How Going Alcohol-free is Like Going to Iceland

Five years ago I was struck by uncharacteristic wanderlust.

After watching a nature show about the phenomenon, a desperate yearning to see the northern lights for myself overwhelmed me. I do not particularly like airplanes or travel in general, but the urge to see those otherworldly lights blinking across the sky compelled me to go.

Looking back on that trip, I realize now how much it has common with the road I’ve traveled around alcohol. Stick with me!

Here are the top 5 ways that, for me, living alcohol-free has been like visiting Iceland.

I thought getting there would be Hard

The words “Reykjavik” and “Iceland” just sound far away. I’m no wiz at geography but I thought Iceland was next to the North Pole, and that it would take many hours and a flying reindeer to get there.

Fairbanks, in Alaska, sounded closer. It’s also a good spot to see the Northern Lights and I wouldn’t need a passport to go. It does take roughly a dozen hours and two airplanes to get there. And I learned that on an average day in March (when I planned to go), temperatures usually dive way below zero.

Iceland, on the other hand, was a direct five-hour flight away. No layovers, no fuss, no frostbite. It’s easier than getting to California! Much like living a sober lifestyle, getting there was much, much, much easier than I ever imagined.

no one ever told me how beautiful it is

I expected the northern lights to be beautiful. What I didn’t anticipate was the epically gorgeous Icelandic landscape. The mountains seem to meet the edge of a striking blue ocean, where whales frolic. I saw gorges and caverns and waterfalls that made me feel like I was on the surface of a distant planet.

Even the town of Reykjavik is far more beautiful than I expected, full of street art, cobblestones, and ancient churches. I spent a lot of the trip simply gawking at my surroundings.

I don’t know what it is about removing alcohol from my brain chemistry, but I am so much more alert to natural beauty everywhere I go now. I have bought myself flowers--something I never did before in my life--because the colors and forms of flowers zap me with positive feelings. Birds in the treetops stir something in me that woke up in Iceland but was otherwise fast asleep. I can’t believe the things I appreciate so much now were here all along and I never saw them. No one I talked to about quitting drinking ever said, “You’ll notice how beautiful the world is every day.”

I have not aged out of wonder

The moment this hit me in Iceland I was face to face with a miniature horse. These pony-sized creatures are actually fully grown and quite strong--tourists routinely ride them. The day I met one of these horses I was incredibly enchanted as I lightly placed my fingertips on its snout. I was furious with myself for not scheduling a horseback riding outing. (When I reviewed possible activities, riding little horses seemed silly, but now I know it is the thing that will bring me back to Iceland.)

The feeling that came over me with that horse was like being a little kid irrationally excited about fun. I thought only children got to feel that way, or maybe that you need to be very sleep deprived in a foreign country to feel that way again. Now, all sorts of moments and activities give me this feeling: When a play I’m seeing is about to start; a just-popped bowl of popcorn; putting a puzzle together with my husband; ordering ice cream. I thought life could never be fun without alcohol but the exact opposite turned out to be true. Alcohol was sucking the fun out of everything else.

Hard things are easier with friends

The night I decided to pull the trigger on the trip was an unusual one. I was hanging around at home with my husband when a couple of my friends came by. They asked me to go out with them that night, but I was seriously bogged down with deadlines. I started telling them about the nature documentary and the northern lights. Very soon after we all sat in my living room, smartphones and laptops ablaze, looking up travel deals to Iceland. We found some good ones, and 12 hours later the trips were booked--for six of us! If it had just been Dan and I trying to decide we might have debated our options forever. The energy of the group made it easier to follow through somehow.

This is equally true when it comes to giving up alcohol. When I quit, my sister and I did it together. I also found a vibrant online community of other people who were choosing an alcohol-free lifestyle and making it look both easy and wonderful. Soon, I felt I had a new tribe and new role models for another way to do life without all the wine and cocktails. That feeling of belonging really helped me do a thing I’m not sure I could have done on my own.

There is a latent spirituality in me

Standing on one of Iceland’s black volcanic beaches or under the otherworldly shimmer of the Northern Lights, I felt small. A sense that there could be some natural intelligence or energy greater than what my human mind can hold took hold of me, opened me in a way that I had not been open in many years to the idea of God. I thought it was very weird at the time, considering my Catholic upbringing and subsequent rejection of religion.

The minute I stopped drinking, those feelings came back again. I felt supported by a conscious, compassionate universal energy that nudged me forward and supported me every step of the way.

I still do not belong to any church or claim any set of beliefs as my own, but I pray more. I feel more connected to and in harmony with the collective human soul. I find myself reading all kinds of books of a religious and/or spiritual nature and getting something out of them. It’s one of the many curveballs I didn’t see coming.

joy manning