Although I can’t definitively speak for anyone else, I don’t think I’m alone when I say that the holiday season can be difficult as a sober person. At this point in my recovery— more than five years without a drink or a drug—there are very few times when I have the thought: One little glass of wine won’t hurt. But during a family-packed holiday dinner, it has crossed my mind.
As a result, I’ve opted out of Turkey Day more than once. Although I used to think that going home for the holidays was a mandatory occasion, getting sober helped me to realize that sometimes it’s better to prioritize my own emotional boundaries and skip the festivities—even if that means letting down friends and family. Being happy and healthy—or simply functional—is more important than keeping up appearances or making sure I’m pleasing everyone.
So, if you’re dreading going home for the holidays this year—or worried your BFF’s Macy’s Parade booze-fest is too big a temptation while trying to stay alcohol-free— I encourage you to listen to your instincts. Although it may seem obvious, it’s worth stating: there’s always next year. For better or worse.
Here are a few simple tips on maintaining some major boundaries around the holidays.
1. Consider the very real triggers you might encounter.
If you’re newly sober or just experimenting with sobriety, stressful or emotionally loaded environments (like being stuck in a hot dining room with your entire family) can feel really challenging. If you haven’t replaced “getting a little buzzed,” as your go-to coping mechanism, Aunt Gilda’s rum punch might seem like a pretty good idea by the time dessert rolls around.
“Not being around triggers is simply a way to protect your sobriety,” says Kathryn Gates, an Austin, Texas-based family therapist. Try to start focusing on only being in environments where you can completely take care of yourself, and keeping that as the top priority.
Pennsylvania-based psychologist Dr. Jesse D. Matthews, PsyD, shares that friends or family who drink, or who are likely to be critical of your choice not to, might be the biggest challenge for many people during the holidays. People who don’t want or need to abstain are sometimes baffled by your choice to be sober. And since there will be parties, reunions, chance meetings with old friends, or just memories you’d really rather not encounter for today, it might be a better idea to just avoid those situations for the time being.
2. It’s entirely legitimate to put your wellbeing first.
It might just be healthier and more enjoyable for you to spend the day with neighbors or, like I did one year, watching all of Gilmore Girls again while eating a literal (in the figurative sense) ton of cake. Your self-care and sobriety have to be the first priority, even if that means missing out on the family bocce tournament.
Gates says that whether or not going home may trigger drinking or using, practicing intentional decision making and boundary setting is truly how people learn to stay healthy and sober.
“For a person to grow the courage to set limits on other people’s interactions with them is just as big a part of healing as abstaining from a numbing substance or behavior,” Gates says. Sobriety can unapologetically take priority.
Plus, while you might feel a little too vulnerable to celebrate this year, as you become more confident in your alcohol-free journey, it really might not be an issue the next time.
3. You can feel confident responding to family members who think you’re being selfish.
“But why wouldn’t you come home?” asks your way, way too nosy Aunt Susan. “That seems so selfish.” Well, it’s not, Susan. It’s called taking some fucking care of yourself.
But really—it’s very possible that you will come across family members who don’t understand or support your choice to opt out of the holidays. You might even have loved ones who don’t support your decision not to drink, as strange as that may seem. And if you haven’t shared with your family that you’re sober or practicing abstinence from substances, this might add another layer of challenge.
Dr. Matthews definitely encourages honesty in these situations, so telling family or friends that the holidays can be a tough time on your sobriety or emotional wellbeing is really all you need to say. But if you aren’t comfortable mentioning your sobriety, that’s cool, too. Just say that you can’t make it this year for personal reasons.
“I would expect some pushback because family and friends want to see you,” he says. “Most of them probably don’t know how challenging it can be to stay sober, or they may think you’re not serious and could reconsider if you did come home.” In any event, he says, you’re setting a boundary, so stand firm with it.
5. It’s totally normal to doubt your decision—that still doesn’t mean you have to change your mind.
One year I had a mini-meltdown the morning I was supposed to go home for the holidays. I felt so guilty and kept going back and forth about what to do. When a friend of mine invited me for a walk in the park, and a good, long chat about why I was overwhelmed, I realized that staying in Brooklyn, and not going to my mom’s place in Vermont, was the right decision for me.
So, even if it’s the eleventh hour, and the train ticket home is in your hand, if you need to say no this year, it can happen at any time. And it’s okay to feel emotional or doubtful about the decision. You might even really miss your family or friends. But Gates says to remind yourself that whatever you need to do to prioritize your health is always the most important thing, “even if it isn’t what those close to you would expect, prefer or demand.” It’s okay to make your boundaries non-negotiable.
Your wellbeing—and maintaining your sobriety—is more important than pleasing your parents, your siblings, your grandparents, your childhood friends, or whoever is expecting you.
Share your feelings with people who do support your choices, and make a plan to do things for the holiday that help you feel cared for and safe.
6. And here’s how to leave if you’re already there.
If you do decide to go home and you’re even a teensy weensy bit concerned about maintaining your sobriety (or your soundness of mind) try to consider an exit plan beforehand. Dr. Matthews is all about having someone else sober there who supports you if possible. But if not, definitely have someone in mind you can call or text to help you GTFO.
If you drove or took public transportation, he says, you can then take yourself out of the situation if you need to. Perhaps you should have a rideshare app downloaded and set up on your phone if you need it, or if you’re in the middle of nowhere, make sure you know a local taxi number.
“But be firm in telling people you have to go, and don’t let them convince you to stay,” he says. If you decide to put up a boundary, people should respect that. People who are drinking might not always, but if you decide you have to go, make it happen.
And if fit feels like the only option, Dr. Matthews says there is absolutely nothing wrong with ghosting.