Survive the Holidays in Style!

Survive the Holidays in Style!

By Kristen McGuiness 12/20/11

With all the weird family dynamics and abundant alcohol, it's not easy to stay sober during the holidays. Let us help you get through it.

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Jason, a handsome, 42-year-old designer, still laughs darkly when he recalls his first sober Christmas. Eleven years later he recalls all too clearly a time when December was a terrifying prospect. “It seemed like people were celebrating the holidays everywhere—the decorations, the parties, the time with family,” he says. “It would just remind me of the disconnect that I had with my own family and all of the pain there.”

Jason made it through those early days without alcohol. “I knew I couldn’t handle drinking, but I didn’t know how I was supposed to handle my emotions,” he says. “The 25th happens and then five days later, you have New Years. People are still drinking around you, and it can look like they’re having fun. But I just reminded myself to play the tape through and see where it was going to take me. I knew it would only lead to depression, sadness, and loneliness—nothing good.”

Meetings are always packed for the month of January and then thin out over the next few months.

Not everyone has the ability to fast-forward to the end of the tape, which is why, perhaps, that studies show that drinking increases almost 27% between Thanksgiving and the 2nd of January and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that two to three times more people are killed by drunk drivers during this period of time than at any other point in the year.

AA members often see the results of all this holiday overindulgence. “Meetings are always packed for the month of January and then thin out over the next few months,” notes Abigail, a voice-over actress who’s been sober for nearly 15 years. “I don’t know if they’re people coming in because it was their New Year’s Resolution or if they’re coming back from a holiday slip but it’s impossible not to notice it.”

According to Dr. Dale Archer, the medical director for psychiatric services at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, there are solid reasons why this time is such a trigger. “The holidays are the most stressful time of year,” he says. “There is so much marketing and PR going into them, this ‘time of giving and time to be thankful,’ and there is a lot of stress—financial obligations, family gatherings, relatives you don’t get along with. You’re with people you most likely only see once a year. You have to acknowledge the difficult aspects of that and understand what the stressors will be.”

For those new to sobriety, all of this can be a lot to take. Gina, a 34-year old software engineer from San Diego, admits that her first holiday home was the hardest part of staying sober during her first year. “It was really tough to go back to Florida to see my family and not be able to escape,” she says. “Prior to getting sober, the way I got through the holiday visits was by always leaving the house to go meet an old friend at a local bar, where I could start the party. Even today, there is still some old shit that will come up when I’m with my family and the urge to self-medicate becomes really real. Thankfully, I have a sponsor who will tell me just to take a time out—go for a drive or to a meeting—and get away before I react.”

According to Tennie McCarty, an addiction counselor and the founder and CEO of Texas-based recovery center Shades of Hope, people in recovery would be wise to see the holidays as the time to reach out to other alcoholics and not a time to isolate or pretend that they can go about their lives in the same old ways. “A lot of times we want to say we’re too busy and then we slack off on our normal meeting schedule [during the holidays],” she says. “But the truth is we— particularly those new in sobriety—need that safety net more than ever.”

McCarty knows that families can often be the toughest crowd to be around. “They’re hard,” she says. “We love them the most, but they can also push our buttons the most because they know where they are—after all, they installed them.” She adds, “If you feel like it’s too difficult to be with your family, call them and be honest. Set a date in January when you can go won’t have as much emotion around it. And if you do go, remember it’s all about boundaries. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut and call your sponsor or a friend.”

But if you don’t go home, remember that being alone and somewhat aimless during the holidays isn’t a good idea. “Get a plan,” McCarty advises. “Do not go home or to any party without an entrance and exit plan. You don’t need to tell the whole world that you’re in recovery, but if there is one person you can confide in, then at least you’ll have an ally at the family dinner or holiday party.”

McCarty adds, “Start your own traditions in sobriety—whether it’s a matter of having a sober potluck, or going and doing something with other people after the meetings, the most important thing is that you do not isolate.” For the newly sober, attending marathon meetings (meetings that happen around the clock over the holidays—ask around at your home group to see if there are any around you), going to the movies, or doing anything that gets you out of the house and around other people is far better than sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. 

And if you’re going to attend the round of Christmas and New Year’s parties, just make sure to keep your sobriety at the forefront of your mind. “People in recovery need to walk into the setting and know that priority number one is that they stay sober—that need has to be put above everything else,” says Dr. Archer. Gina discovered in the early days of her sobriety that extra vigilance was required come holiday time. “My birthday is at the beginning of December so from Thanksgiving on, it used to just be bender time,” she says. “I realized that sometimes you have to leave the party early. You may not be ready to be around a bunch of people getting drunk and having a good time. But the longer I’m sober, the easier it becomes.”

Dr. Archer adds that recovering addicts should keep in mind the fact that though drinking can look really good, it’s probably not the type of drinking they used to do. “They need to understand that they wouldn’t have needed to get sober if they could control their drinking,” he says. “It’s important to remember that there really is no difference between not drinking and being able to drink two glasses of wine—the fact is, they’re not going to get what they want from two glasses. So why even entertain the thought?”

Yoon, a 43-year old part-time publicist and mother of two who’s now five years sober, knew from the get-go that she had to stay away from risky environments during the holiday season. “Whether it was family or old friends, I knew that there was going to be this assumption at these gatherings that I still drank,” she says. “There were so many people who didn’t know I was sober, and so I knew if I went, I was going to want a drink and feel like I had to say no at every turn.”

Back then, she used to have her husband play interference for her. “Though he really didn’t understand what alcoholism was, he knew that I couldn’t drink and so he would help me out,” she recalls. “He would tell people I was the designated driver and work to take the attention off of me. After a while, I could take care of it on my own. But at first I needed his help.”

For those who struggle with drinking friends, angry relatives, and the general malaise that can come with Christmas cheer, McCarty reminds us all that ultimately, the holidays are about being grateful and summoning up whatever gratitude is possible is almost always a mood-improver. “December 25th is just another day on the calendar,” she says. “And if you want to celebrate it just by writing thank you notes to God, to your family, or to the people who helped you get sober, you can. When we’re really grateful, even for the small things, we want to give it away. We want to find ways of being of service so we can start staying busy, instead of staying busy thinking.”

Helping out other people is actually what gets Jason out of his holiday funk. “When I’m doing service, I’m not in my head—I’m just thinking about cleaning some glasses,” he says. “Then it’s not about the gifts I can’t afford or what my mom just said, but about helping someone else. And that, to me, is really celebrating holidays.”

Kristen McGuiness is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix who wrote previously about old timers in AA and sober travel, among many other topics. She is the author of 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life