I’ll never forget my first holiday season as a sober person. I married into a big, wonderful, loud, extroverted, extended family. As an introvert, alcohol had lubricated most family gatherings. A glass of wine was my constant companion, and it made me feel like part of the group instead of an outsider.

Growing up, I always wished I had one of those families you’d see in holiday movies. When I married into one, I was ecstatic. Holidays were full of karaoke, board games, and endless charades by the fireplace. The adult children would stay up all night hanging out and having a blast. But I always needed wine to make it happen. In theory, this was my holiday dream. But the reality was I always felt uncomfortable and less than in this group of cool, outgoing, talented people (who by the way, absolutely went out of their way to make me feel like one of their own).

The holiday season before I got sober, we went on a family trip to the mountains. Photos from that vacation would make for idyllic holiday cards. There’s one with the whole crew in a horse-drawn sleigh on Christmas Eve, and another of us in ugly Christmas sweaters in front of a giant tree.

But if you look closely at my face in any of those photos, you can see I’m dying. I remember being so hungover on the flight that I thought I was going to throw up. I recall driving to the cabin with my head pounding from dehydration and altitude sickness, having a screaming match with my husband while my kids sat in the back seat. I remember sneaking a bottle of tequila into my bedroom at night because I wanted to be alone, but didn’t want to stop partying.

Three months later, I finally quit drinking for good.

Set and Keep Boundaries

In 2013, as I planned my first sober holiday, my memories of the prior year’s drunk antics haunted me.

I was about nine months sober by then, so I felt like I had a pretty solid recovery program. But the holidays would be an entirely new experience in sobriety, and I worried about it for weeks beforehand.

Being a worrier means I’m also a planner, which helped me set ground rules for myself on how to survive my first sober holidays. I’ve been at it for quite a few holidays seasons now, and I’ve discovered works for me and what doesn’t, and learned how to practice self-care in order to keep myself both sane and sober.

Here’s what I’ve learned. First, you have to set boundaries ahead of time. This was a struggle for me. Even though I was sober, I was still a people-pleaser.I didn’t want “my sobriety” to ruin anyone else’s good time. My husband and mother-in-law knew I was sober, but the rest of the family didn’t. I felt like I had to sit and chat while they were drinking wine, even though I was crawling out of my skin. I made excuses as to why I wasn’t drinking (my favorites were “it messes with my sleep when I travel” and “I’m doing a holiday cleanse”) instead of just saying “no thanks” or “I’m not drinking.”  

At the time, I didn’t feel comfortable with my sobriety, but now I don’t make excuses. I just say “I’m not drinking tonight” and everyone moves on. In fact, now everyone in my family knows I’m sober and is very supportive. And as the years have gone by, many of them have cut down on their drinking as well.

Strong boundaries are the foundation of my self-care. I began by saying no to a glass of wine, but now I’m able to say no to other uncomfortable holiday activities, like a game of charades. It’s not easy to say no when the entire family is playing, teasing you about being no fun (including your own kids). But that’s when strong boundaries help the most. I’ve only been able to say no to games l don’t enjoy like charades, or singing karaoke, within the last year. Sticking to your boundaries can take time.

Plan Ahead To Keep Your Routine Intact

It’s also important to take your physical, emotional, and mental comfort into account around the holidays. My family usually travels to see family, so I have learned how to mitigate stress and keep myself happy.  

For example, I have a difficult time sleeping most nights, and it’s exponentially worse when I’m away from home. Being tired is a huge trigger for me, so I make sure to travel with essential items that help keep my sleep cycle intact, including: a sleep mask, earplugs, sleep headphones (I’ll listen to the “Sleep with Me” podcast on them if my insomnia gets really bad), a candle, essential oils, and my favorite pillow. I usually make sure to bring a new book or download a season of a TV show I like on my phone, in case I want to escape to my room for an introvert break.

I’ll also schedule in breaks and alone time to recharge. This can mean going upstairs to read or meditate—even if it’s just for a few minutes.

Find Your Safe People

I also found an unexpected escape from holiday drinking: spending time with the small children in my family. Among my nieces, nephews, and my own kids, there’s was always a group of kids around. Not one of them has offered me a glass of wine, either.

I’ll sneak to the playroom and spend time helping the little ones put together their gifts, reading books, or to snuggle up and watch a movie. The other parents are grateful for the help: they get to spend time with the adults, and I get to be away from the pressure of alcohol. Instead of feeling resentful that I “had” to watch the kids while all the other adults were having fun, I found myself feeling so grateful that I got to spend this special time with them.

Don’t Be Afraid to Say No

When I look at my calendar in December, I often feel like I might hyperventilate. Celebrating the holidays with family is only one part of the season: every weekend is usually filled with work parties, friend gatherings, cookie exchanges, service opportunities, and our kids’ holiday concerts.

The holidays are a great time to keep it simple. I say no to events, and I say it often. I send checks instead of attending charity events. I ask other parents if my kids can carpool with them. I plan to leave parties early, priming guests with my, “Oh, we only have a babysitter until 9” excuse. I always drive separately from my husband in case he wants to stay at a gathering when I’ve hit my limit. I get people gift cards instead of spending hours looking for the perfect present. And I schedule lazy nights into our calendar. I make sure there is time blocked out for rest. If I don’t, I can get lost in the hustle of it all, and that’s not a healthy place for me to be.

The most important thing I’ve learned during the holidays is to listen to my intuition. If I walk into a party or gathering and feel the need to leave, I go. If I get invited to an event and don’t want to attend, I say no. I don’t ignore that little voice in my head anymore: she knows what’s best. The best gift of recovery has been my ability to advocate for myself and my needs.

This holiday season, I encourage you to listen to your own little voice. Set boundaries, take care of yourself, and remember, you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Your sobriety is the best gift you can give to yourself and your loved ones, and it’s worth so much more than anything you’ll find under the tree.