If You're Newly Sober, The Holidays Can Be A Struggle — But These Strategies Can Help
I didn’t really “choose” to first get sober around the holidays when I was 22 years old; it kind of chose me. It’s a long story (as many of my stories are), but my last drink was at a Halloween party. However, because I still had weed left over after that, my sobriety date is November 12, 2011.
The first 90 days of sobriety are, of course, the hardest, and the holidays are the time of year when the child in all of us feels the most temptation to overindulge in, well, just about everything. Plus, temptation is everywhere. There’s no greater conflict than this time of year to avoiding “people, places, and things” that either make us want to drink or “trigger” our drinking memories — because we’re expected to show up at, and deal with, a ton of festivities. If you have literally any family at all, are either employed or unemployed, and have a pulse, you know how stressful the holidays can be—and if you’ve ever tried to abstain while others imbibed, you know how much temptation is around you.
“Avoiding the holiday temptation to drink can be tricky because it’s such a time of celebration for everyone,” mental health counselor DeAnn MacCloskey tells Bustle. “But you do not need to drink to celebrate.”
Fortunately, she’s right — although that probably sounds easier said than done. These 10 tips can help you maintain your newfound sobriety while staying merry and bright—not lit.
1. Limit Your Time At Holiday Functions
If you want to show up for a friend's charity fundraiser at a bar, or if you have to go to the office Christmas party, commit to staying for an hour. Get your rosy face into as many photos as you can, personally say hello to literally everyone there, and peace out.
“Be an early bird,” says Dr. Nicki Nance, a licensed psychotherapist and an assistant professor at Beacon College. “If your family activities involve drinking, arrive early and leave early, before others are intoxicated. Have a plan to meet with a sober friend or go to a meeting if your family holidays are usually stressful.”
Even if your total time clocked is an hour, you showed up! And we can often spend an hour doing something that may feel impossible for longer than that.
2. While You’re At Holiday Functions, Have A Buddy Check In Via Text
….or bring a sober or supportive friend along with you.
When we know other people are counting on us, and when we have someone who we enjoy and trust in our corner, we're more likely to follow through, since we know we’re being held accountable. It’s also okay to take a time out at a holiday event and call someone.
“If the party is starting to feel uncomfortable, step outside and call your sponsor or someone else in recovery who is familiar with your journey,” says Sarah Obsorne of Mountainside Treatment Center. “They will help remind you of all the hard work you’ve put in, and that it’s worth it to abstain for your long term health.”
I personally had about two weeks sober on Thanksgiving of 2011, and I spent the day constantly retreating into my room to call and text other sober women, who gave me tips that saved my ass and made me laugh (there’s not enough space for them here, but hit me up on social media, I’m happy to share).
3. Get Something That Looks Like A Drink And Hold It
This one is simple: ask for a seltzer and stick a lime wedge on it, or get a seltzer and cranberry. If anyone asks what you’re drinking, just say it’s Santa’s secret recipe and you promised not to tell. Also, a plain old cola could just as easily pass for a cocktail. This is an incredibly useful trick to have up your sleeve if you're end goal is to keep people from gawking at your empty hand or "sad" glass of water and asking you, "Hey, why aren't you drinking?" I actually picked this tip up from my therapist, who used the tactic herself at parties when she didn't feel like drinking, even though she doesn't even have a problem.
4. Focus On The Food
Food is good. We love food. Keep your eyes peeled for what you can eat to keep your mouth, eyes, and hands busy. “Allow yourself some delicious treats, guilt-free,” says Jaime Gleicher, LMSW.
Seriously, I have had #noshame stuffing more onto a single plate than can easily fit in a giant Christmas stocking.
Because if I'm holding a plate in one hand and a fork or a soda in the other, I don't have anywhere else to hold a drink. Plus, everyone is a "foodie" these days, so you've got your ice-breaker right there—just make a comment, any comment, relating to something on your plate.
Lastly, eating is just a pleasurable experience overall—and you will quickly come to learn that a hungry recovering alcoholic is more likely to be triggered, irritable, overwhelmed, and an overall Incredible Hulk-ier version of their true selves.
5. If Possible, Serve Yourself
If that’s not possible, ask the waiter/bartender for their finest year of Pellegrino and wink at anyone in earshot. Make sure you personalize each wink.
Even better, suggests MacCloskey: throw your own party!
“If you are in control of the party, it may help you focus on being the host instead of turning to alcohol for entertainment or comfort,” she says.
If you're stuck attending a gathering that's not going to be a good situation — like a wine-heavy event — Dr. Nance suggests offer to babysit for friends or coworkers who have little ones. You will legit look like a hero.
“When others are going out to parties that are too risky for you, this is something that structures your time,” she says. “It can also be fulfilling to nurture little ones or do activities with older kids.”
6. Find Merry Replacement Activities
There are so many things to do over the holidays that don’t involve alcohol — like volunteering. “Try to participate in more active holiday events like fundraisers that require you to be responsible for something and physically involved,” suggests clinical psychologist Kimberly Williams. “Events with vulnerable populations like hospital events or working with children or the elderly are great ways to accomplish this goal.”
There are also a ton of non-alcohol-related festivities going on at any given time, and if you put in just a few Google-searches worth of effort, you’ll find them.
In your downtime, says Laura Silverman, founder of The Sobriety Collective, consider picking from a long list of "ing" words that worked for her.
“I got busy knitting, cross-stitching, exercising, cooking, writing, reading, watching movies, spending time with family, staying home on Friday nights, playing board games, and singing karaoke,” she says.
7. Act Like You're Drinking, If That Makes You More Comfortable
Because I laugh so loudly and crack dirty jokes with people before I know their names, many assume that, even though I’ve been sober over five years, I’m always already three drinks in. This, my friends, is proof that you don’t “need anything” to be your charming self. You only thought you did, and that was your mind playing tricks on you: your addiction tries to feed itself by playing on your insecurities and fear of being judged. Give yourself permission to be just as loud and funny and goofy as you would be if you were “loosened up.”
When I had one day sober—one day—I went to a huge party and stood in the doorway of the bathroom clutching a red solo cup of seltzer feeling like there was no way I'd ever be able to make it through the night. But someone took pity on me, pulled me onto the couch, and struck up a conversation with me. Before I knew it, I was making the same connections I did weeks before, only this time, it was all real, not fabricated in that "I love you!" way alcohol makes us strangers into sudden BFFS. These days, I actually look forward to most social situations, armed with nothing but a bold shade of lipstick and a kind word to break the ice.
I've seen other girls in early sobriety channel their inner method actress and "stumble" over their own foot, spittle-laugh, and spill a little of that seltzer and lime to look like part of the group. This, my sober sisters, is known as "faking it til you make it." Just don't fall into your more annoying drunk habits, like screaming "This is my song!" to anyone within earshot whenever Beyoncé takes to the speaker system.
8. Remember Why You’re Doing This
You may want to make a list of why you’re getting sober and keep it handy, says Gleicher. “Keep it close to you, preferably on your phone or in your wallet, to refer to when temptation strikes,” she suggests.
Also, don’t forget to think things through. You’re not doing this because everything was going just dandy when you were drinking. What’s the evening really going to look like if you “just have one?”
“Make sure you play the tape through,” she says. “Remind yourself how good you are going to feel the next day, when you are not hungover, and remember all the wonderful memories.
9. Own Your Truth And Just Say No
It’s okay to say, “I’m so sorry, I can’t make it,” if something feels like it’s just not a good idea. There is no situation worth compromising your sobriety for, and there’s no reason to flirt with temptation. Offer another option for another time and place that’s alcohol-free. Taking care of yourself is the most important thing right now, not making appearances.
“People who are supportive of your recovery will either find a way for you to enjoy yourself or understand when you can’t come,” says Obsorne.
If, while you are out and about, someone asks why you’re not drinking, keep it simple. “You don’t owe anyone an explanation, but a simple 'I have an early morning' is an easy and effective way to leave without feeling rude,” says MacCloskey.
If some annoying person continues to interrogate you—which, by the way, is a worst fear that literally almost never happens—hit ‘em up with an answer like "I have diarrhea." They won't be prying after that.
10. Also….It's OK To Lie
Feel free to say you're on “a cleanse” or on antibiotics or just aren’t feeling very well. If a person presses you for more detail, tell then you must've caught whatever it was from their mother last night.
Okay, don't do that last one. But chances are, if someone's giving you a hard time about why you're not drinking, they're uncomfortable for their own reasons, and it's not your problem.
Also, if you’re not ready to tell your friends and family yet, don’t. Just say you don’t feel like it, and ask them a personal question or bring up politics. Conversation over.
Or, try just keeping the conversation light, suggests Dr. Nance.
“In dysfunctional families, the three little words to remember are news, sports, and weather,” she says.
In addition to all of this, there is one surprising tip on what not to do: Volunteer to be the sober designated driver or drive the crew to the party.
“This way, when it’s time to exit the party, you can just leave without waiting on your girlfriends to finish their drink or make rounds saying goodbye, which will only cause you to stay in a difficult situation longer than necessary,” says Williams.
Most important of all, please don’t underestimate the power of actually spending time with other sober women, before, after, and anytime, even if it’s just for coffee and candy canes. As a wise woman once said…we really are stronger together.
Images: Cezanne Ali/ Unsplash; Giphy