As the holidays rolled around last year, Chris was baby-stepping the first days of sobriety. He had completed treatment and was living in a halfway house with limited time at home. When Thanksgiving rolled around, he was allowed–for the first time–to spend the night at our house. Before that, he had only been granted an eight hour visit one day a week.
He was easing back into the real world with all the freedoms that entailed but with better boundaries and different eyes.
The holiday season is overflowing with parties, dinners, dates with out-of-town friends, and family gatherings that center around alcohol. Even if you’re not one to drink or you come from a family of non-drinkers, everyone is around more alcohol this time of year.
And that means the holidays are really hard and really dangerous for a lot of people, especially those in early sobriety. Family dynamics, social settings, stress, and peer pressure are ever-present triggers exacerbated in December.
So what do we do? What do we do if we’re in early sobriety and gearing up for the season? What do we do if we’re trying to support those in early sobriety? What do we do if we will be around a loved one who struggles with alcohol?
First of all, thanks for asking. Pretending this doesn’t exist only hurts ourselves and the people we love; talking about situations before they become a reality sets everyone up for success.
You might have to skip some events.
You know which events I’m talking about. I don’t even need to point this one out. Christmas party with the open bar? Might be too tempting. Night at the bar with college friends? Might not be a good time. Listen, I get that it’s hard to miss fun things, and that sounds like the opposite of fun, but this isn’t forever. The more sobriety you have under your belt, the better you’ll be in situations with alcohol, but for now, it might be a bad choice. It’s important to remember that whatever is happening right now in this moment doesn’t mean it’s forever. But if there’s a chance you might slip up, why risk it?
Sometimes a place just isn’t safe. If you’re in early sobriety, the list of places you shouldn’t go might be really long. It won’t always be like this, but for the time being, there is no guilt in skipping something for the sake of sobriety. If you’re the loved one whose party or gathering is being skipped, please chill on the feelings of abandonment and insult. This isn’t forever. Your party probably isn’t even that good. (Just kidding. Maybe.) But if someone is vulnerable and shares they’re not attending something because everything feels too fragile–it’s not about you, so get over yourself.
You might have to ask for new traditions.
Alcoholics love a routine: get home from work, crack up a beer; survive a busy week, drinks on Friday; watching a movie, cold drink in hand. Addict brains thrive on ritual and when you try to do one of your normal habits without the drink, your brain fights against your choice. Fighting against your own brain is hard and, especially in the beginning, you might not win. So don’t tempt yourself with the same places and the same people and the same celebrations you spent years drinking at. People who want you healthy will eagerly change things up and those who don’t eagerly change might not be safe for you anyway.
You might have to let go of some relationships.
Healthy people don’t become alcoholics. Healthy people don’t become addicts. And depending on when these behaviors started, it might be time to remove some family or friends from the inner circle. I know that’s hard and it sounds painful, but some triggers and wounds can’t be handled or healed with a little sobriety. Chris has chosen to remove himself from unhealthy family relationships because they’re too dangerous. This wasn’t easy, but it was also necessary. Through rehab and therapy, it became apparent that some relationships were just too damaged and unsafe. This isn’t a decision he made lightly, and it was met with a lot of uninformed people trying to shame him into changing his mind. People in recovery don’t have to explain their decisions on their way to sobriety. You don’t either.
You might have to make an event alcohol-free.
If you’re trying to love and support someone who struggles with alcohol, someone who is trying to make better choices, please consider making an event alcohol-free. Arguments like “but we always have wine with dinner!” or “he just doesn’t have to drink!” aren’t helpful. If you can’t celebrate a holiday or hold an event without alcohol, maybe spend some time figuring out why that is. I’m not talking about making the company Christmas party dry, but if it’s Christmas Eve and your immediate family can’t gather without everyone drinking, maybe have some honest conversations about what that says about your interactions and level of health. (Remember this post is about helping alcoholics or supporting people who are working on sobriety; this is not a general conversation about healthy, non-alcoholics having a drink with the Christmas ham or while playing games with the grandkids.) If you’ve got tons of excuses as to why this won’t work for the short-term while someone needs extra encouragement to get healthy, I’d look closely at the definition of enabler and see if you can connect some dots.
You might have to take breaks.
Even the healthiest person can’t always tolerate all the cheer and relatives and noise at the holidays. Add in a newly-sober person whose nerve-endings and emotions are frazzled and you’ve got an anxiety party for one. Before you head to the event (or before you host the event), figure out some breaks. Where can you go to get a minute? Who can you be around that won’t ask stupid questions or make awkward small talk? Need a code word or secret handshake to signal it’s time to go? (I’m sorry, that’s not really a legit thing, but if you could create a secret handshake before your next Christmas party and then let me know you did it, I would die of laughter and joy.) But seriously, you know your triggers, you know who gets on your nerves, and you know who’s going to say something dumb you’ll want to punch. Prepare yourself ahead of time so you’re not left with drinking as your only coping strategy.
You might need to find a safe person to be your wingman (wingwoman).
Addictions of every kind thrive in secret shame. If you or someone you know has made shaky first steps to get rid of the shame and share their struggles honestly, they’re telling you they want your support and they trust you. Take this responsibility serious. You’re not in charge of their sobriety. But you can encourage them in places or at times they feel less than confident. It’s an honor to stand by someone who wants better.
You might have to speak up.
Once again for the people in the back: alcoholism loves shame and secrets and guilt, but you get to refuse those things and tell people what’s happening. Not everyone. We all know people who aren’t safe, who could help you justify your behaviors, who enable instead of help. But you don’t have to keep it to yourself either. Let a few co-workers know you’re trying a sober holiday. Tell your cousins you’re working on yourself and want to do it sober. You can say lots of 2018 fluffy things to ward off some pressure and weird looks. You might not have a lot of confidence in yourself, but pretending you got this is half the battle.
If you’re doing this holiday season sober for the first time: I’m so proud of you, and I know you can do it. One moment at a time, one day at a time. Go to meetings every day if you need to. The holidays will be done before you know it and the pride you’ll have from surviving this season is inexplicable. You’ve got this.
If you’re willing to be a safe person for someone in recovery this holiday season: Remember, this is not about you. This isn’t the time to have deep, hard conversations with someone in recovery. Give them space to breathe; changes you make this year aren’t forever, but could help a recovering person feel loved and supported. Don’t make a big deal, don’t put on a show of how great you are. Just do it and move on. Again, it’s not about you.
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