• Marina R.

Happy (Substance-Free) Holidays

Coming up on six years sober from alcohol and drugs, I’ve grown in many ways that make holidays feel more manageable and community-oriented than they ever did in my substance use disorder. I choose to celebrate with various chosen families (many of whom are recovering themselves) in low-pressure gatherings that feel easy and spacious to me--where I can go as I am, without putting pressure on myself to look or be drastically different from whatever I’m experiencing in that moment. This isn’t to say I don’t experience deep wells of sadness, grief, and anger this time of year. I have better tools and support to work through them so they don’t hijack me in ways that they used to.

In recovery meetings, the combination of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve is colloquially known as the “Bermuda Triangle” of holidays. In other words, easily triggering and sometimes mysteriously so. For those seeking refuge from the binge-drinking and drugging culture that is synonymous with these holidays, this time of year can be especially tough. If you’re also going through a period of transition in your life (moving, starting or ending a new job, going through a break-up, grieving the loss of a dear one), the difficulty might exacerbate. Read on for suggestions to have a more serene and recovery-oriented holiday season.

Redefining Traditions

Whether you came from a family that trivialized holidays or celebrated them to extremes with false cheeriness and expectations, you might struggle with figuring out what works for you today. It’s okay to want to have a fun, low-key time and it’s also okay if you’re not sure exactly what that would entail; you can always take a hiatus until you figure out a way to celebrate that makes sense for you. With some holidays come painful memories and the recovery work may be learning to dig into the denial and pain of those times should you feel comfortable enough to do so with extra support. Sometimes trivializing holidays can be a coping mechanism to avoid feeling the pain and loss you might have felt around this time during your childhood.

If you crave listening to holiday songs, employing festive decorations, watching holiday-themed movies, or baking the same side dish for gatherings, give yourself permission to do so with abandon. You’re allowed to feel celebratory as well as other complicated, conflicting feelings, even in the span of a few hours or a few days. There is no prescribed timeline for your feelings, which are always valid and on time, regardless of whether they line up with a holiday or not (including “navel” birthdays and recovery anniversaries). Make it your own holy day. Your value is not determined by how you choose (not) to celebrate, and whether you are with your family of origin or chosen family. Maybe your favorite part of this time of year is when it’s all over; that’s valid and important to acknowledge, too.

Extra Recovery Support

You’re entitled to all the help you ask for, so ask for it, and shamelessly. Here are some tips:

  • Get vocal about what you’re experiencing, no matter how banal you might think it is. Whatever it is, you’re not alone. Take advantage of holiday marathon recovery meetings, phone meetings, and extra meet-ups with mentors, sponsors, sober friends, and therapists. If you’re not feeling especially talky and would much rather listen, say that. Ask others how they experience this time of year and what helps them in rougher patches. Others will understand what you’re going through and will be happy to support.

  • If talking about the holidays are tiring, know that you don’t have to! If someone brings up a topic that is triggering or bothersome to you, feel free to say that the topic is bumming you out and that you would rather talk about something else. Asserting your needs is an important step in building self-trust.

  • Being in H.A.L.T. mode--getting too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired--can weaken your resolve when it comes to taking care of yourself, so be sure to prioritize avoiding falling into pits where you’re feeling especially susceptible. Try to eat 3 nutritionally balanced meals and try not to restrict food intake before a gathering or after having eaten too much, as this might trigger you to use food behaviors during emotionally vulnerable times. Let yourself have some treats; deprivation is not self-love. Try to resist moralizing foods and invite the spirit of variety, moderation, and balance to your holiday meals.

  • Regarding holiday gatherings, I give myself and my “inner kids” permission to go as late as I want and leave when I need to, though I find that when I’m celebrating with those I love and feel emotionally safe around, the less recovery boundaries and “bookends” I need to equip myself with prior to arrival.

  • If you are traveling, plan accordingly in terms who you can reach out to for support and the times/days on which they’re available. Are you someone who does well with spontaneous calls or do you prefer setting a day and time? Be honest about your needs.

  • Seek out volunteer opportunities at a charitable organization. Service is a great way to build self-esteem and gather perspective.

How Holidays Can Evolve in Recovery

It was in high school that I initially started misusing substances at year-end holiday gatherings with my sister’s friends, which seemed innocuous at the time, though it escalated to weekend and daily binges years later in college. In hindsight I can easily see the progression but intermittent use in high school convinced me I could somehow get away with my behaviors if it only meant engaging a few times a year.

My last blackout was at a college alumni holiday party in December 2013, that resulted in me being sent home in a cab with a wine-soaked ivory sweater, stumbling out, and leaving my phone in my parent’s backyard (where I routinely got high) before coming in for the night when I was still living with them. Needless to say, my body still holds this memory (among many other, far worse, memories). If anything, I’m experiencing deeply uncomfortable feelings more intensely than ever at this point in my sobriety as I start to question my relationship to other substances as well, like caffeine, sugar, and the occasional nicotine. However, I know that if I can put alcohol and drugs down, I can most certainly start putting down (or reducing) my intake of other substances that disrupt my serenity, especially during the holidays. I have a bounty of recovering individuals and communities I try to avail myself of even when I want to isolate.

As a recovering codependent, in the past I would have wanted to have appeared prettier, funnier, smarter, more festive and elevated at gatherings (moreso than at other times of the year), but I know putting those masks on no longer work for me, just as I know throwing back copious shots of bourbon whiskey and passing around countless joints are only an illusion for happiness, joy, and freedom. When the holiday craze would end, I was still left with the uncomfortable feelings that I was looking to escape from in the first place, like sadness, fear, envy, and anger. Topping those feelings off was additional guilt or shame that might have accumulated from regrettable words or actions at these holiday parties, which meant I was sure to feel incredibly depressed in the days and weeks that followed.

Let Go Of Expectations

The expectations accorded to celebrating holidays mimics the expectations I had on myself around substance use disorder--I was supposed to engage with substances in a certain way in order to appear normal and acceptable to myself and those around me. I’d negate any semblance of internal boundaries that, to be fair, I didn’t have access to at the time. Growing up, my family of origin did not celebrate American holidays whereas I very much wanted to, so I’d feel left out, like I was handed the shorter end of the stick. I often resorted to watching holiday movies alone and lived in the fantasy that one day I might belong to a group of people who valued celebrating in authentic ways, where it was more about celebrating each other and less about the manufactured nature of the holiday and what we were supposed to do. Little did I know that I would find this family in the rooms of recovery and that I no longer needed to play a role that would make those around me comfortable.


Though the holidays can come with a whole host of challenges, recovering joy and freedom is possible this time of year as you walk this path of sobriety. One of my recovery pamphlets reads: “Keep in mind the holidays are a season, not a lifetime. Normalcy will eventually resume.” This might be the balm you need to hear if this time of the year is not for you. Just know you’re allowed to celebrate yourself, others, and let others do the same for you, whether it’s during the holidays, or in the seasons that follow.

-- Marina R. for Life Assurance Recovery

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