Going Home for the Holidays

By Ruth Fowler 06/30/11

Often the people that are best at pushing our buttons are those that created them. So how can the newly sober person survive a holiday visit to the folks?

Help, I'm Home! Photo via

Walking into my parents’ house for the holidays always feels like walking into a bar, the faint tinge of tension between us resembling that stale whiff of hops soaked into a sawdust floor. There’s a familiar rising panic, a hint of nostalgia crumbling into prosaic history repeating itself that’s like standing on a cliff edge—holding a drink, a needle, a cocaine wrap. Contempt giving way to anger giving way to giving the fuck up—jumping off the edge, downing that shit, pressing the plunger, choking down a pill. Since I quit the sauce, every trip home feels like a trigger. Infantilized by my childhood single bed, a Diet Coke, and being the weird one in the corner who’s not a little tanked, I’m right back to 15 years old: gauche, paranoid and depressed.

There is nothing that makes me want to get quite so fucked up as visiting family.

My feelings aren’t unique. Says Sarah, a 27-year-old hairdresser in Santa Monica, “When I stopped drinking, going home felt like becoming a teenager all over again. I just wanted to smoke weed and get high, even when we weren’t arguing. It was too weird.” Even 57-year-old Chris agrees that visiting his 80-year-old Mom makes him feel like swallowing a couple of painkillers so he doesn’t lose his temper when she asks him why he got divorced. And then there’s 35-year-old Edward, an artist who feels like “the greatest achievement of my life—getting sober—is so unappreciated by my high-achieving family of lawyers that I forget why I’m bothering to do it.” Forty-year-old Melissa’s Thanksgiving visit two years ago ended with a spectacular coke-fueled relapse in a bar as soon as she left her family. 

“When I stopped drinking, going home felt like becoming a teenager all over again. I just wanted to smoke weed and get high, even when we weren’t arguing."

So what’s the best way to handle these visits?

Be a Grown Up

My friend Sabrina, a 30-year-old TV host in New York, suggests that if you want to be seen as a grown up, start acting like one. Just because you have to sleep in your old single bed with the Snoopy covers, it doesn’t mean that you can’t, say, rent a car or get a cab home—even if the ‘rents offer to pick you up. Sabrina says that being needy and depending on family makes her regress back to the child she once was. “One of the added benefits of renting a car is that picking me up always made my mom so cranky we’d start the visit with her complaining about how airport security made her circle the airport three times," she says. "We’d then fight the whole drive back to the house.” Having your own transport also means it’s easier to flee when times get tense.

Talk to Your Sponsor (or Someone)

James, a 40-year-old journalist from Australia, always bookends his once-a-year visit back to Oz with a meal with his sponsor. “The trips home that went the worst were the ones where I was in denial about everything potentially going wrong,” he explains. “What helped was to really get clear with my sponsor before I went about exactly how I was going to behave, and what I should do in the event of an argument with my parents about so-and-so.” Non-program people can, of course, lean on a friend, therapist or anyone they’d like, just so long as they’re clarifying the situation and setting an intention ahead of time. Despite what our brains often tell us, asking for advice doesn’t make us weaker—it helps us calmly sit through scenarios before they happen. It also gives whomever you’re talking to a heads up on the potential issues at hand, so they can help you through it when you call from home to vent.

Hit a Meeting

Sounds like an obvious one but hitting a 12-step meeting will get you out of the house, into a familiar environment, and allow you the space and time to decompress away from the pressures and turmoil of family life. If you’ve followed step one and rented a car, this should be easy, but in case you haven’t…

Go online

Parents live in the boonies and you can’t get to a meeting? Nowadays there are plenty of online tools that can put you in touch with other sober people and even recreate the meeting environment online. Check out In The Rooms—a tool I found useful back in January when I was holed up in the mountains of Wales with my parents. You could even look through The Fix’s own Ask An Expert page or the list of suggested addiction blogs.

Distract Yourself

12-step meetings and online stuff not for you? Then simply distract yourself so you don’t wallow in the negative feelings that being back amongst family can stir up. Distraction is essentially my mantra for everything. Obsessing over a new crush? DISTRACT! Go for a walk or a run, shop, pick up a good book, put on the headphones and watch a movie in peace. In the midst of family pulling you in a million different directions, why not put yourself back together by pouring the focus back on yourself and indulging in a little bit of pleasure that doesn’t involve sneaking Grandpa’s plum brandy after the lights are out?


I usually feel like hitting people who tell me to pause and reflect. But I’ve found that keeping up my regular yoga and meditation practice has made it easier for me to confront the challenges of being at home, and therefore less likely to regress into being the moody, bad tempered bitch of my teen years.

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