibed for many years. 

I felt like an outcast. It was obvious that most of the folks knew each other.  Everyone was gathered in small groups except for the lone wolf or two at the bar. It struck me how lonely I felt amongst all the people and how, in the past, I would have felt comforted by being surrounded by all those drinkers. I know I was telling myself that everyone was aware I was by myself and not drinking alcohol; I felt that I was on a stage naked and vulnerable. In retrospect, I realize now that my phone was low on power and I felt trapped in not being able to reach out to someone.

Tired

Jet lag is a fickle thing. I can get to my destination and feel amped up and ready to go or completely depleted. Being tired breaks down your willpower and resolve. It’s remarkable as you look around a bar in a destination city like Scottsdale and wonder what time zone someone is on. I’ve met people from Singapore and London and Cape Town all at the same conference. We are all in different stages of rest and exhaustion. I’ve come to realize that I need to plan ahead so that I can be prepared for my state of tiredness when I arrive in a new time zone. I usually think ahead when setting up flights so that I can be better prepared. If I had to do it over again, I would have taken a Lyft to a restaurant that was open all day. When I’m tired, I tend to find the path of least resistance which, that day, was the hotel bar. A little extra effort would have had me either ordering room service or heading out to a Denny’s.

I’m proud to say that I survived the day sober. I remember thinking about the acronym H.A.L.T. that day at 4:15 PM as I waited for the elusive server to come by and take my food order. I looked around that bar as I yawned, seething, isolated and hungry and realized I was sitting in the perfect storm to break my sobriety. I’m proud of myself for surviving it and now I can recount that perfect storm when I face other challenges in the future and be more prepared. 

Making a Fresh Start

I recently read Daniel Pink’s book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, and it had lots of useful information about timing. Interestingly, a fresh start can occur more often than just on New Year’s Day. So, for all of you who missed setting or initiating your New Year’s Resolution, there is still hope. There is a whole, brand new fresh start. In fact, by Pink’s count, there are 86 days available for a fresh start. Well, that is, about 1 in 4 days, so that means you can get a fresh start right around the corner, if not today.

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His theory is that there are eighty-six days that are especially effective for making a fresh start:

  • The first day of the month (twelve)
  • Mondays (fifty-two)
  • The first day of spring, summer, fall, and winter (four)
  • Your country’s Independence Day or the equivalent (one)
  • The day of an important religious holiday—for example, Easter, Rosh Hashanah, Eid al-Fitr (one)
  • The first day of school or the first day of a semester (two)
  • The first day back from vacation (two)
  • The anniversary of your wedding, first date, or divorce (three)
  • The anniversary of the day you started your job, the day you became a citizen, the day you adopted your dog or cat, the day you graduated from school or university (four)
  • The day you finish this book (one)

It’s ironic, but some of my fresh starts were not on Mondays, not at the beginning of the month, and not around a holiday. The most significant for me was getting sober. It was a Saturday, four days after July 4th. But I made that fresh start stick. I can’t remember the day I gave up animal products, but I do remember the last time I had meat was at the DFW airport, and I didn’t end up finishing some sausage links on my breakfast plate. That was the last of my meat eating. It wasn’t a Monday or on an important anniversary.

The thing is that fresh starts can start right now. If you want to give up sugar, alcohol, chicken, or smoking, throw all that mess out right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait right here. It’s amazing how fast you can get rid of whatever is tempting you. I was kind of surprised how easy it can be if you can let go of the guilt tied to whatever is in the garbage can and the waste of money it has been. I’m pretty sure I threw out 7 bottles of wine when I embraced sobriety. I didn’t give it to a good home. I threw it in the garbage can. I can sort of visualize that I am not a garbage can. Why do I think that chocolate cake should go into my stomach instead of the garbage can? Yes, please donate what you want to give up if it’s feasible. If it’s not, then throw it out.

So, I decided to look up famous birthdays on July 8th: John D. Rockefeller and Kevin Bacon. Now I know that I got sober on their birthday. It’s not why I chose that date, but it’s auspicious none-the-less. It might work to go backwards to make your fresh start more memorable.

The key to it all is to get started. Pick what you want: whether it be exercising, napping (highly recommended by Pink), writing, playing the guitar, dancing, singing, walking the dog, or saving money. If you need more ideas, check out my 102 Itzy Bitzy Habits. What do you need a start?