Dodging Triggers: How Not to Drink in New Orleans

“I survived because the fire inside me
burned brighter than the fire around me.”
– Joshua Graham

In 4 short sleeps we will be heading to the airport on our way to New Orleans for my first alcohol free vacation.

We used to keep an apartment there, since after our first visit we fell so much in love with the city and how it made us feel, that it was cheaper to rent an apartment than to keep renting hotels each time we’d go down, which was a lot. New Orleans, as it does, crept inside me like any and all other addictions: I had to have it, and as much of it as possible.

Now, if you know anything about The Big Easy, it probably has something to do with Mardi Gras parades, beignes, beads, parties and drinking topless in the street (they have drive-thru daiquiri shops, for Christ’s sake).

If there was ever a city built around binge drinking, NOLA is it.

Every time we’d head down to the Crescent City, my drinking would start (obviously) on the flight down. I would plan my arrival (drinking) at the apartment ahead of time, and order wine delivery by the case, so it would be waiting for me when I got there: everything from day-drinking wine to enough vodka and mix to sustain bloody mary’s from breakfast to dinner. And of course, sleeves of red Solo cups, so wherever we were going, I could bring a drink with me, too.

It’s worth noting that a red Solo cup is 16oz, and I’ve learned that about 3/4 of a bottle of wine can fit in one, which make it the perfect “traveller” to take with you on your way to breakfast.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous about what feels like crawling straight into the lion’s mouth. After all, Bob Dylan put it best:

Everything is a good idea in New Orleans.

No, everything is not a good idea in New Orleans.

Getting to this early point of sobriety has required me to rethink everything, including having to sort out the cognitive dissonance – you know, those inconsistent thoughts I have about drinking – in my brain. Thoughts like “but you have to drink when you’re in New Orleans!” when I know in fact I don’t have to and I don’t want to, because I know how shit has gone down in the past and I never want to repeat it.

I don’t want to repeat the time I actually tipped over, while squat down watching a parade after about 3 bottles of wine, then sort of rolled away down the sidewalk (yeah, it happened and there’s photos).

I don’t want to repeat spending the first few hours of each day of vacation nursing the day before’s bad decisions, trying to drown out the hangover under buckets of strong bloody mary’s.

I don’t want to repeat the arguments that Hubs and I have had while there, or the time we barely spoke for two days of vacation, because we were so belligerently drunk we couldn’t get on the same page. Probably because we were so hammered, our pages weren’t even in the same book anymore.

I don’t want to repeat going through my phone each morning, so I can rebuild my memories of what the hell happened last night, based solely on whatever photos are in my camera roll, that I had absolutely forgotten taking. That, and the absolute dread of checking what I posted to social media. #FacePalmGoesHere

And, I absolutely do not want to repeat that time I pissed myself in New Orleans.

The problem challenge with returning, sober for the first time ever, will be handling the inevitable barrage of triggers to drink in excess with the same level of control, patience, clarity and confidence that have helped me get this far.

Because really, what else has changed, other than the landscape? There’s no reason why staying sober in The Big Easy has to be The Big Impossible, if my heart and my mind have already decided it’ll be a breeze.

If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere. Right?

I sure hope so.

The best time to stretch my sober-muscle is right now, before I’m even packed. Right now, before I’m even on a plane, and right now, before I’m knee-deep in drunks and FOMO on Bourbon Street.

In cajun cooking, you almost always start your recipe with a roux. It’s the foundation that all delicious southern dishes are created from. And today I’m making myself a little roux for my soul, made up of equal parts preparation, foresight, courage and decisiveness so I can cook up the best, alcohol free vacation possible.

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.
― Benjamin Franklin

Addiction triggers come neatly packaged in three different sizes: environmental, social, and emotional. They also usually come straight out of left field when you’re unprepared, and they’re aimed right at your head so they can knock you out of balance and get you when you’re down. I can’t make these triggers go away – they’re what make up the booze-stained fabric of New Orleans, the Paris of the South.

What I can do, however, is take control of how I react to these triggers, because that’s where my power is. I can prepare for them, anticipate them, and totally crush them.

Making sure my Happiness Trifecta is made up of healthy ingredients, and looking forward to coming home after vacation with the overwhelming pride that I did it also helps a lot, too.

Dealing with environmental triggers when trying not to drink is likely the easiest. Just don’t walk into or up to the bar. Don’t wander down Bourbon Street where every 10 inches is another sign boasting 3-for-1 drinks and buckets of NOLA’s signature poison, the Hurricane. When you’re trying to avoid drinking and the drinking culture, it seems the most sensible thing to do is to avoid the places where drinking happens.

Except drinking happens, and is encouraged, literally everywhere in New Orleans.

It’s like trying to go outside and avoid the air.

The best way of dealing with the environmental triggers is pretty obvious: I have to change the environment. It’s time to explore corners of the city we’ve never been to, and discover landmarks and places that inspire creativity and culture. And there is so much culture in New Orleans, from her rich history to live jazz and the best cuisine in the world. It’s time to create a new list of my “favourite places in NOLA” based on how good they make me feel, instead of how quickly and affordably they can make me numb.

The excitement of discovering new reasons to love a city I already adore is pretty awesome, and I’m not even there yet.

Now, social triggers are a little harder. These are the situations I’ll find myself in, and the people I’ll be around, not just the physical environments. This is where the FOMO kicks in hard, seeing everyone else “having such a good time” (this is where I need to picture them hungover and vomiting later). This is the St. Patrick’s Day parade during March Break, and the table next to me at Muriel’s Jackson Square enjoying their second bottle of wine to wash down their crawfish crepes. This is watching everyone having so much drunken fun – and reminding myself of the consequences they’ll suffer through later, the money they’re wasting, and the fact that they probably wish they could stop drinking, too.

This is where the last 5 weeks of sitting with my cognitive dissonance comes in. Bringing what I believe – and what is actually true – back into balance, and reminding myself as often as needed that the only things I’m actually missing out on are:

  • hangovers
  • embarrassment
  • memory loss
  • regret
  • bad decisions
  • vomiting
  • arguments
  • blackouts
  • wasting money
  • empty calories
  • shame

I’m creating a new sober social trigger for myself, where everytime I see someone “enjoying” a drink and the FOMO kicks in, I’m going to picture this photo (thankfully it isn’t of me, though I’ve been pretty close to it in the past):

Well, that doesn’t look like a very fun vacation now does it?

So now that brings me to the more complicated, emotional triggers. You know the ones you carry with you everywhere, regardless of where you are or who you’re with. The memories, the mental health stuff – those deep sprawling roots of the big drunk tree. And they can appear out of nowhere, riding on the on smells of a restaurant, the sights of an old watering hole, and the tastes of a meal you always paired with shiraz.

It’s nostalgia, and those memories come with feelings that pull on your little alcoholic heart strings.

Those “feelings” that we alcoholics have so much fun dealing with (or more often, numbing and ignoring them with an endless stream of liquid ignorance).

Reacting positively to my nostalgic, emotional triggers is something I can only prepare for with a backup and escape plan. Dealing with the environmental and social triggers above can (and probably will) trigger anxiety and frustration – two very tough emotional triggers to deal with, that can leave you feeling vulnerable and exposed.

The easiest way to cope with feeling vulnerable, for me, is by having accountability.

Luckily, Hubs will be there, and I have all of you. I have an entire world full of cheerleaders wanting to see me succeed – and better yet – who understand. I have an apartment to go back to where I can write and relax if I get overwhelmed, and I have a rooftop where I can meditate if I need to bring myself back if I begin to drift or wander.

Keeping this arsenal of self-defence tools front of mind is critical, since New Orleans is a city that ignites all your senses. And it’s through those sensory triggers that all my memories of “the good ole days” spent stumbling through the streets will come rushing back and try to seduce me, stripping away all the crap happened in the past so I only see the sparkle.

It’s up to me to remember that those “good ole days” almost always ended up not so good in the end.

I’m all for being present and in the moment, trying not to control the past and the future by just letting things be as they are, and being okay with it. But this, and all situations where you’re outnumbered by triggers, is a time where focusing on the future is not only important, but imperative.

I need to know how I want to feel in the morning. I need to be accountable for my actions today, so my tomorrow can be incredible.

Incredible, and free of guilt, shame, regret and nausea. 

I want to be so present, taking it all in like it’s the first time I’ve ever truly seen New Orleans. I want to be so in the moment that I forget that drinking is an option. I want to enjoy every minute of vacation so much that I would never want to obscure my memories of it.

The fire inside me has to burn brighter than the fire all around me.

I don’t want to forfeit the priceless feeling of coming home and knowing that I did it, and it was the best vacation ever. I want to stick this sober vacation like a feather into my cap, so future situations can be less intimidating.

The only difference between visiting New Orleans and staying in my own neighbourhood at home is that in New Orleans, I get to watch tens of thousands of people demonstrate all day, every day, exactly why I stopped drinking.

What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But what happens in New Orleans goes home with you.
– Laurell K. Hamilton

Written by SJ VanDee

Recovery Blogger. Sober AF. Photographer. Storyteller. Writer.


  1. You can do it! You may find that not everyone is drinking up a storm. They may only have a couple of drinks and that’s it. I noticed that when I went out sober. It turned out it was mostly only really me drinking so much. Plus it really helped me that my hubby didn’t drink either around me. It was good support.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow. I just found your blog through TNM, and am headed to New Orleans in a month, when I will hit 30 days AF. In my corner is the fact that I am travelling with my mother and my aunt. My mother doesn’t drink (though she may be inspired to in NOLA) and my aunt drinks Scotch moderately. I am now going to read all your NOLA posts… thank you!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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