As the winter holidays are approaching, those in recovery may have an additional box to unwrap that’s not decorated with pretty paper and bows. In it may contain years of memories of times with family and friends that were not so merry and bright, but instead, the holiday cheer came in the form of bottles and cans. 

The Difficulty of Staying Sober for the Holidays: 

For those who are in recovery, the holiday season can be incredibly tricky and triggering. If they attend parties where alcohol is served, whether the guests are family, friends or co-workers, they may feel pressured to imbibe.

In a recent conversation, a newly sober person told me that she dreaded attending a family function, since she knew that nearly everyone would be intoxicated. If she didn’t indulge, they would either attempt to persuade her to drink or ask why she wasn’t joining in the revelry as they were. She said she would feel embarrassed at the attention and being labeled as an “alcoholic,” which was tantamount to wearing a scarlet letter. 

We explored the idea that it was no one’s business whether or not she drank and, if they asked her why she chose to sip seltzer or sparkling cider instead of a boozy beverage, she need only tell them she prefers not to or that, for health reasons, she is choosing to sit out her typical activity. 

She then asked why it should matter to anyone. My response was that drinking is a tribal activity and for some, a litmus test of whether someone is “one of them,” or an outsider. Thankfully, though, there are some things that can help you stay sober during this time of year — such as the wisdom of those who have been there, done that, and still maintained their sobriety during the holidays. 

1. Remind yourself the real reasons why you’re sober.

“I was sober only because I was locked in a psych ward,” says 31-year-old Gordie, who entered into recovery for the final time in April 2010, of his first sober holiday (Thanksgiving). “The food was a little better than normal days, but it was a much different holiday than I was used to. I also spent Christmas that year in another psych ward. I must admit holidays have never been the same after that, which was 2008.”

Each subsequent holiday, he says, “has gotten easier. I am constantly reminded that the only reason I can experience holidays is because I’m sober. Without sobriety, I’d be in jail, a psych ward, or the ground wishing to be with those I love during the holiday. “

2. Prepare yourself to attend holiday parties while sober.

Kay, a 54-year-old woman who has been sober since August 2019, says she is actively preparing herself for her first sober holiday this year. “My husband does not drink, so not having alcohol in the house during the upcoming holidays will be easy. But there are holiday parties coming up and many of our friends drink heavily. This concerns me.”

In order to succeed this year and be able to go to holiday parties and stay sober, Kay anticipates incorporating tools and techniques such as attending meetings on the days of scheduled parties. Knowing that her husband will be with her will be reassuring.

3. Acknowledge that the holidays don’t have to be a big deal.

For 67-year-old Jeff, who has been sober since June 1989, remembering their first sober holiday isn’t easy, especially when drinking was previously used as “a social lubricant” for the gay man. “Holidays have never been a joyful or meaningful experience for me. In sobriety, they just became another day. I do recall that at meetings people would start sharing about their concerns with spending time with family, the fear that was brought to the surface for them. I wasn’t around my family, my partner and I would celebrate with a few friends and meal, gifts exchanged.”

What allows him to maintain sobriety is that “I practice my program: Attend meetings, work with other alcoholics, offer myself to my Higher Power to be of service.” He adds, “I am still not a big holiday participant: emotionally or physically,” so this time of year doesn’t seem to be any more fraught with triggers as it is for some.

4. Don’t go to family events if you don’t want to. 

For some in recovery, the best way to spend the holidays sober is to stop attending family events. That was the case for Dorri, a 57-year-old woman who got sober in March 1988 and had 16.5 years of sobriety before being prescribed Vicodin for gum surgery. In December 2019, she will proudly have another 15 years sober. 

In my second year of sobriety, I’d been attending the same meeting I’d been going to since I got out of rehab. Life felt so impossible. So overwhelming,” she confesses. “Every day I worried that I’d drink or drug. I felt like it would just happen. I’d suddenly be sucked into a bar against my will. It was a magnetic pull so great that I was terrified to be anywhere around alcohol. I was very open with my ‘home group’ meeting…” Finally, she decided that enough was enough. “I talked about how obligated I felt to go to every holiday event. Every day in December felt like another obligation to go to family events I didn’t want to be anywhere near alcohol. One night, in an AA meeting where I’d cried about my terror of drinking but that I was obligated to go to every event or people’s feelings would be hurt. Finally, after kvetching and crying and wringing my hands, I said, ‘I decided not to go this time.’ The entire room broke into big applause. I was shocked that so many people had listened to me for so long, had been kind, but really I think they must’ve been very tired of hearing the same thing over and over. I just loved that they applauded, and I really saw that I wasn’t invisible. People really heard me. It took away the horrible guilty feeling of saying ‘no’ to my mother.”

5. Spend the holidays recognizing the sacredness of the season.

Meanwhile, others choose to spend the holidays by focusing on the good of the season instead of on the difficulty of staying sober — which in turn helps them stay sober. 

“On my first sober Christmas, I realized that I would be waking up alone on Christmas morning for the first time in my life. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I decided to focus on the sacredness of the holiday,” says 59-year-old Mary, who just celebrated 16 years of sobriety. “Upon awakening, I lit candles and listened to beautiful music. I had a Christmas tree and sat next to it admiring it’s beauty and glow and inhaling its scent. I prayed. I had a delicious breakfast. I thought about all the blessings in my life and how good it was to not be hungover on Christmas morning. Later that day I spent time with my children. I was fully present with them.”

She also recognizes that it’s important to focus on yourself and your sustained recovery during this time of year. 

“On my first sober Christmas, I was more focused on me. With each subsequent holiday, I have tried to be less self-focused and more focused on others. I have realized that the holidays are truly about giving and I have been making an effort to reach out to others and helping those less fortunate than myself.” 

6. Recognize that sobriety WILL become the norm eventually.

Of course, one of the most important things to remember during your first sober holiday is that things do and will get better. Eventually, spending a sober holiday will be normal for you. That’s what happened to Michael, 54, who has 15 years of sobriety under his belt. 

“I recall getting sober from alcohol with my wife, around when I was 40-years-old,” he admits. “It was just before the Thanksgiving holidays. It was strange to go home and not consume alcohol. But with each subsequent holiday, sobriety became the norm. It didn’t matter that people were consuming alcohol around me.”

7. Make sure you keep your support network on stand-by.

If you have family that isn’t supportive of your recovery and you decide to see them during the holidays, as 29-year-old Megan did last year during her first holiday season sober, make sure you reach out to friends who are a part of your sober support network. 

“Last Christmas, I didn’t have any triggers, as alcohol was never one of my drugs of choice. However, some of my extended family treated me a bit poorly,” she admits. “I was able to talk to some sober friends during that holiday and afterward to ensure I’d make it through sober.

However, she is grateful because not all of her family is unsupportive, clarifying: “Most of my family has been supportive, and holidays are just like any other day for me now. I continue to make the choice to stay sober.”

Staying sober during the holidays can be a challenge, especially if it is your first holiday season in recovery. But it’s definitely not impossible, especially when you have a little bit of help from friends who have been there before. 

“You can do it,” Gordie adds. “Change the way you think about yourself and you will change the way your life is.” 

Remember that, this holiday season, you’re taking action to improve your life. It might not be easy but it’s definitely doable. So whether you spend the holidays with family or friends, solo or choose to not view it as a “big deal,” staying sober for the holidays is possible. After all, you’re a different person today than you were this time last year — and you can head into the new year that way, too.