I celebrated 3 years of sobriety on July 8th, 2020. 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 keeping on the path:
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.
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.
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.
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.