In this post, I want to share about a very special, albeit very random trip I took to Puerto Rico in early sobriety. But first, I want to take a step back.
Prior to my sobriety, the traveling I had done was minimal. Growing up, my family did not have much money, so we never left the country. My sister and I played tennis, so the few domestic trips we took revolved around that. I don’t even really remember the first two times I left the country because I was so blacked out for the majority of that time period. It’s so bizarre – I’m sitting here, racking my brain trying to remember ANYTHING from these two trips. It’s not like they were 75 years ago – more like 15 or 16! The first trip was a budget cruise to The Bahamas. A man that I was dating at the time was considering Orlando time shares, and as bait for viewing one of these properties, the time share company was giving away free cruises. We definitely got what we paid for – I don’t remember anything except hating this cruise. I think we touched land two or three times in The Bahamas and got shuttled to a casino and a hard-sell souvenir market. So I lied, I remember that – out of a 7 day cruise. The second time I left the country was with the same man for a wedding of a friend of his down in Jamaica. The only things I remember from this trip are that I was fighting with said man and that I was drunk the whole time. I was told that I climbed Dunns River Falls in Ocho Rios, but I have no recollection of this.
The third time I left the country was during my second year of law school. A good friend of mine was studying for a semester in London, so a group of us decided to visit for two weeks. I remember more from this trip than I do from my first two international trips, but not much more. It is helpful that I have a few photos from London to jog my memory – thank god, no evidence exists (that I know of) from The Bahamas or Jamaica. I remember being fascinated by the Tate Modern and the Natural History Museum, intrigued at the Tower of London, and pleased with so many young London men wearing pink and lavender work shirts. I also (barely) remember going home with some random French dude that I met at a terrible rockabilly club somewhere in London, spending the night at his place in who-knows-where, and having no clue how to get back to my friend’s place near Clapham Common. I also remember getting so drunk that I wet the bed in my friend’s bed while she was in it (!) and then feigned spilling a bottle of water in the bed before she woke up because I was so mortified. That was an amazing trip, but it was a boozy trip. Then there was Mexico with my law school boyfriend after I sat for the Bar Exam. And my belated honeymoon in the Dominican Republic. Both trips were fun, but I have to be honest and admit that I have very vague memories of both – more of the same.
Me in my natural state back then
Can you see the theme here? All I did was get blackout drunk, wherever I was. Too drunk to appreciate the trips or the people I was with, too drunk to have any lasting memories of these places. I didn’t realize how little I do remember until I sat down to write this. Also, I have never considered myself a blackout drinker – how dishonest we can be with ourselves when we are in denial…absolutely crazy.
So by age 33, that was all the traveling I had done. If you have read my “Who Am I?” post https://www.alisonfromashes.com/who-am-i/, you know that I dreamt BIG as a kid, and my biggest dream was to go to Madagascar and other far-away lands. But then, my alcoholism happened, and as I sank deeper into my scotch bottle, my passion to wander and explore was extinguished. I forgot about it and all the other things that I used to enjoy, and by the end, pretty much all I did was drink and just exist. By the time recovery found me, not only had I forgotten my dreams of exploring the world, but I did not think it was possible. I didn’t think that I could just pick up and go. Before this, I had always had to answer to someone (in my head, this is what I thought – the reality of the situation was that I always had a choice), and if that person (whether it be my parents or the boyfriend of the day or my now ex-husband) put up a fight about going on a trip, I didn’t do anything about it, except to drink directly AT that person. Furthermore, while I was in active addiction, I physically COULDN’T travel. Near the end of my drinking, I carried two bottles with me at all times and needed to drink a certain amount every two hours, or I would start to get really sick. I was chained to the bottle, and because of that, I was pretty much chained to my immediate surroundings. Everything was an effort, and traveling would require way too much planning, lying, alcoholic math, sneaking, obsessing, worrying about where the next one was coming from…it was too much. My world started to recede and eventually became so small – I felt like it was collapsing in on me.
So, by the time I got sober (and was by then divorced and on my own), it just never occurred to me that in recovery, I could literally do WHATEVER. I. WANTED. Booze no longer had its boot on my neck, so there wasn’t anything or anyone holding me back from doing anything. What?!? Such a foreign concept. I was overwhelmed by the freedom of it all, so much so, that in early recovery, I didn’t do much. I got very active in my recovery and that network of people, but I didn’t give much thought to the bigger picture of what I wanted to do with my life. So, in some ways, in early recovery, I was still just existing. And I’ve discovered, just existing is not enough for me. I crave a BIG life. I’m not talking riches, or fancy cars, or mansions, or being famous. I’m talking about BIG experiences, BIG memories, BIG adventures, BIG love. But just shy of six months sober, I didn’t even realize the possibilities that stood before me – how can one crave if one doesn’t know?
Which brings me to the winter of 2012. I had about four or five months of sobriety and had recently met a girl who was also in early recovery. I will call her J. You know those rare people that you meet and have an instant friend connection with and feel like you have known them for much longer than you actually have? That was J and me. She was just a really cool, down-to-earth, hilarious, awesome person, and we bonded immediately. I don’t think I knew her more than a couple weeks when, in passing, she mentioned that she really wanted to go to Puerto Rico during the winter, but her friends that she wanted to go with had bailed on her. I didn’t even hesitate when I squealed that I would go to Puerto Rico with her! Why the hell not?? All of the fears that typically blocked me from saying yes to things were put into check for a split second, long enough for me to say YES. Keep in mind that at this point in my recovery, I was still about $15k or $16k in debt (not counting law school loans, which I am at peace with never paying off ha), so in retrospect, probably not the smartest decision I could have made, but I’m SO FRIGGIN’ GLAD I said yes.
So a month or two later, J and I boarded a flight to San Juan. Because it was our collective first trip in sobriety, our running joke throughout the trip was that we were going to smoke ALL the cigarettes and eat ALL the food and get ALL the tattoos in Puerto Rico, because what the hell else do you do on vacation if you can’t drink? I didn’t know what to expect going into this trip. I knew there would be alcohol all around us at the beach, and I knew that no one would be watching us. I didn’t want to drink, but I guess I was still a little scared of being struck drunk (which I have learned doesn’t just happen). But I knew that drinking was just not an option for me, and I felt comfort in the fact that I was traveling with someone who had the same thing as me.
My first time in Old San Juan
We spent our first day exploring the brightly painted colonial architecture of Old San Juan, and I ate my first mofongo ever (fried green plantains mashed with salt and garlic, served in a wooden pilon). Guess what – San Juan has ALL the stray cats! Then we made our way to our hotel in Fajardo, located in the eastern region of Puerto Rico. It is absolutely gorgeous – lush greenery, bright red and pink flowers, Caribbean blue waters, soft white sand. We stayed in Fajardo for the remainder of our trip, most of which was spent lolling around the hotel’s private beach island, between eating all the food and smoking all the cigarettes (no tattoos on this trip). J and I really got to know one another during this trip and traveled so well together. And we were both shocked to realize that neither of us missed drinking at all during this trip, which is a damn miracle for a drinker like me. And booze was all around us at the hotel. This trip was a pivotal point in my recovery because it showed me that 1) I could still have a blast traveling sober and 2) it was possible to be around all that drinking and not have it affect me at all. I could be completely neutral towards alcohol, which I NEVER thought was possible. Bonus: I actually remember the trip!
Our second to last day in Puerto Rico was February 3, 2013, my six-month sober anniversary. Where I got sober, many people refer to the six-month mark as “half a cake” – since traditionally, you would get a full cake on your one-year anniversary. Anyway, J went down to the market that morning to buy a guava cake for us to split on our balcony overlooking the ocean. So, I celebrated this milestone with J, witnessing one of the most beautiful sunrises I had ever seen, eating half a guava cake and feeling extremely grateful for my sobriety and for reclaiming my life. Because when I was drinking, my life was not mine – I was beholden to my next drink, and the next, and the next. I am not one to talk much about my own spiritual experiences because they are very personal, but this was definitely one of them – a moment in time where I was fully present, humbled, open, and grateful. I hope I never forget that moment.
A moment of sober serenity
J and I flew back to Boston and remained friends for a time. We were both at each other’s one-year sober celebrations – and yes, we did each get a full cake! But we have lost touch since then. The last time I saw her, several years ago, she was talking about wanting to leave her corporate job to follow her passion to open a bakery in rural Vermont. I really hope that she is in Vermont today wearing a funny apron, making a mess with flour, and being the happiest. I think about J sometimes and am forever grateful to her for giving me one of the greatest gifts I’ve received – the opportunity to say yes to something I would normal say no to (I don’t have money, I don’t have time, I don’t have anyone to go with, I don’t want to…the list goes on). And for being there with me to experience my first sober trip, a true awakening. That trip planted this seed for me: as long as I stay sober, I will be able to do anything and go anywhere. Because as long as I stay sober, I am free. And that is the greatest gift of all.
Thank you to the moon, J.