Flying High: Why Airports Are Triggers for Those in Recovery


It’s the holidays and I can attest to the supply and demand raise in airfares. Everyone is getting on a plane and going somewhere. For those of us in recovery, walking through a brightly lit airport has the potential to trigger memories of a high flying past. And airports almost always bring back fond memories of vacations, successful business trips and reconnecting with loved ones. Those happy memories, commingled with thoughts of drinking, can create a dangerous nostalgia.


Vacation Begins with the First Drink?

I have heard so many people say, “Vacation starts when I have the first drink on the plane.” But a boozy vacation can start in one of the ringside bars that always seem to be open for “breakfast” in the airport as well. There is an urgency to drinking in airports – getting “just one more” down the gullet before your flight gets called. And it is so easy and guiltless to belt three Bloody Marys in the Sky Club at 8 AM before a flight – you could be from England after all…


These days, flight attendants monitor the behavior of passengers (no more ordering bourbon with beer chasers or slurring demands). But you can bring small bottles of liquor on-board now. And as long as you don’t seem like a threat to national security or do the Macarena in the isles, they will leave you alone to quietly get inebriated in your seat.


What Makes Airports Triggers to those in Recovery?

  • You can order a Mai Tai in the morning without anyone looking askance – people drink in airports at all hours
  • You can drink FAST – waitstaff are used to pouring libations for those who are in a hurry
  • Fond memories surface of past drinking/traveling experiences


When traveling alone, who would know if you drank?


  • There is ample time to sleep it off if you are meeting someone on the other end
  • Or there is always the airport hotel and a lie about a “missed flight”
  • You are surrounded by people who think, “Vacation begins with the first drink”
  • Fear of flying
  • There are bars everywhere filled with travelers who seem to be having a great time
  • Duty Free shops with brightly colored posters crow “Cheap Alcohol!”
  • The sounds and the smells and the lights awaken the classical conditioning of addiction.


Airports are tough to navigate …

I’ll admit it – almost three years sober and airports are difficult for me to navigate without hearing the voice of the little devil on my shoulder say, “Oh why not? Who would know?” I sometimes wish the airport authorities would put all the drinkers into one of those horrible rooms they used to put smokers. But it is not going to happen.


We all have to travel on planes, so what do we do when we are ambushed by one of the triggers above?

Sanford Clinical Manager Lynnel Brewster says, “Pause and recognize the feeling. Triggers are associated with emotional memory. You can’t help experiencing the feeling, but you can help what you do with it. If you are not traveling with a sober companion, be prepared. Have a distraction plan in place. Write in a journal or work on a project that has a deadline. Stay away from those areas in the airport that have restaurants and bars. Your emotional mind plus your reasonable mind will equal your wise mind.”


One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was, “When you are tempted to drink, play the situation all the way to the end in your mind.” Your thoughts travel past immediate gratification to the horror of waking in an airport hotel with a hangover and a lot of explaining to do. Lynnel Brewster says, “Better yet, play the scenario out to its positive end. How will it feel when you get off the plane, fresh and energetic? And with a project completed and a brand new day full of endless possibilities stretching before you!”




Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world. (She also holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Creative Writing). Seven years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, "Excursions". She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction.