For many of us, the holidays are a season of peace and joy, where we decorate our memories with calm and happy moments. But the reality often looks quite different, and the holiday stressors quickly pile up for the person in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction, making it a difficult time of year to stay sober.
Family members expect holiday perfection, and they often demand every ounce of your time and energy—and patience. The family menu is a constant carb-load, and traveling puts a strain on your wallet. Packed airports, tight schedules, liquid lunch for Aunt Sally. Everyone is running on empty, and the annual fight is just waiting to happen.
On top of that, you can't attend your home group meeting, and you haven't heard from your sponsor in two days. How does anyone stay sober during the holidays? Here are seven tried-and-true tips and strategies that will prepare you for the holidays, help you avoid relapse and protect you from any uncomfortable situations.
The first tip sounds like a no-brainer, but plan ahead. Holiday-themed parties and family gatherings are often soaked in alcohol, and people are likely to offer you a drink—and they might be dumbstruck when you prefer to be sober. Plan ahead for uncomfortable situations and triggering environments. What might your holiday plan involve?
Don't be surprised by a trigger. If you come prepared to protect your sobriety, you should be able to outmaneuver addiction and avoid any potential relapses.
If you become a ball of wretched energy during the holidays, perhaps your own expectations have become your downfall.
Speak with a sober friend or sponsor about the emotions and expectations you have wrapped up in the holidays—especially if you feel resentful, or if you replay in your mind old childhood experiences and memories. You need to investigate and challenge the internal monologue about what you are owed and what you are lacking—some of which might be a carryover from addiction. Then you can break down those defensive walls and forgive other people, and you can approach the holiday season with a stronger sense of gratitude.
When those feelings are left untended, people in addiction recovery often experience a buildup of stress and resentment that eventually leads to relapse. When self-identifying addicts or alcoholics* refuse to challenge those feelings of resentment and self-pity, they set the stage for relapse and disaster.
Remember, the disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day of and the day before. As we learn during addiction rehab and in the meeting rooms, recovery is a one-day-at-a-time endeavor, no matter the season.
If you want to stay sober during the holidays, look for every opportunity to be of service. Serve a meal at a homeless shelter, reach out to a newcomer at a meeting, spend time with an elderly loved one or neighbor. There are a million different ways to give back, pay it forward and be of service, and each opportunity guides you further away from resentment, self-pity and fear.
When you take the opportunity to connect with others—to see, value and honor their experience—you exercise empathy. You exist outside of yourself, and you begin to notice all the blessings your life already contains. And it doesn't get more human, or more recovery, than that.
At family gatherings and social events, tote around your favorite non-alcoholic drink. People won't feel so inclined to offer you a drink, and they won't get the chance to pester you about your sobriety.
Be mindful of asking someone else to grab you a drink. They may misunderstand you or forget that you don't intend to drink alcohol. If you do accidentally take a sip of an alcoholic beverage, don't panic. It's only a sip, and it doesn't mean you've relapsed—or that you should entertain the thought of relapsing now.
If those thoughts begin to creep in—those rationalizations about your eminent capability to now handle your liquor—shut them down immediately. Your abstinence did not, in fact, teach you how to control your drinking, because abstinence didn't rewire your brain to be non-addicted. The damage is done, and there's no going back. Instead, talk it out with your sponsor or sober friends. A mistake is not a relapse, and it's not going to land you in rehab, but those secrets might.
If you know Cousin Sadie is going to grill you about rehab, avoid her. If Uncle Brian is going to mix you a stiff drink, stay away from him. If the office New Year's party is really all about drinking or other drug use, make a brief appearance or don't attend. It's unrealistic in all of these scenarios to say, "I can soldier through it." That's what Step One of the Twelve Steps teaches us, right? That we don't have the power. So why put yourself in the position of having to "power through" an obstacle course of relapse triggers? Staying sober and safeguarding your recovery must always come first.
Celebrate the holiday season and the fullness of your sober life by taking time for yourself. Proper nutrition, gentle exercise and restorative sleep can do wonders for your well-being. The better you feel physically, the stronger you will be emotionally. Nourish your spirit, too, through personal reflection and connection with those you love. Find some quiet time each day for relaxation and meditation—if only for a few minutes, no matter how busy you are. And let your spirit be your guide.
Some families might consider the holidays an inappropriate time to help a loved one get into addiction treatment when, in fact, it could be an ideal opportunity. For many of the reasons mentioned earlier, substance abuse tends to ramp up over the holidays. Addiction treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift you give to your family, your friends and yourself.
* Editor's note: We much prefer the person-first language that emphasizes a person's identity before their disease. However, in keeping with the history of AA and NA, their founding principles and the language that still exists within the fellowships, we have decided to keep the words addict and alcoholic to describe people with substance use disorders.
Our hope is merely to capture the spirit of the fellowships, and to approach people with the language they commonly use to describe the disease of addiction.