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Make Your Sober Resolution Stick

Lots of people resolve to get sober on New Year's Day. If you think you're going to be one of them, read these tips on how to do it right.

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By Judy McGuire

12/28/11

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Four years ago—on January 1, 2007—Joe Turner, a 48-year-old businessman in Los Angeles was “tired of hangovers, stupidity, bad decisions, wasted money, and wrong relationships.” He’d been going to AA meetings that December, just to get a lay of the land and decide whether or not sobriety was for him. He’d concluded that it was. And once he’d made his decision, it seemed natural to make it a New Year’s resolution. 

While Turner’s sober date is notable, he insists that “it’s not important what date people have—just that they have one.” His timing, he insists, just happened to coincide with the holiday. And rather than “going big or going home” on New Year’s Eve—that is, indulging in the bender to end all benders or tucking himself into bed by 10 pm in order to avoid temptation—he went for a middle of the road experience instead. “I went to a friend’s party and had a few cocktails,” he recalls, “knowing that I would be at a 6:45 AM meeting on New Years Day.” 

People love to make New Year's resolutions. Unfortunately, they don’t love keeping them nearly as much.

Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, a NYC-based therapist specializing in addiction, warns that one of the dangers of deciding to get sober as a New Year’s resolution is the idea of having one last drunken bacchanal on what many consider the biggest party night of the year. “People will use it [their impending sobriety] as an excuse to blow out New Year’s Eve and place their lives and the lives of others at risk,” he says. “And that's not acceptable.” Also, Hokemeyer points out, “People love to make New Year's resolutions. Unfortunately, they don’t love keeping them nearly as much.”

Sober coach (and Fix contributor) Patty Powers voices a similar concern. “My tip for someone who has been struggling and says New Year’s Day will be their first day clean would be to tell them to make it New Year’s Eve or December 30th,” she says. “If you really need that extra night to party, most likely you aren't ready to stop.” 

Elaine, a 35-year-old writer from Brooklyn, plans on quitting drinking on New Year’s Day, even though she’s tried—and failed—to keep this resolution several times before. “It’s a logical time to start because everyone is making New Year's resolutions,” she says. “Even though in a way it's arbitrary because you can make changes any day, it still feels like a fresh start.” 

Elaine probably wouldn’t be considered an alcoholic because she rarely drinks and never has more than a glass of wine or two when she does but she has decided her life would be better without booze in it. “There were two instances this year where I drank to try to fit in, because the other person was drinking,” she says. “And then the next day not only did I feel awful mentally and physically—yes, even one drink in my mid-thirties will wreck my day—but the dates did not go as I'd hoped they would just because I had a drink.” Despite her current resolve, Elaine admits, “It’s easy to stick to the resolution for a few months, but I’ll reach a point where I’ll feel like, ‘Well, I've mostly been not drinking—one is not that big of a deal.’ But then [when I drink again] I feel like my whole year has been ruined.”

The best way to gird yourself for success with a resolution like this, say the pros, is to have the right attitude. “Not doing something, like not drinking, is not enough,” says psychotherapist Christopher Murray. Instead of making the concept of getting sober a negative, Murray suggests turning it around—“Say to yourself,” he says, “‘I'm freeing myself from addiction and un-manageability.’” So you’re not giving up; you’re gaining. 

Murray also recommends announcing your decision to the people in your life. “Don't do a secret quit,” he says. “It’s a set up. I know it’s hard when you've tried so many times before. It feels humiliating to tell everyone, ‘I’m really gonna this time.’ But use the force of positive peer pressure and get the support you need.”

Everyone interviewed agreed that support is key. Whether it’s spending extra time with a coterie of sober friends or scheduling extra meetings, there’s no need to navigate the holidays on your own. Murray also suggests rewarding yourself for a job well done. “Build in rewards,” he says. “The first day, get a massage. Tell the little green imp inside you that hates any change that this change comes with Rhonda the Masseuse's powerhouse thumbs. Then, at the end of the first week, try that new Cuban place on 14th Street.” (Assuming, of course, that the new Cuban place won’t be a trigger!) And keep in mind that rewards don’t have to cost money. The point is to do something kind for yourself: it can be as simple as taking an extra-long bath or a walk along the beach. 

As for Amateur Night itself, Hokemeyer suggests going to as many meetings as you can squeeze in and making plans with a sober buddy. Also, he adds, consider “doing something altruistic, like delivering coats or blankets to the homeless—it will not only help them but also make you feel fantastic.” If you’ve already committed to going to a party where there will be alcohol, Hokemeyer suggests that you “bookend the event by knowing when you will arrive and when you will leave.” He adds, “Non alcoholic beer and wine is for non alcoholics. Stay away from it.” (Other experts agree.)

Never a big fan of wild parties, Elaine plans to ring in the New Year quietly. “I have a weakness for champagne, so I’ll probably go to a friend’s or stay in and watch movies,” she says. “I would rather try to get up early on New Year's Day and start the day off right rather than be exhausted.”

For those still struggling, take comfort in learning that after four years clean, New Year’s Eve is no longer a trigger for Joe Turner. “The longer you are sober, the fewer triggers there are,” he says happily. “Sure New Year’s Eve can be a trigger for drinking, bad behavior, stupidity and regret, but so are 1,000 other things: a good day at work, a bad day at work, no job, a good job, a great girlfriend, a bad girlfriend, family, traffic, the subway, the weather, birthdays, Christmas, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.” 

Judy McGuire is a Brooklyn, NY-based freelance writer and a columnist at the Seattle Weekly who also wrote about Adderall and moderate drinking studies, among many other topics, for The FixYou can find her at dategirl.net.

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