Stories from sobriety – A road trip to Rome

A year of sobriety had whisked past. I was firmly entrenched into a routine; swimming, sauna, hiking in nature on the weekends, meditating, chipping away at debt, meeting friends and reading. I’d been promoted at work. Which was a surprise because it was the first interview I’d done sober and I was convinced it had gone terribly, due to my nervousness. My nervousness had been for nothing as it turned out I was the only applicant but had interviewed quite well none the less.

I hadn’t only made progress in my career. My physical fitness improved, thanks to the walking, swimming and improved diet. My mental health improved thanks to meditation and reading. I just felt better.

I would love to say everything was fixed after that year and that life was like living in a happy, glowing cartoon but it was not the case. That doesn’t mean it was bad because it wasn’t. Compared to the drinking life it was heaven. It’s just that the wreckage of the past was taking time to clear and I was being forced to learn to be patient. The progress was reassuring though. Seeing my debts coming down and being more manageable meant a vast improvement in my anxiety and I was sleeping better. I reminded myself often that it had taken sixteen years of recklessness to get to this point. It wasn’t going to be fixed over night.

One evening, I was with some friends when they began discussing going away on holiday. This put me on edge somewhat because I hadn’t been on holiday sober and every trip we’d been on together in the past, were excuses to drink without reproach, poorly disguised as holidays. The places being thrown around were in a similar vein as the times previous; cheap flights, all inclusive, warm weather & not too far away. I’d stopped drinking to see the world but was very reluctant to go on holiday and sit in a free bar. I was quite comfortable visiting pubs by this point but that was a test I wasn’t willing to take. I kindly declined and said in a sarcastic way, “I would rather go to Rome on my own. I can’t risk everything.”

“Rome?” said my friend.

“Yeah, Rome. I’ve wanted to go for years,” I said.

“So have I. I wanted to go with my missus butmeant wasn’t interested,” said my friend.

That was it. From standing my ground and putting my sobriety first, it enabled us to compromise. I could go somewhere that I had longed to go and visit for a long time and my friend could still have a drink if he wished. Then, another friend said he would come along but “Only if we have a road trip,” and who doesn’t love a road trip? So it was set. My first sober holiday would be a twenty-two-hour road trip to Rome.

The first year of sobriety had been tricky at times but this trip was what I had got sober for; to see the world, taste other cultures and experience life without the glazey, hazey vision of alcohol. My goal was coming to fruition and honestly, I couldn’t wait.

Road trip to Rome

I threw some clothes into a rucksack a couple of days before we were due to leave and began planning how to see the places I’d wanted to go for a long time; Vatican, Colosseum, Roman forum & Sistine Chapel. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening. Even when we were in the van making our way there, I still couldn’t believe we were going. As we hastily headed through France, the temperature began to rise, which was a problem as the van had no air conditioning but the sweat did nothing to wash away the excitement. Plenty of iced coffees gave a welcomed cooling and a much-needed caffeine boost as we made as much headway as we could before we were too tired to continue. We safely cut through the Alps along the winding roads that are made dangerous not by the winding but, by the distracting beautiful scenery that surrounds. I soaked up every detail as it passed us by as we headed towards Turin, where we decided to stop.

Waking in the morning, to the sight of the Alps was an experience. Almost as if I’d expected to wake in my own bed again. Hungover. Having spent the previous night in the bar drinking and talking in great detail about what I would like to do with my life. But it wasn’t so. I was actually here. Humbled by the majesty of the mountains and happy to be alive.

We made our way the last eight or so hours of the journey and finally arrived in Rome in the late afternoon. We had picked the place to stay before we set off and had chosen to stay at Camping Village RomaQ (https://humancompany.com/it/strutture/villaggi-camping-in-town/roma-camping-in-town) due to its price and location. It was perfect for what we wanted and after we checked in, found our bungalow, took a much-needed shower and hastily made our way to the restaurant. We raised a glass and discussed how we would spend the next two days in Rome. I was disappointed we couldn’t have more time but my friends had family commitments that they had to honour, so it was the best they could manage. It was decided on the first day, we would visit the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. The second day, we would visit the Vatican and the Vatican museum. Over both days, we would see anything else we had time to see. We sat in the restaurant late into the night talking about the journey here and how good it was to be in Rome. As I sat, sipping my cool sprite in the warm Italian evening it dawned on me that this only happened because I had stopped drinking. The thought pushed my smile a little wider.

I was woken by the cold in the middle of the night. The room was so cold that I had to get a sleeping bag to supplement my duvet. I could see my breath it was that cold and thought the air conditioning was broken, so I turned it off.

I was shaken awake in the morning by one of my friends, who asked me if I’d turned the air conditioning off in the night.

“Yeah, it was freezing in here,” I said.

“I was trying to keep my beers cool and there’s no fridge in here. You shouldn’t have turned it off. They’re warm now,” he said.

“So it’s okay for me to freeze to death, as long as you can have a cool beer?” I said.

Alcohol was still trying to kill me.

Rome was like walking around a huge museum. History dripped off every building and the Italian culture was clear to see. It was a wonderful experience, heightened by the sight of the Colosseum. It was easy to see why people come from far and wide to visit. As its dominant size, iconic design and spectacular engineering gave a delightful taste of the brilliance of the Romans.

I’d seen photos of the Colosseum before but it was nothing like standing inside and imagining what it must have been like when it was in use. The sounds, smells, nerves, fear and excitement all battling for supremacy as the brutal spectacle unfolded.

Inside the Roman Forum, I stood in the scorching Italian Sun in awe of the wonders that laid before us. Like so much of Rome, the huge columns/buildings were intricately carved to make them grandiose. With each new sight, my yearning for exploration grew a little more and I was becoming hungry for knowledge.

The following day, we made our way to the Vatican in the scorching Roman summer. I wasn’t hugely concerned about visiting the Vatican but when in Rome. Saint Peters square was a beautiful sight but paled in magnificence compared to the sight of the Colosseum. When I walked through the door of the Vatican my breath was taken away.

I had never experienced a feeling like that before in my life. It wasn’t a religious feeling. More a feeling of pure wonderment. The place was one of pure beauty, of which a photo could never do justice. It really was that overwhelming. I stood for a moment, paused in time until my body demanded oxygen and I regained composure. We slowly made our way around and absorbed every detail before heading through into the Vatican Museum. The intricate detail on the stonework was mind-blowing in both its beauty and finesse. The statues were a combination of wonderful engineering and sublime art. It was an experience I didn’t want to end. This was the reason I gave up drinking and it was worth the sacrifice. Sobriety gives us not only freedom but also the freedom to choose how we spend it.

The tour ended in the Sistine Chapel. As I stood looking at the ceiling with sweat dripping off my face, shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, I felt an overwhelming urge to cry. Yes, it is a beautiful painting but it was more about how this moment had seemed so far away. So unrealistically achievable only a year or so before. But, one repayment, one day, one test at a time, I made it here. Even though I could have visited Rome when I still drank alcohol. I wouldn’t have been as present as I was at that moment, basking in the frescoes.

Afterwards, we made a slow walk back through Rome towards the accommodation. We had driven twenty-two-hours to get here and it had exceeded my expectations. The whole experience had cemented my belief that quitting drinking, to get a taste of life, had been the right choice. Everything about Rome was wonderful. The weather. The atmosphere. The pistachio ice-cream was especially wonderful.

We sat into the night talking about the large amount we had squeezed into two short days whilst enjoying one last delightful Italian meal. I was sad it was over, but it had been such a wonderful time. I was grateful to my friends for coming along and making it happen. They enjoyed a beer, as I enjoyed a sprite. Any thoughts of drinking were shot on sight. The counter thought to any thought of drinking was “If I still drank, I wouldn’t even be in Rome.” It became my mantra for survival.

At that moment I realised, for the first time in my life, I was in control.

Manifesting reality

I woke in the morning that we were due to go home and couldn’t help thinking that I didn’t want to go home yet. I had come all this way and Pompeii was just down the road, yet we wouldn’t have time to visit. Unlike my friends, I didn’t have to rush home to see my kids as I didn’t have any. I would still be off work for another week so I didn’t have to rush home for that. At that moment, I realised, for the first time in my life. I was in control. I could stay in Italy on my own and go to Pompeii. I never trusted myself to go anywhere alone other than the pub when I still drank because I never knew what would happen but now I felt that I could control myself and my actions.

“Are you ready to go home?” asked my friend.

“I’m not going to go home,” I said, causing him to laugh.

“Yeah, nice one, Charlie. If only ay?” said my friend.

“I’m not joking. I’m going to stay and go to Pompeii,” I said.

“Fair play to you,” said my friend.

I couldn’t believe it. It had been so easy to say and now it was a reality. Throughout my life, I had been dictated to by fear and this simple act had liberated me from much of it. I walked down to the reception and asked if I could book a single room for two more nights. There was one available and I paid the few euros required. That was that. My friends packed. We shook hands. Said goodbye and then they left. For the first time in my life, at the age of thirty-three, I was in a foreign country on my own and all I had was a rucksack. Was I nervous? Of course. I had spent my life in the pub shackled to the bar. Was I scared of drinking? Not really. I had been fine around my friends drinking. Was I excited? Absolutely. This is what I dreamed of a year ago when I stopped drinking. This is what I sacrificed so much for; moments like this, of freedom and adventure.

I went to my room and dropped my bag off. Pausing for a moment to let the reality of the situation set in. Was I really doing this? A year ago I was sat on the edge of a motorway a broken man. Now I was living out a dream. I smiled with gratitude before heading to the cafe for an espresso and a lucky strike. A combination I had affectionately termed “My Italian breakfast.” With the map laid on the table in front of me, I tried to pick a path. A route. A tick list of things to see but I decided to just head into Rome and embrace my freedom with a nondescript wander. A plan that was brought to a halt by the forty Celsius sunshine that was blazing down that day. I would walk for a bit and then find some shade for a bit. It did nothing to dampen my spirits as I located the train station and bought some tickets for the next day. One of the highlights of the day was the Vittorio Emanuele II monument that I initially thought was another work of genius by the Romans but later found it was more modern. Yet still a work of genius.

I got up early the next morning to catch the bus and metro to the train station (Termini). Initially, I was a little nervous about travelling around on my own but then I remembered that I had travelled around Britain for work on my own. I was drunk most of the time and had still managed to get around. So I reasoned that I would be okay now. The metro system in Rome was easy to understand and navigate, which was a big help. I found the train and found my seat. I set off to Pompeii and watched the world pass by as we made our way there. I changed trains at Naples, again with ease and we passed around the foreboding Mount Vesuvius which had been the cause of so much tragedy all those years ago in Pompeii and the surrounding areas.

Inside Pompeii, I was blown away by the level of engineering that the Romans had at their disposal. Underfloor heating was in some of the villas. As was internal terracotta pipework. There was a takeaway. A brothel. Two story houses. Lots of brightly coloured and ornate decorations. Thermal baths. I expected a small town but it was a city.

I spent many hours wandering around exploring, sitting, imagining and just taking in the atmosphere before I had to catch my train. I could have happily stayed for the same amount of time again.

On the train back to Rome from Naples, I had a cabin to myself and sat staring at the Italian countryside as it passed the window. On the horizon, the Sun began to set. As it did, it painted a magnificent, bright pink on the underbelly of the dark, ominous storm clouds lurking above it. It wasn’t long until the storm clouds that were thinly veiled in pink began to produce bolts of lightning that added to the already wondrous sight. I lifted my phone to the window to record the vibrant show of nature only to be met with a blank screen… the battery had died. I laid the phone back on the seat and returned to the beautiful view out of the window. As I watched the magnificent display of nature I was convinced that I had made the right decision to stop drinking. At that moment I felt contentment for the first time I can remember. It was the perfect end to the beginning of a new chapter of my life.

Thanks for stopping by,

Charlie.

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