Good, bad, and as ugly as a Christmas sweater, the holidays are filled with feelings. Getting the feels is part of being human, but for people who are sober, feelings can be triggers that fueled their addiction in the first place. At least, that's been my experience. However, there are ways to survive the holidays when you're sober, so if you're struggling, know that you're not alone and know that you don't have to stuff your feelings (because drinking to relieve them just isn't an option).
In my recovery, there were good days, bad days, and definitely days that were uglier than that aforementioned Christmas sweater. On good days I found small miracles in recovery, and felt hopeful. On bad days, I felt like I was promised miracles, but they didn't come. On ugly days, well, suffice to say, I didn't believe in miracles at all.
During the holidays, you're called a grinch if you disavow miracles. But what if you're struggling with sobriety? Philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in The New York Times that he admired something radio host Don Imus, a recovering alcoholic said about drinking (or not drinking) during the holidays. Imus noted that during the holidays, he was invited to numerous holiday parties but attended very few because, quite simply, he didn't drink. As Nagel, himself a recovering alcoholic, pointed out, "No one really wants to go to all those parties. I’m one of the lucky ones who has an excuse to beg off." I like this anecdote for a couple reasons. For one, it's witty without being glib, and if you've ever been to an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting, you know that it's totally OK to keep your sense of humor after you've ditched the spirits. I'm also a fan because of the candor Nagel has about his sobriety. There's no shame, no secrecy, and there's even a little pride in the ability to "beg off."
With that sentiment in mind, the following suggestions are ways to help you survive the holidays when you're sober — whether navigating obligatory family and office parties, dealing with the long lines and crowded markets, or wanting a to beg off from all the damn cheer of the season.
Have Realistic Expectations
In an article on chronic pain relapse, Psychology Today reported that people who suffer chronic pain go hard when they're feeling good, and then suffer later as a result. What can happen, as a result, is a relapse; something alcoholics work hard to resist. For people suffering chronic pain, rather than going hard when they feel good, the article suggested going "medium," even on days you feel great, in order to prevent a relapse.
Applying this idea to sobriety makes total sense. Consistency is so important, as is setting a routine that's committed to good health. Being realistic about what you can do in the face of expectations is something that's always helped me stay consistent. This is so important come the holidays.
Make Amends (To Yourself)
If you've worked the AA program, you're familiar with the Ninth Step, which is to make amends to people you've hurt because of your addiction. I'm not suggesting you send an apology along with your holiday card, but use this time to take some inventory and be good to yourself. As Anna David wrote in The Fix, "By the time I got to my Ninth Step, I’d picked up a few things. Probably the most important one was that I didn’t have to play the victim anymore."
This resonates so much for me. It's such an empowering part of your recovery when you realize your agency and you connect with yourself, rather than belittle yourself. This is the miracle of self-love.
Skipping the holiday office party? Don't hole up at home. Call a pal and do something else. Not only will you be fresh-faced the following day at work, but you won't have to deal with the aftermath of an embarrassing hook-up.
Share Your Feelings
When isolation tempts you, go to a meeting. Never been to an AA meeting before? Go anyway and take in the vibes. You don't have to share if you don't want to, and you don't have to say the Serenity Prayer if that's not your jam. The most important thing is to be in the company of people who know what you're going through. So, you can share your feelings while having a silent night.
Let Your Friends And Family Know You Support Them
Even though you're the one struggling with sobriety, chances are people you love and who love you have been affected by your addiction. It's empowering, not to mention charitable, to practice some empathy and let people in your orbit know that your drinking might have disrupted their lives. Invite them to attend an Al-Anon meeting, which is for anyone who's life has been affected by someone with an addiction.
Although empathy is its own reward, I'm willing to bet that your loved ones will have more of an understanding of what's going on with you after they go to an Al-Anon meeting. And they will never try and get you to have "just one for the holidays."
Have A Plan
When going to a holiday event is unavoidable, be prepared. I always like to know who's going to be there and what the set-up is (are there non-alcoholic things to do? If not, you can organize a White Elephant Exchange game).
Figure out what you'd do if someone gets too drunk and play out how you'd react if someone offers you spiked egg nog.
Keep A Nonalcoholic Drink In Hand
Something I learned from some of my sober friends is to have a glass of club soda with limes in my hand at all times. It keeps the enablers fooled, and your hands occupied. (Not that you need an explanation for your sobriety.)
Stay In Touch With Your Sponsor (Or Friend)
Feeling triggered? Make that call. You are so not bothering anyone. One of AA's major principles is that sponsorship is yours for the asking.
Not in the program? Have a friend who knows your deal and is there to take your calls. To minimize feeling like a burden, (a good friend will never make you feel this way) tell her that you're going to call, and follow up. Never underestimate the power of an AG (all good) text system.
Make Decisions That Put Your Recovery First
This year, I opted out of family Thanksgiving because I knew my limits. Initially I felt so guilty, like a bad daughter, bad cousin, bad sibling (even though I'm a grown-ass woman). But you know what? I know this was the right decision for me and my family is going to have to deal.
There will always be more Thanksgivings; I'm taking it one day at a time.
Try Not To Swap One Addiction For Another
According to another article in The Fix, after getting sober, people might miss the dopamine high from drinking, a condition also known as anhedonia, or the "inability to experience pleasure in positive life events." It's so tempting to substitute one addition for another. You go from smoking to eating; from drinking to sex. All of this is an attempt to make up for that dopamine withdrawal.
You don't need a miracle to get through this time, but you do need to take care of yourself. Being aware that this could happen is the first step, and following the above suggestions can also help you get through the holidays.
P.S. You're so not alone in this.