The holidays are a hard time for many people, not just people who are alcohol and drug-free. In particular, it is hard for sober folks because alcoholism is a family disease and it can be hard to be around family members who are triggers. Without proper coping mechanisms in place, being around family and old friends makes it hard to stay sober during the holidays.
Three years ago, I did not stay sober during the holidays. I started my sobriety journey in August 2016, then relapsed on New Year’s Eve. I met with old friends around Christmas day, and one told me that she didn’t think I was an alcoholic.
*Maybe she’s right. Thank goodness because I really don’t want to be an alcoholic.*
A few days later, I went to a party in downtown Nashville with my partner for New Year’s Eve.
*It’s ok if I drink because I don’t know anyone here.*
My mindset was all wrong going into the holidays. And, unfortunately, I decided to drink.
My birthday is on December 20. I used to make plans with friends to go out downtown. Now, it’s a family affair. My husband cooks chicken and dumplings. My mom and I set up a hot cocoa station while my sister bakes cookies to decorate. We play games together and celebrate the season and my birthday! You can easily see the joy of being with my nieces and nephews in the photos below! I would rather do this than waste my money on bars and spend my time making meaningless memories I won’t remember.
Below I interview Ben Dickey and Angela Quadrani, two mental health professionals located in Memphis, TN, concerning how to stay sober during the holidays.
Now I know that the holidays are a trigger for me, including seeing old friends, so I do things differently. I created my own traditions not centered on drinking, and care less about seeing old friends who are not on the same path as me.
Mindset is Everything
If my mindset is that I will not drink during the holidays, and continue to take each day one day at a time, then each occasion gets easier. My mindset now with almost two years of sobriety is that I won’t drink because I don’t drink. I stick to my one single decision so that the smaller decisions don’t distract me. I often look back on this quote from Coach Sommer in Tim Ferris’ book Tools of Titans:
“If the commitment is to a long-term goal and not to a series of smaller intermediate goals, then only one decision needs to be made and adhered to. Clear, simple, straightforward. Much easier to maintain than having to make small decision after small decision to stay the course when dealing with each step along the way. This provides far too many opportunities to inadvertently drift from your chosen goal. The single decision is one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox.”
My chosen goal is sobriety. I am no longer distracted by the smaller temptations along the way!
Decline Invitations That Don’t Suit You (Even Family!)
Saying no to invitations is still very difficult for me because I get severe cases of FOMO (fear of missing out). Setting boundaries is a skill that gets easier with practice.
“If you are unsure about going, it might be best to err on the side of caution, put on a pair of cozy pajamas, make yourself some hot cocoa, and spend the night watching holiday movies,” Angela Quadrani, the Director of Business Development of the Southeast US for Addiction Campuses says.
If you do not feel ready to see certain friends or family yet, then do not feel pressured to go. Nothing is wrong with focusing on yourself and your recovery this year so that you can be present for many more holiday seasons to come when things get easier.
Have a Plan in Place, Including an Exit Strategy
Ben Dickey has been sober for over 10 years and is the Operations Director for First Step Recovery, Midsouth Sober Living and Judicare in Memphis, TN. He advises, “When you have a plan in place before the holidays you will feel more confident and prepared for any issue that might come up. Instead of feeling nervous and scared about how you will react to a holiday party or gathering, you will know what to do in any situation.”
When I attend a holiday get-together, I make sure to think ahead of how I will leave the party, what time I will leave, and who I will call if I need a listening ear. I make sure to bring my own car so that I can leave when I need to.
Stay Consistent in Your Routines and Accountability
This consistency stems from whatever is in your Sobriety Toolbox. I focus on my morning routine, exercise, staying in touch with sober friends, and going to 12 step meetings. Of course, the holiday season is busy, but that makes it even more important to stay focused on my routines. Check out my full post on My Sobriety Toolbox here.
This holiday season is also not a time to go a week without talking to a trusted friend or sponsor.
Angela adds, “Accountability to your support system is paramount. Let your trusted friends and support system know where you are if you plan to attend a party and talk about how you are feeling emotionally about going.”
Bring Your Own Alcohol-Free Drink
Unfortunately, not every holiday host will have a non-alcoholic beverage available. Plan ahead and bring something to drink just in case.
“If you have a cup in your hand, it may be less likely for someone to ask ‘why aren’t you drinking’ or ‘would you like a drink?’ You do not need to defend why you are staying sober, and that ‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Angela notes.
Are you hosting a party? Here are some tips for making your sober guests more comfortable.
Keep Your Hands & Mind Busy
When attending a holiday party, I enjoy playing games, decorating cookies, joining a present swap, or even getting a photo taken with Santa! If no activities are going on, help out in the kitchen or play with the children.
Angela has more great ideas: “While you are at the party, find a way to make yourself useful and stay out of the ‘spotlight’; help with the cooking, help with the cleanup or stay busy by playing with the kids or pets. Finding a way to be of service and remaining useful may allow your fears and your anxieties to quiet down in your head.”
Each holiday season brings its own challenges: new friends, visiting family, and making plans. My mindset about facing all of these events has changed over the years to ensure I stay sober during the holidays. I don’t focus so much on where I’m seen or which parties I go to. Celebrating with family and friends is important, but my sobriety comes first, no matter what situation comes up. With this advice at hand, I feel confident about staying sober during the holidays this year.
What is your advice for staying sober during the holidays? Let me know in the comments below!
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For the full interview on how to stay sober during the holidays with Angela & Ben, please read below:
EG: Why is it particularly difficult to stay sober during the holidays?
AQ: Addiction and Alcoholism is often a ‘family disease’, meaning the family may still be very codependent, enabling, place blame or shame on the addict, and have unresolved substance abuse or mental health issues themselves. Holidays tend to be family-centered occasions, where discord or disputes may arise, and coping skills are not fully developed by the person in recovery. It may be their first sober holiday, which can be overwhelming to face family occasions in a high energy environment. It may also trigger some or emotionally challenging; feelings of guilt and resentment over years of substance abuse and how it has affected the family may plague the thoughts of someone new in recovery.
Holidays are also a time for celebration, with a high emphasis on alcohol consumption and parties where alcohol or drugs may be present. Sometimes these occasions are unavoidable, meaning they take place at every family event or at work functions. The tools we learn in recovery may mean staying away from old playmates, playgrounds or playthings, including these parties. Or better yet, partnering with a sober friend and remaining accountable to staying sober. Let your support system know how you are feeling and where you are going. When you feel uncomfortable or triggered, it may be time to leave. Always bring your own car to the party…that way you can determine when you leave!
BD: Recovering from addiction comes with many complications and struggles throughout the year but one of the toughest times for most sober people is the holidays. The few months between November and January can be some of the most difficult to get through because of many factors. One is just the amount of alcohol at the many parties and functions. two is specifically for those who are early in the process and have not reconciled with friends and family yet. Recovery is a process and many may not be at the point where going around family is welcomed yet by either party.
EG: Why do relapses occur more often during the holiday season?
AQ: Relapses happen all the time, throughout the year. I have found that people remain drinking or using during the holidays under the pressure of their environment and they are not ready to give up their drug of choice yet. We often hear ‘I will get sober after…’, meaning, they put off their personal recovery to participate in the holiday festivities. We see a decline in people entering treatment during this time because people tend to feel obligated to be with their families or attend holiday events.
There may be a fear of missing out on the occasion or fear of what their family or friends will think if they are missing for the holidays. We see higher admission rates right around or directly after the holiday season. The unfortunate part is we see deeper consequences such as more DUI’s, more medical/ER visits, more family discord or emotional damage because individuals do not seek help during this time, maybe when they need it the most.
BD: Some of the main reasons people relapse over the holidays are, not planning ahead and not having the support system set up or in place. Most people in recovery know how important it is to have a support system in place when you are struggling with temptation. This is especially the case during the holidays when many people feel isolated and under more stress than usual. It might be a good time to talk to your sober friends more often and ask for extra support.
EG: What is your advice for someone new in recovery attending a holiday party or get-together?
AQ: Accountability to your support system is paramount. Let your trusted friends and support system know where you are if you plan to attend a party and talk about how you are feeling emotionally about going. Build a support system through a 12-step fellowship, faith-based fellowship or with your therapist or ‘circle of trust’. Participate in sober activities or events, they are out there! If you absolutely must go, determine the amount of time you will spend at the event beforehand, and leave when you have committed to going. Always bring your own keys to the party, so you can leave when you need to.
While you are at the party, find a way to make yourself useful and stay out of the ‘spotlight’; help with the cooking, help with the cleanup or stay busy by playing with the kids or pets. Finding a way to be of service and remaining useful, may allow your fears and your anxieties to quiet down in your head.
If you are worried about not having a drink in your hand, find a non-alcoholic beverage and bring it to the party. If you have a cup in your hand, it may be less likely for someone to ask ‘why aren’t you drinking’ or ‘would you like a drink’? You do not need to defend why you are staying sober, and that ‘No’ is a complete sentence. Be unapologetically you, sober you. If you are unsure about going, it might be best to err on the side of caution, put on a pair of cozy pajamas, make yourself some hot cocoa, and spend the night watching holiday movies.
BD: Plan, plan, plan. When you have a plan in place before the holidays you will feel more confident and prepared for any issue that might come up. Instead of feeling nervous and scared about how you will react to a holiday party or gathering, you will know what to do in any situation. Relapse will be much less of a possibility when you have a plan ready in advance. If someone asks you why you are choosing not to drink, you don’t necessarily have to tell them you are in recovery if you don’t feel comfortable enough to share. You can prepare some answers that you think will make you feel okay with the conversation and will prevent any further prying. You can say for example that you quit for health reasons which are reasonable and in most cases is probably the truth on some level.
EG: What are your tips for a person in recovery that is stressed or anxious about staying sober during the holidays?
AQ: Take it easy, you can do this. Write a gratitude list, focus on the positive things around you, and look for the blessings. Try to have some FUN…after all, you’re sober and the holidays can be a great time to celebrate..SOBER!! Some ideas to keep you busy…spend time writing out Christmas Cards, get some friends to go Christmas Caroling, build a gingerbread house, ride around looking at Christmas lights, bake holiday goods, talk to your family and friends about what is going on in their lives, take a nap, look up holiday arts and crafts, attend a 12-step fellowship or faith-based fellowship meeting everyday, stay connected to your recovery or support system, you could add to this list Infinitum. Relax, breathe, enjoy the fact that you are sober and present!
BD: If being around family and doing things like that are becoming too overwhelming to even think about this season. SKIP IT!!! Recovery meetings meet all day every day and you would be surprised just how many people will be there. Find a group of sober friends and just hang out with them. I tell my patients all the time, especially mothers of young children, you may miss this holiday with your kids/family, but you are doing this so you can be there for every holiday after that. Whatever you do though, do not isolate. One other thing to consider is serving others. Look for organizations to volunteer at. When you are serving others, you tend to not focus on yourself.
EG: What is your occupation/title/other information you would like for me to provide in the blog post about you?
AQ: I am the Director of Business Development of the Southeast US for Addiction Campuses, helping people find treatment for substance abuse. I also serve as the Chairman of the Board for our family-owned and operated sober living home, Roots Inc., located in Memphis, TN. My family has a history of alcoholism, addiction, and mental health issues, but now we have re-written the story and celebrate a family of RECOVERY. I believe that everyone has a rising chance at a beautiful, sober life, and I invite you to be a part of this wonderful journey. God Bless!
BD: I have been working for treatment centers for 6 years now. I am the Operations Director for First Step Recovery, Midsouth Sober Living and Judicare. April 25th, 2009 is my sobriety date so I have over 10 years in recovery. My first holiday out of treatment was spent with my sponsor’s family, total strangers. It was amazing.