As a recovering alcoholic, I’ve had to learn how to get through the holidays without drinking (or depression or bitterness).
The first day I realized I’d have to give up drinking entirely, one of my next thoughts were, “What am I going to do for New Years?” This thought was totally irrational because it was March.
Also, the last several New Year’s had been horrible—some of the worst, most shameful, embarrassing nights in my drinking career. But if I couldn’t drink at all, would the new year even come? If it did, would I stay at home by myself crying and watching Lifetime? Was I going to have to buy a lot of cats and give them names and knit them sweaters?
Turns out this dilemma wasn’t reserved for New Year’s, but all holidays and special events. One of our culture’s main ways of celebrating anything is by drinking together. For some events, it’s easy to just opt-out. But for the major holidays, it’s impossible to ignore. It starts at Thanksgiving and goes all the way through New Year’s. Six weeks of social obligations: work parties, family get-togethers, and dinners with people you only see a few times a year.
Some recovering alcoholics never have an issue in this area, but I do. In early sobriety, I had no idea how to socialize with people (even family members) without alcoholic lubrication. I felt uneasy and awkward around all people in all situations. I still think small talk is the worst.
I never wanted my friends or family members to stop drinking or feel like they can’t drink around me. The sight of a beer doesn’t make me lose control. However, if the event or conversation is primarily focused on what we’re drinking, I feel left out. I immediately began to think of myself as a “black sheep.” Thoughts like this are what make me want to drink or at least make me miserable.
Now with 13 years of sobriety, I have a life that I never imagined possible. I am happily married with four kids, financially stable, and work at a church (which shocks everyone). My sobriety is stable now, but I don’t take it for granted. So, over the years, I’ve figured out what my triggers are and put protective measures in place.
- Pray. Personally, I pray to God, but even if you’re not sure what you believe or if you believe in anything at all, I encourage you to try. I ask for help the whole way to events where alcohol will be present. I pray for myself and for the people I’m going to see. I pray to make it through this event—this day—without drinking or crying or losing my temper.
- Rehearse. Make a list of all of the people you expect to see and come up with something to ask them about. Maybe it’s their favorite football team or their new job, but I come equipped with ideas so that I don’t feel so awkward. I also rehearse what I will say when someone offers me a drink. I’ve been sober for 13 years, and someone in my family still always asks if I want a drink.
- Have a buddy. I feel more comfortable if I have one person I know is on my side. That person doesn’t have to abstain from drinking but is usually willing to talk about other things and step in if an overbearing uncle persists in offering drinks. I reach out to this person ahead of time and let them know how I’m feeling and how they can help me.
- Bring something special to drink. My favorite is ginger beer. It’s non-alcoholic and doesn’t taste like alcohol, but it’s in a bottle and feels more special than drinking pop out of a plastic cup.
- Hang out with kids. Not only do kids not drink, but they are usually so happy to have an adult give them undivided attention. It’s an easy win. Read them a book, color, toss the football, you get the idea. You’ll serve your family well and have more fun yourself.
- Have an exit plan. I drive to most social events by myself. If I get overwhelmingly uncomfortable, I can leave without having to convince anyone else to leave. I also give myself permission to leave and do not have to justify my decision to anyone. My sobriety is my most precious gift, and I have the right to protect it without having to make people understand.
- Have an “after” plan. What am I going to do when I leave this function? How can I best care for myself? In the early years of my sobriety, I always went to an AA meeting on Thanksgiving night and Christmas night with my sober friends. Now that I have kids, and it’s been several years, I treat myself to bubble baths, new pajamas, and smelly candles on those nights. Having something to look forward to at the end of an emotionally exhausting day keeps me from desperately searching for things to make me feel good again.
- Finally, if you’re worried that attending an event puts your sobriety at risk, I give you permission to skip it. Do your best to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings in the process, and do not stay home by yourself and have a pity-party. This is not about missing out. It’s about choosing something better for yourself. Gradually, my old friendships that relied on drinking as a foundation have faded away, and new healthier ones have replaced them.
None of these things is a full-proof guarantee to getting through the holidays without drinking, but they have worked for me. Not only have I stayed sober, but I love the holidays. I love the decorations and the presents and the cookies. And I love Jesus. I love what He has done for me and how He has changed my life. The best way I can celebrate his birth is by protecting the second chance God has given me.