5 Steps To Staying Sober at a Recovery Conference

What do you do when recovery becomes the trigger?

Anxiously gripping my luggage, I peered around the bustling Beverly Hilton lobby, searching through the sea of women. Do I know that one from the Facebook group? Should I remember her name? Will I recognize my roommate?

It was the recovery conference of the year: a gala event, and I’d been planning this trip for months. What I hadn’t expected was how anxious I would feel from the moment I arrived.

Eventually catching up with familiar faces and hugging what seemed like an endless line of new friends, I spent the morning setting up vendor tables and unpacking boxes of books for authors to sign.

By late afternoon, my cheeks hurt from smiling. It was beyond exciting. But I was also hungry, in desperate need to get out of my heels, and wiped out from socializing. I felt surprisingly keyed up. My stomach and chest were tight. It had only been a few hours…how was I going to survive til Sunday?

I made my way to the lobby café — which was more of a bar than a restaurant — for some food and a moment alone. I ordered fries off the high tech IPod menu, and my finger scrolled across the screen….landing on the cocktail list.

“Oh my God. A drink could fix everything.”

Photos of brightly colored, heavily garnished, alcohol-laden beverages stared back at me. I pictured those first few sips spreading warmth down my throat, into my belly, soothing the erratic, electrical charges zipping around in my brain. For decades, liquor had been my right hand man in social settings.

A drink would be so nice. Everyone’s busy. No one’s going to notice. Just one...”

A voice came from behind me, attached to a hand that swooped in on my plate, stealing a fry. “Thank you, I’m so hungry!” It was none other than Dawn Nickel herself—head honcho in residence of the whole recovery affair.

“Hi Dawn!” I gulped, smiling guiltily. Was she reading my thoughts? Did she see me drooling over the drink menu?

Some would call the interruption a “God shot.” Others would give credit to the Universe, divine intervention, or maybe just sheer dumb luck. Whatever it was, her presence was certainly enough to sober me up.

Thankfully, she was more interested in my fries than my wayward ideas, and she hurried to her next obligation. What the hell was I doing? I pushed away my plate, paid the bill and swiftly exited the bar.

But it wasn’t the last time that weekend I’d have fleeting thoughts of escaping or energizing with a drink.

I had planned ahead many details for this trip: what I’d wear, who’d I’d room with, which workshops I’d attend. But I had never expected recovery to become a trigger.

Turns out a recovery conference is simply a microcosm of the world at large. All the pitfalls we encounter on a daily basis are just as probable, and some are even magnified.

Over the three days, we were constantly on the move, and constantly socializing with women; many who were strangers. As an introvert, that’s more than enough reason to run towards my hotel room’s mini bar (my roommate had the keen sense to ask the concierge to lock it and not give us the key).

It was literally a Gala— a Golden Globes style vibe that for any other attendees would be cause for champagne. Celebrations equal alcohol. We’re conditioned to believe it’s true. My brain — to my dismay — would randomly remind me of this in the form of a craving. There were even celebrities, some of whom I had the fortune of taking a selfie with. The irony — wishing for liquid courage while hugging one of my sober heroes!

When we weren’t partying, we were involved in the heavy, emotional work of recovery. Diving into topics such as relationships, resilience, finances and forgiveness. For some, it was the first time venturing into this sensitive territory. The healing process is beautiful; it can also be messy, painful, and require a lot of energy.

Unfortunately, events like this can bring out the worst in us: our inner critic. Where our intention may be to connect, accept and enjoy, the vicious inner saboteur could get busy comparing, critiquing and separating. I found myself experiencing jealousy, FOMO and self-doubt even while being immersed in messages of love.

Another surprising and very uncomfortable reaction I had was guilt. I felt guilty for having fun. There are thousands of members in our community, and the event had limited tickets. It wasn’t accessible to everyone. My distress over this would sometimes completely cloud my ability to enjoy the moment. I would over-empathize. Similarly, it’s not uncommon to feel suffering when others share their personal struggle in a group setting. There’s a LOT of sharing at these types of events. Codependent compassion is prevalent in addiction recovery.

We tend to think of recovery-centric events as the ultimate form of a pink cloud — insulating us from “real life”, and boosting our resolve to stay sober. And they do! They’re motivating, uplifting and empowering.

They also increase our vulnerability, thereby increasing potential cravings, and worse, relapse.

Here are some suggestions you might have never thought you’d need:

· Be vigilant with your sobriety. It’s precious, fragile, and not guaranteed. “I’ll be at a drug and alcohol free event with 500 women! Of course I won’t drink!” isn’t a solid prevention plan. Accountability, structure and support are vital. Don’t leave home without a list of friends, sponsors, coaches and others to call in time of need (practice calling them when you’re not triggered). Put a note in your wallet, purse or pocket (somewhere you’re sure to see it) reminding you why your sobriety is important, and what the consequences are if you relapse. Think it through; don’t get impulsive.

· Don’t get caught up in a story. Anxiety is normal in crowds or unfamiliar settings. The parasympathetic nervous system is tricky, and even positive energy or mild stress can be exaggerated. We then interpret the feeling as fear. There’s no need to narrate, “I don’t belong, I need to escape, I should fly home.” Instead, calmly, compassionately greet emotions with acceptance. “This feels like anxiety in my belly. I’ve noticed this before. I’m capable of responding calmly to these feelings.” Daily mindfulness practice dampens reactivity, and reinforces the ability to gently respond. Do you meditate at home? Start a simple routine with a free app such as Insight Timer or Aura.

· Avoid Codependent Compassion. Over-empathizing is unproductive and steals everyone’s joy. A colleague of mine described feeling a desperate need to drink — but only right after meetings in which she listened to other’s stories of trauma and addiction. It’s not uncommon — the craving to use or drink is a craving to escape pain. Our soft, caring hearts can be susceptible when exposed to that amount of energy. Check in with yourself from time to time to see if you’ve reached your limit. Take a break and increase self-care. Pay attention to your boundaries. Experiencing joy improves our ability to serve others and makes us a better resource — don’t let guilt rob you of this.

· Know your social limits. Balance targeted personal growth (such as workshops, handouts, group sharing) and alone time — napping, reading, journaling, listening to music. Put limits on social media. Know where your recharge station is. For me, it’s a book in a quiet, warm space. Others need a nap, yoga, or a walk outside. FOMO at these events is real. We want to experience and participate in everything. It’s sometimes necessary to miss out on one portion in order to sustain energy and resilience for the long haul.

· Plan for Re-entry. Returning home can be the most difficult part of these events. We often experience a “vulnerability hangover” or “re-entry syndrome” during which we feel wrung out and exposed from the emotional and physical effort. Knowing what to expect and staying in contact with women who understand can keep this to a minimum. Plan for at least a day off before going back to work. Increase self care for a few days: hire food delivery, get a babysitter, take extra baths/naps, journal. Implement something you loved from the event at home — a smell, a book, a food, a non alcoholic drink. And hey — give yourself a break! This might be the perfect time to turn it all off and watch a comedy, or read a novel just for fun.

Ultimately, we don’t work on ourselves to be perfect at a recovery event; we work on our recovery to better cope with all aspects of life.

I guess if there’s anywhere I want to be caught checking out the sangria and mojitos…it’s with a tribe of women in recovery available to support me.

Read more about my journey navigating sober life as a single mom here and follow me on Instragram. Want me to help co-create your ultimate vision for recovery? Find out more about my coaching practice here.