When I celebrated Thanksgiving with my family in 2017, I had recently survived a nervous breakdown, had just begun taking antidepressants for my bipolar disorder, was keeping myself afloat on three months of unemployment, and had started to see the cracks in my abusive relationship. It had been a tough year. I wanted to escape those feelings, so I attached myself to the family bar cart in the living room. I overindulged on whatever wine I could get in my glass so I could avoid the interrogation: “How’s the job? Where’s Adam?” etc.
It wasn’t long after Thanksgiving dinner when I decided to become semi-sober. I surrounded myself with other sober women (shoutout to Sarah Ordo, Cara Alwill Leyba, and the Slaying Sobriety Group) and started thinking about how I leaned on alcohol to cope with my life. I became more successful in my career, had a clearer mind, and generally felt more in touch with myself. I was thriving in my new lifestyle.
Then my father died by suicide in July, and maintaining my sobriety got a lot harder.
Holiday season is in full swing, and navigating this time of year can be difficult for anyone. Keep in mind, however, that holiday socializing is often associated with alcohol, and, more often than not, it is associated with overindulgence. For those of us who have chosen sobriety, semi-sobriety, or just more mindful drinking, the holidays can be a minefield of difficult situations.
“The holidays pose a particular risk to those in recovery for a variety of reasons. First, the holiday season can amplify loss, grief, stress, and loneliness in people working to maintain their recovery. To prevent relapse triggers, it is critical for those in recovery to avoid isolation and maintain a normal routine,” states Dr. Brent Boyett, Chief Medical Officer at addiction treatment center Pathway Healthcare.
So I connected with some more experts and got their advice on navigating sobriety during the holiday season:
“Sobriety is a lifelong journey that requires you to abstain from alcohol and drugs. Once you make that your number-one priority, you’ll know what your next steps are. If you really want to see your friends during the holidays, explain to them that you would love to spend time with them, but you can’t drink or hang out in a bar,” says Carolee Paruta, Clinician and Regional Director of Outpatient Services at Mountainside.
Paruta suggests offering alternatives to friends who ask to make plans. “Maybe you all can go to an early dinner or catch a movie. Make sure that they are aware of what your boundaries are,” she says. “Establishing boundaries will help you and your friends know what to expect and prevent you from being put in uncomfortable situations that could derail your progress. The same goes for family.”
Paruta explains that “friends” who can’t understand this part of your life are probably not supposed to be your friends, or at least not people with whom you should spend your time. “It might be difficult to hear that, but you have to remember that doing what is best for your recovery is what is most important,” she says. “Being sober isn’t all that you are, but it is a big part of you. You need friends in your life who don’t just accept that fact, but support you.”
2Create a dialogue
Be honest, but that doesn’t mean you have to divulge your personal reasons for sobriety. Laura Taylor, founder of Mingle Mocktails, says, “When someone asks me why I am not drinking, my response is always short and sweet: ‘I am taking a break’ or ‘I just don’t drink.’ I’ve learned that most people just ask out of light curiosity and are satisfied with these simple responses…I’ve found that those individuals who continue to probe with more questions are asking because they’re considering their own drinking issues or thinking about someone in their lives who may have drinking issues.”
Taylor acknowledges that these questions are less stressful now that she has been sober for a few years, but regardless, she believes that brevity is key: “There are other, more interesting topics to discuss at parties than my drinking habits.”
“I am amazed at how few hosts stop to consider what non-drinkers would like to drink. The default options are typically soda or seltzer, and neither are exciting,” Taylor continues. “Hosts [should] consider their non-drinking guests, and have at least one premium non-alcoholic option on hand, like flavored seltzer, ready to drink mocktails, or fresh juices.” My mother and I are personally fans of La Croix in a wine glass, Canada Dry Cranberry Ginger Ale, or DRY Sparkling Soda in the lavender flavor, and in 2018, we have so many options.
Taylor suggests that hosts ask party guests for non-alcoholic drink preferences in advance. “This need is what inspired me to create my own line of ready to drink mocktails, Mingle Mocktails,” she says. “Non-drinkers deserve something fun, festive, and sophisticated so they can feel…socially connected in these situations.”
4Seek support and have a network
I suffer from complex traumas, so I lean on my amazing therapist. But I also surround myself with like-minded women in the Slaying Sobriety Group on Facebook, a nationwide network of women who encourage and support each others’ sobriety.
It’s important to have this support from some kind of network since family and friends can unknowingly—but harmfully—attempt to enable unhealthy behaviors. Dr. Boyett tells me, “Though sometimes hard, people in recovery should avoid family and friends who frequently use drugs or alcohol. Many times, family and friends just don’t understand how fragile the recovery process can be. Offering drugs or alcohol to a person in early recovery can result in life-threatening relapse.”
5Remember that you are not alone
If you or someone you know is struggling this holiday season, there are organizations ready to help you. This is not something you have to face alone. You can call Alcoholics Anonymous at 212-870-3400 and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) at 800-662-HELP (4357)—which is available 24 hours a day.
You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), available 24 hours a day.