It’s Thanksgiving, which means that whichever holiday you celebrate in December is right around the corner. This can be a treacherous time of year for those in recovery; going into the holidays without a solid relapse prevention plan might put you right on the path to danger. Staying sober for the holidays might seem like a chore, what with the stresses of seeing your extended family and the loneliness experienced by those whose relationships may still be on the rocks. But as with most things in sobriety, it’s only as difficult as you make it. Staying sober for the holidays is not an impossible task, provided that you know what to do and why you are doing it.
Both Psychology Today and Examiner.com offer some great tips on staying sober for the holidays, and we most definitely recommend reading them. Below, we’ll talk about some of the better tips they provide, along with some of our own advice for those who wish to make it through the end of the year without suffering the fear and guilt they’ve fought so long to overcome through sobriety.
We hope that this advice will help you to have a joyful and sober holiday. Happy Thanksgiving, and may peace be with you all.
Tip #1 – Don’t Neglect Your Recovery
It isn’t too uncommon for a person to find themselves with an almost implausibly busy schedule for the holidays. So many loved ones to see, so much traveling to do. Trying to cram fifty hours’ worth of familial obligations into a single day can throw us way off of our recovery. As a result, many will rationalize their way out of attending a single 12-step meeting. We tell ourselves that we simply do not know when or where to find one. In reality, we have not even bothered looking.
Deep down, we know that this rationale lacks merit. All it takes to find an AA or NA meeting in a given area is a simple Google search. And our loved ones will usually be more than willing to allow us an hour to ourselves if they understand the necessity of maintaining our sobriety. If you do encounter resistance, simply remind them what you were like in active addiction. Ask if they’d really like to see that side of you again. As soon as they consider the risks, they’ll probably look up local meeting times and usher you out the door so fast your head will spin.
Meetings, however, are only one part of it. If you’re serious about staying sober for the holidays, you need to contact your sponsor. First of all, wishing your sponsor well over the holidays is the least you can do to repay them for helping you stay sober. More importantly, any good sponsor will understand how vital it is that you speak to them during this hectic period. Don’t think that you’re putting them out, either. Helping someone else is one of the ways in which we help ourselves the most. By contacting your sponsor over the holidays, you’re not only safeguarding your own sobriety but also empowering theirs.
So contact your sponsor, and make sure to phone a few of your closest friends in recovery as well. It will strengthen your resolve while also helping someone else, and it will remind you that you aren’t the only one trying to stay sober during one of the busiest drinking times of the year.
Tip #2 – Maintain Your Inhibitions
Most people are familiar with the concept of a food coma. On Thanksgiving, we often attribute this to the presence of tryptophan in our Thanksgiving turkey, but the truth is that turkey contains no more tryptophan than more commonly consumed birds such as chicken. The reason we get so tired after our Thanksgiving dinner is simply because we overate. And we’ll probably do the same thing at Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, etc. Feasts have been a staple of special occasions for thousands of years, and that isn’t going to change any time soon.
The problem is that addicts and alcoholics already have trouble controlling our inhibitions. When we start to let ourselves go, we put ourselves on the track to lose control over more than just our dietary habits. For those of us who struggle with body issues, we also open the door to depression, self-loathing, and a world of other negative emotions.
We aren’t saying that you should starve yourself. There’s an acronym known to many people in recovery that describes four of the most common sensations that can lead to a relapse, which are HALT—Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired. So you don’t want to leave yourself famished, but you also don’t want to become too sluggish. Many of us struggle with the concept of balance, as our tendency is to swing toward extremes. But in this case, balance is of utmost importance.
Since we’re talking about self-control, we should also quickly note that those staying sober for the holidays will likely witness people drinking at one point or another. And depending on how open you are about your recovery, some people may pressure you to join them. Don’t give in.
The best option here is to have a non-alcoholic drink in your hand at all times. Water is always good, but if you need something with more flavor then try and find something you like that won’t weigh you down too much. Some low-calorie cranberry juice is one option offered by Psychology Today, and we have to agree that it seems like a great choice for someone who is trying to stay sober while still maintaining a holiday spirit. You might also try slowly sipping some eggnog (yes, they make it without alcohol) or some hot apple cider (but no hot toddies).
Writer Courtney Gillette notes that she felt a bit of envy during her first year of staying sober for the holidays, when she discovered that Smirnoff had developed a vodka flavored like whipped cream. But when she awoke the next morning with no hangover and zero regrets, she no longer felt as if she was missing very much. So if you feel like your non-alcoholic drink of choice is depriving you of the enjoyment being experienced by your friends and family, remember that you’re also missing out on the effects you suffered through years of over-indulgence. When you filter your situation through this particular silver lining, you won’t feel so left out.
And if you’re at a party, remember that people don’t care as much as you might think. Some people might ask why you aren’t drinking, but most people won’t think twice if you have a cup in your hand. So while you should be prepared to answer the question if it comes up—which means that you must know in advance how open you’re willing to be about your sobriety—you should also try not to sweat the small stuff. Just relax, and remind yourself that saying “no” is not as difficult as all those after-school specials made it look when you were a kid.
Tip #3 – Find Some Healthy Distractions
We could talk all day about the things that you shouldn’t do, but you also need to know how to fill your time. During the holidays, the importance of filling the void increases ten times over. Some of us have busy schedules to accomplish this for us, but not all are so lucky. Boredom can last an eternity for those of us who are accustomed to spending most of our downtime in the throes of synthetic euphoria. Staying sober for the holidays becomes much more difficult if we find ourselves sitting around in a family home full of wine and spirits with nothing to fill our time.
There are two things to remember about filling the void for the holidays. The first is that this is a great time to rekindle our love for holiday traditions we may have skipped over during some years of our active addiction. For those who are confined to staying indoors for any reason, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade offers a lot of fun music and performances in addition to the bright and colorful floats. And from Thanksgiving to Christmas, you can easily find a ton of classic movies on TV, such as Home Alone, A Christmas Story, It’s a Wonderful Life, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! And those are only to name a few.
Of course, sitting inside the house all day isn’t the most festive way to spend your time. Luckily, there’s a host of other holiday traditions just outside your doorstep. You can try finding a local tree-lighting ceremony, taking in some holiday concerts performed by local choirs or other performers, or even simply driving around some neighborhoods in which the residents do up their houses with fun decorations. Not only are they fun to look at, but they give you a sense of appreciation for the creative, innovative, and spirited people who populate this big and wonderful world in which we live.
The second thing to remember about staying sober for the holidays is that you’ve been given a chance to establish your own traditions. If you live somewhere with a lot of snow, you and your family might have a little snowman-building contest. You might take up sledding, or even go caroling if you live in a friendly enough neighborhood. Definitely feel free to be creative in devising a new tradition for you and those you love. Even if you’re spending the holidays alone (in which case you should reach out to some recovery pals and rectify the situation), try to do something different this year. It’ll add a lot more meaning to your sobriety.
No matter what you do for the holidays, do something. You may even let your inner child come to the surface by making snow angels, igniting a snowball fight, or even making popcorn necklaces and paper snowflakes. It sounds tacky, but you’re allowed to be as tacky as you want for the holidays as long as you’re doing something that makes you happy and won’t bring any harm to yourself and others. And if you’re one of many addicts whose home life made it difficult to have much of a proper childhood, then it might be therapeutic to prove to yourself that it isn’t too late to partake in some of those childishly festive activities. At best, you’ll experience a joy of which you were previously deprived. At worst, you’ll decide that you didn’t miss much.
Regardless of how you choose to spend your time, enjoy it. Don’t just suffer through the holidays, but rather embrace them. Whether rekindling old traditions or instating new ones, you should endeavor to make it through the holidays with red-cheeked festivity instead of white-knuckled fear.
Tip #4 – Perform Some Service Work
If you’re really looking for something to do over the holidays, remember that there are others out there who may be having a tougher time of it than you are. If there’s one problem that most of us share aside from addiction itself, it’s the tendency to sometimes let our egos get the best of us without realizing it. Even our fear is often self-centered. But while we’re afraid of relapsing and losing our families (a valid concern, to be certain), there are others who are worried about finding food and shelter as the nights grow longer and colder by the day.
Volunteering at soup kitchens is a very common Thanksgiving practice, but remember that those kitchens don’t exactly close throughout the rest of the holiday season. And while Thanksgiving might be one of the days on which they need the most help, there is never a day of the year that your help will go unappreciated.
We’ve talked about service work before, in our articles on the disease model of addiction and the need to fill our spiritual void, so we won’t harp on about all the places you can find to volunteer. But we will quickly mention that there are other addicts and alcoholics out there who might benefit from your service as well. While there are those who have it less fortunate than you, there are also those who are going through the exact same problems you are.
So you might offer to chair a meeting on a holiday, or give people your number and tell them to call you if they find themselves in a crisis that may threaten their sobriety. Your phone might never ring, and the meeting you chair might only have three or four people in attendance. Even so, putting yourself out there and trying to help another person will make your holidays much more fulfilling. And if you do find someone who needs your help, then you’ll be able to make it through the holidays with the knowledge that your generous sense of hospitality may have just saved a life.
Tip #5 – Learn the Meaning of Gratitude
While the above tip focuses on benevolence and being generally charitable, the holidays are also a good time to remember that others have often shown us the same grace when we most needed it. In some cases, it might even be debatable whether or not we actually deserved the warmth and generosity we have received.
Many of us have long-standing resentments against certain members of our families, but the fact that they have taken us back into our lives after all we have done to distance ourselves is nothing short of a miracle. They may have quirks that peeve us a bit during our time together, but we should be thankful that we’ve been given the chance to be annoyed by their idiosyncrasies. After all, would you rather be annoyed by your mother’s long stories and father’s bad jokes, or would you rather be cut from their lives entirely? Family is a gift, not a curse.
In fact, many of us entered recovery in the first place because our families requested it. If not for their concerns, we might not currently know the joy of sobriety. Staying sober for the holidays is something you should do for yourself, but that doesn’t mean your loved ones are not a factor. They are one of our key motivators, and they are among the people who would be most hurt to see us spiral back into our old ways.
Of course, not everyone will have the opportunity to see their families over the course of this holiday season. This can make staying sober for the holidays much more difficult (remember what the L stands for in HALT). But if you work a solid program and maintain a strong and sober support network, then you undoubtedly still have people in your life for whom you can be grateful. Don’t forget them. We already discussed the need to stay in contact with your support group, but this holiday season may also present the perfect opportunity to reach out and touch those with whom you have lost contact. Everyone has someone who is important to them. Let them know how much they mean to you.
We’re talking a lot about sheer thankfulness—an appropriate topic, given the time of publication—but remember that gratitude is as much an action as it is a feeling. If you are grateful for your family, friends, or others in your life who have been good to you, then you should do something to demonstrate it. You might try purchasing some thoughtful gifts, or even buying supplies to make gifts yourself. However, financial stress can be something of a trigger, so do not overstep your budget.
If you have a special skill such as working with cars, performing home repairs, cooking, or even artistry, then you may consider using these skills to express your gratitude. Or, as mentioned above, you might simply let your loved ones know how much they mean to you by telling them directly. Actions speak louder than words, but words can still mean a great deal.
Finally, remember that our friends and families are not the only things in life for which we should be grateful. So consider making a gratitude list. Fill it with every little thing in your life for which you feel truly grateful. If you find that you often spend much of your time focused on what’s been going wrong in your life, then use this opportunity to spend some time focusing on what’s been going right. And do yourself a favor—save that list. Keeping it around will make staying sober for the holidays a little bit easier. You might even consider going back to it every once in a while when the holiday season is over, occasionally adding new things to the list as reminders that life in sobriety is much better than it was before.
One Last Thing…
We’d like to leave you with one final tip for staying sober through the holidays. It’s our most important tip, and it’s something that you should remember every day of the year:
Don’t stress out.
People aren’t meant to live their lives in fear, but many of us do. For some of us, the time we spend worrying about a holiday relapse may cement the idea in our heads to the point that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you heed the advice above, then the stress and fear might not get to you quite so much. But it will still rear its head every once in a while, and you will have to remind yourself that most things in life are only as hard as we make them.
As they say in AA, take it one day at a time. If you can stay sober today, then you’ll have until the sun rises on another dawn to begin worrying about tomorrow. Today is right in front of you, so enjoy every second of it before it slips through your fingers like sands through the hourglass.
Wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, we hope that your holiday season is a happy one. And if for some reason you find that the wagon has slipped out from under you and you are in need of help to get back on it, please contact us. We have all experienced our own stresses and fears when staying sober for the holidays for the first time, so we understand what you are going through. You don’t have to go it alone.