I am back from a week of vacation, where I drank more than usual. My new usual, anyway…there were no hangovers, or wild binges, just a tendency to have a few more drinks than guidelines recommend. It was a nice trip, and left me with no real concerns, but has left me pondering a few things.
I went into this vacation without a strict drinking plan, because it was a fairly spontaneous and unplanned trip overall. But I’m also still working to figure out my vacation rules in general, and finding I have to do some trial-and-error learning along the way.
Thinking over what I’ve learned so far this year, I think my vacation guidelines are actually pretty simple. I don’t want to drink if it will interfere with any of the real fun, like hiking or sightseeing or enjoying an amazing sunrise. At the same time, I am happy to include alcohol in my vacations when it enhances the experience, like sharing drinks with new friends, or sampling happy hour in an interesting new restaurant, without necessarily worrying about strict moderation limits.
This is similar to my guidelines for regular life, except that because most of my time is spent in regular life, I also have to focus on my overall numbers more (healthy drinking really is a quantifiable goal, I think). On vacation, I think it’s probably reasonable to focus mainly on each day’s experiences instead of strict numerical limits, even though I certainly aim to keep tracking.
Here’s one example: many of our trips include camping. Drinking does not enhance my camping experience. We nearly always camp high in the mountains, where evenings are crisp and full of mosquitoes, so a walk before bed is almost always preferable to sitting around with drinks. We acclimate to increased altitude easier without alcohol in our systems (even relatively small amounts), I sleep much better if I don’t have to unzip the tent at 3am to get out & pee, and almost all the things I love to do while camping — like getting up early and going for long hikes — are better for leaving alcohol out of the picture. So, earlier this summer, we figured out that abstaining by default anytime we camp is the easiest, simplest, happiest, and most comfortable fit for us.
But what about other types of vacation? What about times when we’re staying in a motel, hotel, or with a friend? What about when we’re visiting a town or city, and want to sample local restaurants? How do I preserve the sense of spontaneity that is such a valuable part of vacations, while minimizing the impact of less healthy tendencies?
Again, I think the question of whether alcohol enhances the experience is probably vital. One of our vacation nights was spent at a backpackers’ hostel in a small mountain town, and it turned out that the hostel offered complimentary glasses of chardonnay down in the lobby from 4-6pm. Sitting around on comfy couches, rain streaking the windows, with a glass on the table beside me was one of my favorite vacation experiences. It felt cozy and indulgent, and when the rain stopped, we went out to explore the town, had dinner and some local beer, and enjoyed ourselves tremendously. I still used my moderation tools to make sure I stopped after approximately 4 drinks (above moderate limits, but only slightly!), so we could get up early the next morning and hike up to a high alpine lake. It was perfect.
The drinking that does not enhance a vacation usually tends to happen when I am tired, stressed, or bored. For instance, when we’ve stopped at a roadside motel in the middle of nowhere, and decide to unwind with a six pack in front of the T.V., not unlike the way I used to unwind at home every night. Choosing a lower-alcohol beer minimizes any next-day effects from these nights, but I still don’t feel like the drinks made the evening any more special. Similarly, deciding to get drunk “because I’M ON VACATION!!!!” usually doesn’t make me feel great the next day, because drunk isn’t a destination I treasure in the same way these days.
Eventually, I hope to feel as comfortable in my vacation habits as I have started to feel at home. Overall, I am pretty happy with the big picture. For me, the main focus of moderation isn’t on exceptional circumstances or occasional slips, but rather, on maintaining healthier habits most of my days over the long-term. It turns out that vacations make relatively little difference to this, because even when I overdo it, I feel my new habits slide back around me when I return home, comfortable and familiar. That’s pretty reassuring, actually. Plus, “overdoing it” has come to mean something considerably different than it used to.
The stronger my moderation skills get, the more able I feel to adapt to circumstances without losing control, to allow myself a vacation excess without it leading to a hangover or missed opportunity, or to happily abstain and feel like I’m having the best time in the world. There is a part of me that worries about this feeling of flexibility, concerned that too much will allow “the creep” (when my drinking slowly creeps up over time, until it resumes its former out-of-control dimensions). So I’m keeping an eye on my numbers, and will continue to monitor my progress. But another part of me exhales in relief, because the flexibility is part of what makes moderation feel sustainable to me. As always, it seems like there’s a healthy balance point in there somewhere.