Harm reduction on vacation

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As I’ve changed my relationship with alcohol over the past several years, one of my challenges has been how to go on vacation without over-drinking. Ever since I started traveling internationally about 20 years ago, vacation has been a time to drink as much as I want…which is usually too much.

How much is too much? Well, it depends on who you ask. For me, too much is as much as it takes to make me feel anxious and ill the next day. Depending on the drinks and how much I spread them out, anything north of six in the course of a day qualifies as dangerous territory. But of course six is way more than the one per day recommended for women. In a sense, any alcohol at all is “too much.”

I have a genetically high tolerance and recognize that for many people, more than a couple of drinks is too much. I also know quite a few people who can drink way more than me without much of a problem. The only measures for harm that makes sense to me is how I feel the next day, and if I can remember the night before. If there are blurry memories and I can’t eat breakfast, I went too far.

I got familiar with harm reduction theory and practice over a decade ago. The idea is that rather than quitting an unhealthy or addictive substance, you can reduce the harm it causes through mindful consumption. Other people will have other indicators for harm, like damaging relationships, becoming violent, or missing work.

Talking to myself

I had to have a talk with myself before leaving on a two week trip to Italy. I realized that I have been holding a whole lot of cognitive dissonance about drinking. On one side, I am prioritizing healthy living and drinking alcohol does not fit in that lifestyle at all. At least not if it’s more than that one glass of wine. I know I will never be a single glass of wine drinker, so that’s not really an option.

On the other hand, I like to drink. And I feel like vacation is not a time for rules, restrictions, or deprivation. While I mostly don’t touch alcohol in my daily life anymore, I have found that when I allow myself to drink on vacation I tend to overdo it. I’ve made myself ill on enough weekend getaways that I knew I needed a plan for a two week vacation if I didn’t want a two week hangover.

So I sat myself down and had a talk. I literally wrote out a conversation between the healthy-living part of myself and the drinking part. I named them Good Kitty and PartyKat.

It became clear early in this conversation that these two disagreed on how much is a reasonable limit for drinking. Good Kitty thought three or four drinks should be enough to get a buzz on, but PartyKat knows she needs double that to feel satisfied with a day of vacation drinking. So I settled on up to two drinks at lunch time and four in the evening (a couple at dinner, a couple more before or after).

Counting Europennies

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My therapist suggested a harm reduction technique to track my drinking: put pennies in one pocket, and each time I order or pour a new drink, move one penny to another pocket. When I’m out of “drink tokens” I’m done drinking. I pulled six Europennies out of my collection of change from previous trips and put them in my pocket for my first day in Rome.

Although it did feel a bit silly to physically count drinks like this, it also felt like I had control. Without this symbolic mechanism, I would likely just sort of approximate drinks (especially when pouring wine). While I wasn’t measuring ounces, I did adhere to the count of what I consider normal drinks (not a pint glass full of whiskey, but maybe a large wine).

The good news is, I adhered to my limit and never got a raging hangover like I’ve had on previous vacations. But then I forgot to get out the pennies on the Amalfi Coast. I did very well in Rome, where we were spending our days out and about, and I even went a day without drinking at all. But on the Amalfi Coast we had a terrace with a sea view and a little bodega at the bottom of the stairs with a decent local wine for seven Euros. Strict counting just felt wrong.

So, I probably over-drank a bit for a couple of days. Not by much, I don’t think. There were no blurry memories or bad mornings. I doubt it helped the jet lag, but when I compare those days to previous vacations, they don’t feel like much of a splurge. I took another sober day to reset, then got my pennies back out when we arrived in Sorrento.

I found that my best strategy for sticking to my limit is to do all of my drinking before and during dinner. If I bring a bottle of wine back to the room it is harder to cut myself off. But my husband likes to drink after dinner, so I have managed to save one drink token for after dinner, and only have that one final drink before switching to water. I sleep better if I stop drinking a couple of hours before bed, but with late European dinners that can be its own challenge.

Staying flexible

As anyone who has ever decided to put strict limits on drinking knows, it can be pretty easy to un-decide on those limits once you’ve had a drink or two. I’ve found that the best way to keep myself mostly on track is to allow for a little bit of wiggle room. Those two nights of drinking on the Amalfi Coast weren’t a failure, but an exercise in flexibility. It I don’t allow for these slips, I am more likely to just throw the whole harm reduction plan out the window.

Slipping up, or relapsing, is all part of harm reduction and recovery. Arguably, it is a necessary part. You don’t go from daily drinking to occasional (or no) drinking without a bit of trial and error, so it is important to makes some room for that error.

My trip to Italy was an experiment in allowing myself to drink more than I normally want to while I’m on vacation. It was not a 100% success, but it was not a failure either. At the end of the day, it feels like a success. I avoided hangovers, stuck to my allotted drink tokens almost every day, and took three full days alcohol-free in a two week vacation.

Upon my return to the United States, I went back to teetotaling. I’ve noticed that it takes a couple of weeks for my mood to normalize after a spell of drinking, so I accept that I need to take good care of myself and get plenty of sleep and water to recover from my vacation.

While I still believe that alcohol can be a fun addition to travel, I now know that it is not a requirement to drink as much as I can while on vacation. Using harm reduction techniques has helped me find a reasonable compromise through drinking mindfully.

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