The holidays are always a tricky time for many recovering alcoholics.
There are a number of different reasons for this, varying from the very obvious to the subtle triggers. For example, having to deal with your entire family may be a huge trigger to drink and they may even pressure you to do so (depending on the family of course!). Or it may just be that you associate the holidays with drinking from past experience. At any rate, the holiday season can be a very risky time for alcoholics who are struggling to avoid relapse, so it is worth looking at the issue in the sake of preventing this from happening.
Avoiding risky situations
It may be the case that some of us just need to learn the power of saying “no” to people. It is possible for us to break tradition and avoid a potentially risky situation even if it means that certain people will be upset with us. Your sobriety is more important than their feelings and this tradition that they have built up in their minds.
In my opinion a risky situation is any instance where there is going to be drinking or drug use that will make me uncomfortable. If I know for a fact that watching someone drink alcohol is going to make me uncomfortable then it is quite simple: Avoid that situation. Now you may be saying “I can’t avoid it, I have to go.” That is where you are wrong. I promise you can avoid it if you choose to do so. What if you were deathly ill or completely dead? Would they party go on without you? Of course it would. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that the universe revolves around you being at a certain family function or party. It doesn’t.
Unfortunately there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being around alcohol. For example, I can easily go to a restaurant that has a bar in it and eat a meal with friends or family so long as they are not drinking. Others are at the bar and they are consuming alcohol but it generally doesn’t bother me….it is not right in my face and I don’t have to talk to the people who are drinking. Therefore it is not a trigger for me.
However, change the situation just a little bit. Say that one of my friends or family members at my table order a beer. This would start to get to me though it is difficult to know how bad it would be unless I am there experiencing it. If they just sip at it throughout the meal without really making a big deal about the beer then that is one thing, and is probably not too bad. But if they talk about the beer or the fact that they are drinking it then it gets worse for me. If they start drinking faster and it starts to affect their behavior then that is really bad for me in terms of being a trigger.
Keep in mind that these are just my own impressions based on my own experiences. When is being around alcohol a trigger, and when is it OK? This is a question that every alcoholic will have to answer for themselves. You will sort of learn this fine line as you go through your recovery journey and encounter different experiences. I have found that being in public and having people drink around me is usually not a big deal, up to a point. But if it is constantly being shoved in my face then at some point it does become annoying and it makes me feel weird. Not necessarily like I have to drink myself but eventually it would certainly lead to those thoughts if I don’t leave the situation. At some point being around alcohol makes me uncomfortable. But because the stuff is generally accepted in our society you can’t just completely avoid it, so you have to strike a balance there. You have to feel out the situations and be reasonable. Of course your main priority is always to preserve your own sobriety at nearly any cost. No social situation is worth a relapse.
You may think that you have an obligation to be at a certain party or gathering. You do not. It may sound silly but just remember you could be dead. Life would go on without you. So you can always find a different party to go to, a different place to celebrate your holiday, and one that is much safer with less (or no) drinking involved.
Finding a sober place to be
For the holidays you almost always have choices, even if you don’t realize it.
First of all you probably have access to more than one family gathering. Maybe it is Christmas or New Year’s and you normally celebrate it with a certain family who drinks too much alcohol and you feel uncomfortable. If you want to avoid this situation, could you possibly celebrate with a different family? I am referring to spouses, boyfriends/girlfriends, or even close friends. If you abandon your family to go celebrate with another family I am sure there are going to be some hard feelings at first, but you can always explain to them that it sort of a matter of life and death for you. Or if they don’t want to hear your explanation you can just do what you need to do and take care of yourself without needing to explain anything. You should not have to defend yourself for making what amounts to a healthy decision. If people are going to be angry at you for this tactic then there is little you can do about it. Give an explanation and if they are still angry then that is on them, not you. Take care of yourself first and foremost.
Second of all if you cannot find a “different family” to celebrate with (which I admit is a bit of a weird concept to begin with, but it can work) then you should look at the concept of the sober party. Your local AA meetings will generally put something like this on and if you do not have any other options then you should definitely check it out. Heck, every alcoholic should stop into one of these things just to see what it is like at some point, even if you have better alternatives. They are all day parties on the holidays (definitely on New Year’s Eve but also on other major holidays usually) and they are just people in AA partying without alcohol. They generally have food, dancing, music, games, and so on. Just no alcohol. And they try to make them last for a long time so that people have a safe place to be on the holiday. They may also have AA meetings going in one part of the party (called an “alkathon”) where there are non stop AA meetings during the holiday. So if you need to talk real recovery then you can jump right into a meeting at nearly any time.
In other words, there is a lot of support in the local AA and NA community around the major holidays. If you have never tapped into this before then you should definitely check it out because there is nothing but good will and support at these functions. Most of them charge a fee to get in (as they are serving food and such) but they generally will say “no alcoholic turned away” so you have no excuse not to seek these places out. I have been to several of them and I have never regretted attending one. Good clean fun.
If you cannot find a “sober party” to be at on the holidays then I would still suggest that simply walking away from a trigger is better than enduring it for any reason. Don’t put yourself through chaos and stress if you don’t have to. Walk away.
How to walk away from your triggers
Sometimes you will feel like you don’t have any options. You are stuck at a party or a family gathering and you thought that there would not be any drinking but all of a sudden you are surrounded by booze. It happens. Trust me, I know it is possible to miscalculate these things. For example, I was at a Christmas party the other night with family and I never would have guessed that there would be any alcohol but as the party started winding down it suddenly became an issue. People started drinking wine and a few others left to go get beer. Luckily the party was pretty much over so it was easy for me to take my leave with no problems or even any awkwardness.
But let’s say that you are not in a flexible situation like that one, you are stuck at a party and maybe you don’t even have your own transportation. You thought that you would be “safe” but it turns out you are feeling uncomfortable for whatever reason. What do you do then?
Simply remember the phrase “walk away from your triggers.”
Simply walk out the door. Take a walk. Take a hike.
Who is going to miss you? And even if they miss you for a bit, who is really going to care?
Maybe you can’t stand it for another minute at this particular party–so take a walk that lasts for the rest of the party. When was the last time you took a walk that lasted five hours? Maybe it will be good for you! Maybe it will invigorate you, give you some fresh perspective on life.
Walk away from your triggers. Literally walk right out the door.
If you are feeling uncomfortable then you don’t even have to offer an explanation for this. Simply walk out the door, unannounced, and keep on walking. If it is cold out, bundle up. It won’t kill you. Don’t let some wimpy excuse (such as the weather) prevent you from walking away from a trigger. Take your cell phone with you. If someone at the party panics they can call you up. Let them know you are out on a walk and will be back whenever.
If a situation is making you feel very uncomfortable, then walk away from that situation. No one has you chained down at a party. No one is standing there forcing you to watch them drink alcohol. Simply walk away. Exercise your power.
Have a plan with multiple layers
One of the secrets to achieving long term sobriety is to have a plan that has multiple options.
In other words, the day you walk out of rehab you need to have a plan.
But then you also need a back up plan. And you need a long term plan as well as a short term plan. You gotta have plans.
If you don’t have a plan in recovery then bad things will happen. This is because drinking has become your new “normal” in life. The only way to avoid this is to have a plan.
The same is true of a holiday that presents a serious sobriety risk to you. If you think there is potential for relapse over a holiday then you need to have a plan. If you just go into it with no plan at all then you are not doing anything to mitigate the risks involved. Get a plan.
You can use some of the tips from this article to construct a plan, or you can seek outside help.
For example, say that you have a sponsor in recovery. Call them up and tell them you are worried that you might relapse over a holiday, or that maybe you are worried that you will feel uncomfortable watching people drink alcohol. Ask your sponsor if they can help you come up with a plan. Listen to their suggestions.
Another idea is to go to an AA meeting and when they say “does anyone have a topic or something they would like to discuss today” you speak up and present your issue: that you are worried about the holiday and how you may have to watch people drink at certain parties or holiday gatherings. Then you get feedback from 20 other people about how they deal with this very problem.
And of course you can do this over and over again, don’t just limit it to your sponsor and one AA meeting. Go to several different meetings and get various advice. Go to different people in recovery one on one and ask them how they deal with the holidays. Collect advice and feedback to use in your own situation. Knowledge is power so collect as much as possible. Then you have to test it out for yourself and see what works for you and what it not as helpful.
There is also the idea of the “buddy system.” If you know that you are going to be in a “risky situation” where there is drinking, take along someone in recovery with you. There is strength in numbers. If you have a sober friend with you then it can help a great deal in reducing the awkward feelings you may have if others are drinking. Because now you are not alone and you have someone with you who is also not drinking. Of course it is not always possible to take a sober friend with you to certain functions but it is a powerful tactic when it does apply.
Reinforcing your sobriety with gratitude
One final tip for strengthening your sobriety on the holidays is to practice gratitude.
Do this deliberately when you know you might be facing a difficult situation. Actually take action in order to practice more gratitude in your life. If you are truly grateful and you are going into a risky situation then that gratitude will help to protect you from relapse.
Grateful people do not relapse.
So on the day of the big party you might wake up and write in your journal. Or if you don’t have a journal then simply make out a quick gratitude list. It doesn’t have to be anything huge, just jot down 5 things you are most grateful for today. Challenge yourself to memorize your list before you start your day. Then practice bringing your list back mentally as you are wandering around for the rest of your day.
This is one of the best keys to living sober anyway, even if it is not on a potentially challenging holiday. Gratitude should be part of your daily practice on a regular basis anyway, so the holiday is a great time to establish this new exercise. Challenge yourself to practice gratitude every day and you will be amazed at how much a difference it makes in your overall happiness.
This is a very unique topic in that everyone has their own personal challenges when it comes to the holiday season. We go through the same basic issues but many times we feel like we are all alone in our journey. So come to the forum and let us know what your own holiday struggle is and what you are doing to get through it. You never know how much your own experience could help someone else, or how much their experience may help yours.
What are your tips for getting through the holiday season while sober? How do you deal with it when others are drinking in front of you and you feel uncomfortable? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!