Surviving the Holidays Sober (and Happy)
I’ll be honest, Christmas stresses me out. I don’t hate Christmas, but the holiday season presents a number of stressors for me that often become stumbling blocks or causes of potential relapse. I so badly want to enjoy the holiday season like everyone else seems to, but for years that seemed impossible without alcohol and drugs. But with hard work and the help of a recovery professional, I was able to identify these stressors and design methods for dealing with them in proactive, healthy ways.
I grew up in a divorced household. I lived with my mom and stepdad in Atlanta. My dad lived in southwest Virginia, my stepdad’s family lived in Boston, one set of grandparents lived in northern Virginia, and my other grandparents lived on Long Island. Every Christmas was a nonstop whirlwind of hellos, goodbyes, traveling, sleeping in strange beds, stuffing my face with unhealthy foods in unhealthy amounts, visiting with distant relatives I had no connection with, family fights, anxiety, stress, and spending my entire Christmas break surrounded by people, yet very, very alone.
I carried that holiday stress into my teen and adult years. When I discovered alcohol and drugs, I discovered a way to make the holidays feel good for the first time since I was a small child. I wrapped myself in the cozy blanket of inebriation, easily sneaking drinks from the grownups table, smoking weed and taking pills with my older cousins. As I entered adulthood, I moved to the west coast, far away from my family, and for years I didn’t come home for the holidays. Some years I didn’t even call. Of course, even though I wasn’t facing holiday stress, I kept drinking and drugging, living in my addictions for many, many years.
Finally, after years of progressive addiction, I finally hit bottom and began my journey of recovery. I managed to stop drinking and in the first few months of my recovery, I reconnected with my family and moved back east, which in turn led to me being front and center at family holidays. The first few Christmases without alcohol and drugs were really rough on me. Old wounds opened up, and holiday stressors were at every turn. I felt like a pinball, bouncing around family functions and Christmas parties where everyone was drinking and having fun, and I was simply miserable. Then, with the help of an addiction professional, I was able to identify my holiday stressors, and find proactive solutions that would help me de-stress during the holidays, and get back to spending real quality time with my family and revelling in the joy of the holiday spirit.
Here are a few of the stressors I discovered, and how I learned to deal with them
Gift-giving is a great way to show the people in your life how much you care. Carefully selecting just the right gift for someone lets the receiver know that you pay attention to their wants and needs, and want to see them happy. However holiday gift giving can have a dark side. I found that I used extravagant and expensive gifts as a way to “buy” affection and love from the people I care about. I became convinced that if I didn’t get the perfect gift for each and every special person in my life, they would stop loving me. I also used gifts as a way of “repaying” the debt of years of bad behavior, and as a way of “apologizing” to my family for abandoning them for all those years.
Eventually, gift-giving became a huge financial burden, and I found myself at the end of each holiday season broke, unable to pay my bills, rent, and sometimes without even enough money to buy food. What I realized is that the people I love will love me no matter what. I don’t need to buy extravagant gifts, I don’t need to overspend. To stave off the urge to overspend each holiday season, I sit down at the beginning of December with a piece of paper and a pen. I decide on a budget and write that at the top of the page. Then I make a list of everyone I want to buy presents for. Then I decide what to buy each person and I write it next to their name. Then–and this is the important part–I adhere strictly to that list. I don’t impulse buy. I don’t spend more than my allotted budget. I don’t overdo it.
It’s not easy in the moment, but it sure is nice to wake up on December 26th with enough money in the bank to pay my bills. And since I adopted this method of budgeting and planning my gift giving, not a single relative has looked up from my gifts on Christmas morning and said “is this it?” Nope. They still love me. In fact, they’re proud of me for being reasonable and controlling my impulses to overspend.
Every family has their problems. The estranged aunt. The drunk uncle. The mean grandma. The dad who isn’t around. A family Christmas just isn’t complete until at least two members of the family get into a screaming argument over Christmas dinner. These fights happened like clockwork in my family, and often I was at the center of the chaos, egging the fighters on and reminding them why they should still be mad at each other.
These days though, I loathe drama. The fights still happen, but when they do, I excuse myself to anyone who will listen, and I take the opportunity to get out of the house for a little while until the argument inevitably burns itself out. Maybe I’ll run to the store to pick up a pack of smokes for my uncle, or take the dog for a walk. Maybe I find a younger cousin and ask him or her to tell me about school or what video game they’re into right now. It’s a simple but effective approach: stay out of the fight, find something positive to do instead.
Boozy Holiday Parties
Holiday parties are a boozy paradise. It’s hard to find a holiday party that isn’t rife with alcohol of all kinds. From spiked eggnog to spiked punch, alcohol has become as much of a holiday tradition as mistletoe and presents. This presents quite a problem for those of us who no longer drink. It can be uncomfortable and confusing to be the only sober adult at a holiday party, and temptations grow even stronger in the stressful holiday season.
I learned a few handy tricks to make boozy holiday parties easier to survive, many of which I’ve picked up from other sober people along the way. These are tried and true methods that leave you prepared for any party situation where alcohol is front and center.
1) Bring a sober friend with you. That way you’re not the only sober person at the party. If you can’t find a sober friend to bring, arrange a check-in phone call or text with a sober person before and after the party. That way you have solid support going in, and someone to vent to when it’s over.
Make sure you have a way to get yourself home so you can leave when you want to leave; whether it’s your own car, a MetroCard, or making sure your Uber app is updated and ready to go. That way, if things get tense or you’re close to making a bad decision, you can just leave.
2) Arrive late, leave early. Honestly, at most Christmas parties, the most crucial thing about attending is simply making an appearance. There’s no need to stay for hours and hours, enduring as the crowd gets more and more drunk. The more time you spend at a boozy party, the more opportunities you have to make a bad decision. Instead, show up 30 mins or an hour after the start time, stay an hour or two, then tell the host you’ve had a long week and make your way out the door. Ultimately, no one will notice you left early. All they’ll remember is that you came and had fun, just like they did.
3) Bring your own nonalcoholic beverage. Party hosts seem to always forget nonalcoholic options. Most often, us sober folks end up drinking soda or virgin mixers like cranberry juice or ginger ale. Instead of settling for warm cola out of a red solo cup, make a stop at a nice grocery store or bodega and pick up some sparkling apple cider, a six pack of fancy hipster sodas, an energy drink, or a couple ingredients for your favorite fancy mocktail.
4) The Irish Goodbye. This maneuver is usually reserved for the very, very drunk, but it is a very effective tool for the sober person who wants to make a hasty exit from an uncomfortable situation. If you’ve never heard the expression, the Irish Goodbye means leaving a party without saying goodbye to anyone. You simply vanish. It can sometimes take an hour or more to leave a party if you stop and hug and shake hands with everyone you’ve spoken to. But stretching out your stay at the party by saying goodbye to each and every person is pointless. The next day, no one will remember whether or not you said goodbye, but they will remember that you were there (unless they got REALLY drunk, but that’s not your problem).
Travel and Exhaustion
Of course we want to see everyone and go to every Christmas party and do alllll the shopping and cook allllll the food and do it all. That’s what the holidays are all about! But all that shopping and eating and travelling and partying can take its toll, and leave you exhausted in the moments that count the most. Being exhausted can leave you defenseless against the next bad decision, ultimately making it easier to say “fuck it, I’ll just have a drink.”
The easiest and most important way to avoid holiday exhaustion is to know your limits. If you’re tired and have a party to go to, it’s ok to not go. If it’s late and you have a long day tomorrow, it’s ok to leave early and get a good night’s sleep. If you have to stretch beyond the limits of your energy to get somewhere or do something, don’t do it, and don’t go. You and your sobriety should be at the top of your to-do list every single day. Nothing can supercede your recovery, and exhaustion is the enemy of recovery. Get sleep, drink water, eat healthy, and don’t be afraid to say no. It’s your body and your life. Take good care of them both.
For most people, the holidays are a time of joy, spending time with family and friends, shopping, celebrating, and having fun. But for people in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, the holiday season can be a treacherous time of year filled with stumbling blocks and potential relapse. But by identifying potential holiday stressors, preparing for them, and dealing with them in healthy ways, we can relieve the holiday stress and get back to experiencing the joy of the holiday season.
Submitted anonymously for Life Assurance Recovery 2017