How to Survive the Holidays When You're Newly Sober

By Kiki Baxter 12/18/16

It’s hard the first year, but I was so grateful to not be hungover. This year I might go to the dance. I haven’t made any plans. But mainly, don’t drink no matter what.

A group of people holding numbers to make out 2017.
Wake up to the new year, not a hangover.

I remember my first New Year’s sober. I decided to go to the big AA dance here in New York City which many hundreds of people go to, if not a thousand. (I am actually pretty amazed that I went because those things can often freak me out.) But I went, and prior to the dance is a three-speaker meeting, then dinner, then THE DANCE. I had been sober for less than three months. I didn’t quite have an army of “running buddies,” but was getting to know people slowly—very slowly. (I remember a non-alcoholic friend of mine saying, "Oh don’t you just instantly have a bunch of sober friends and you all go to the gym together and stuff?" and I was like, “That has not been my experience....’cuz I’m a loser." (More on that in a wee second.)

So I dressed up and went to the New Year’s Eve meeting with a good friend who had been my old Al-Anon sponsor and was also sober (17 years at that point). I considered him a big brother of sorts. It was good to go there with someone instead of going alone because of the aforementioned loser-attacks that took the form of "Everyone knows what they’re doing and I don’t" or some variation on that theme—like the shortened version: "I’m doing it wrong," or simply: "I’m wrong," which used to translate into "drink." So going with him was a really good call because it quieted that voice. After the meeting—which I barely heard because I was checking everyone out—my friend asked me if I wanted to stay and have dinner with everyone else, a few hundred people in a very bright room. That totally freaked me out. Way too many people. Way too bright. Way too much sober socializing. So we went to a Thai restaurant nearby and had a low-key meal. It was a unique experience to have dinner on New Year’s Eve with no booze and no shenanigans. I was also amazed I wasn’t hiding at home alone. That in itself was a miracle. 

After dinner, I had planned to meet a friend from a meeting who didn’t want to go to the dance alone so I bid my sober bro adieu (he had to get up early), and met her outside on the church steps where there were a LOT of people hanging out, smoking, talking, and looking fab. It reminded me of high school but on steroids. In high school, what I did to survive was turn up my nose, act cool, smoke a cigarette, drink a forty and pretend like everything was alright. So since those items were no longer part of my repertoire (one day at a time), I just tried to act cool, and went inside and HOLY SHIT BISCUITS IT WAS CROWDED. And hot. Stripping off our layers, my friend and I found an entry point into the throng where it looked like people where just generally dancing together, as opposed to the hostile act of just dancing in couples (kidding). The music was good and loud. My friend went to get something to drink and a guy asked me to dance—or, more accurately, danced in my general direction. We danced for a bit before he yelled over the music: “DO YOU LIVE IN THE CITY?” I said, “YEAH. YOU?” He said, “NO, CONNECTICUT,” to which I replied, “OH.” Then he asked, “HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU HAVE?” And I said, “74 DAYS.” And then he sort of slowly danced away from my general direction.

Whatevs. I had already resigned myself to a year off dating so that was that. My sister said that the first year she was sober, she felt pretty asexual. I don’t know if I felt asexual, but I do remember wishing I could be a dude so I could get away with not showering, gaining 50 pounds, wearing sweats, growing a beard and hiding behind a sarcastic sense of humor. Guys seem to get away with that better than women. (Zach Garfawhatever, John Candy, John Belushi....oh wait...)

Anyway, I found myself dancing with about six enthusiastic people and one of the guys was like,"HEY! YOU GUYS THIRSTY?!" and we were like, “YES!” So he left and came back five minutes later with six icy Poland Spring waters and held them up for us to see and we were all "YAAHHH!!" like it was the greatest thing in the world. That moment in and of itself was amazing. To have six addicts ecstatic over water and not be high on ecstasy was truly a miracle to me. (The only time I hydrated, back in the day, was when I was on speed or X.) But that water was better than the best drink I ever had. Give me some of that delicious water. We were High. On. Life. Pure 100% good times, no extra crap needed. No MSG, LSD, heroin, crack or vodka. Just dancing, people, and H20. What? What is happening? Is this...sobriety?

I left after the countdown. Covered in sweat. Happy as could be. Walking in SoHo thinking of all the other New Year’s where I was chasing, chasing, chasing after the fun. Drinking the fun, spending the fun, fucking the fun, hey! Where’s the fun? Why can’t I feel any fun—or actually, anything at all? Instead, I looked around and saw people stumbling around, yelling, whooping, and I was so glad I was going home KNOWING I was going to wake up the next morning feeling AWESOME aka sober, and that I’d get a cup of coffee and go to a New Year’s Day meeting with gratitude.

“All my holidays are around sober activities,” says Ahmed, who went to the SoHo dance when he was six months sober. “I was never sleeping in early sobriety. I was always drinking Red Bull looking for a reason to stay up.” He lucked out because not only did he go to the dance, he helped clean up, went to the diner with the clean-up crew, and then they all went to Coney Island to do the Polar Bear Dive the following morning. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, sobriety is so much fun!'”

Knowing that he was going to the dance with a friend was key. It anchored him. But not everyone’s first New Year’s is the same.

“I lied to my friends and told them I couldn’t come out,” says Marilyn. “All the people I hung out with got fucked up and now I couldn’t hang. First of all, it’s boring as hell to be with people who are getting fucked up when you’re not. It was boring and scary.”

But that was just her first year. Now, she doesn’t recommend staying home alone.

“It’s hard the first year, but it was great. I was so grateful to not be hungover. One year, I went and sang. This year I might go to the dance. I haven’t made any plans. I might have quiet time with some good friends. You know, people who have what you want. But mainly, don’t drink no matter what.”

So what if you feel like you don’t have any AA friends yet?

Both Ahmed and Marilyn said, “Go to an Alca-thon.”

I did that last Christmas actually. I went to dinner with some sober friends and then we walked over to a place that was having meetings all day, and it was simple and wonderful.

“What I tell my sponsees, all the time, is just go and do service,” says Ahmed. “I found that going to those events and trying to do service helped even though my plan was to be miserable. If you don’t have a running crew, there are tons of stuff, meetings, smaller affairs, or large dances that you can dance at—and if having fun is not an option for you, there is always service.”

But what about Christmas, or being with your family? Turns out, the same advice holds. When I would go home for the holidays, my sponsor would tell me to do the dishes. And I found that doing the dishes was amazing. Once I went to visit my sister when she was having her first baby, doing the dishes wasn’t really enough for my anxiety, so I cleaned out and organized their tool shed. It was deeply satisfying, kept me sober, and they appreciated it.

“Being of service to my family was a real game changer,” says Ahmed. “I can help my mom cook or help my dad with the grocery shopping, and from that I got a chance to hear some really great stories about my family. I remember those as real fond moments. So now, instead of waiting to be bored or anxious, I find some way of being of service. It’s been groundbreaking.”

The other thing you can do as a sober person is NOT visit your family. Sometimes, it’s not the best thing for our sobriety to visit family. I needed some time away from my family until I got spiritually fortified. Instead, I went to a movie with a group of AA’s that always organized fun things, and then we all went to dinner after. Whether I liked it or not, I actually had fun.

“Be grateful,” adds Marilyn. “I was so grateful not to have a hangover. I had such horrible, horrible, sick hangovers. I just wanted to die all the time. I’d think, ‘Really? I did it again? How did I do that all over again?!’ So it’s good to be grateful. Make a grateful list, newcomer. Although they might be like, ‘Fuck you, make your own grateful list.’ I think that’s what I said to someone who told me that.”

Now let’s say you’re at a dance, or a meeting, or with your family and you’re doing service and STILL feel like killing someone or yourself. Make a phone call. Now if you’re like me and are really feeling suicidal, that’s precisely the time I don’t want to make a phone call, much less tell someone how I’m feeling. So one way around that is to ask them how they’re doing. And then try to listen. Or just call three people and wish them a happy whatever.

Another helpful thing is to be aware of the Sacred Spaces around you, particularly in times of crisis (i.e. having an emotion.) For instance, let’s take the bathroom. God gave us bathrooms because they have incredible power to restore sanity. There are usually bathrooms everywhere—in restaurants, homes, workplaces, shopping malls, concerts, etc. Go to the bathroom. Close the door or stall, and pray. Or cry. Or cry and pray. Or cry and pray and make a phone call. Lose. Your. Shit. THEN, when you’re done, splash some water on your face, say thank you HP for this marvelous Sacred Space, take a big breath and go back out there and remember that all over the world, people just like you are praying in the bathroom. It’s true. Ask Santa. Or actually, ask his elves and wife.

So, my dear friend. I wish you a sober and serene holiday full of gratitude. And if you feel like shit, know that it will pass and you are loved. In. A. Very. Special. Way.

See you in 2017!

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