Thanksgiving can be a time of togetherness and extremely good food, but if you don't drink, the holiday, like many, can be a challenge. Alcohol often plays a big role in Thanksgiving celebrations across the U.S., and navigating the holiday season without an alcoholic beverage in hand might feel difficult, particularly the first time around. However, experts tell Bustle that a bit of preparation can help you do Thanksgiving sober. As the sober person at every dinner party, I can attest that all it takes is some planning.
"It seems cliché, but your sobriety comes first, so put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put it on others," Emily Lynn Paulson, a certified recovery coach and author of Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond The Filtered Life, tells Bustle. Making other people comfortable has to come second — even if Grandma doesn't understand why you're refusing her holiday punch for the fifth time. With the proper preparation, sober Thanksgivings can be a blast, and serve as a year-round reminder that you don't need to have alcohol for a good holiday experience.
Here are seven tips for navigating a sober Thanksgiving successfully, whether you're hosting or celebrating as a guest.
1. Practice Self-Care
"Thanksgiving can be a time of connection with family, which is lovely, but can turn into over-promising, overextending, and ignoring your own wants and needs," Paulson tells Bustle. If you're exhausted, it may be more difficult to tackle sobriety at big family occasions, so it's important to lay the groundwork beforehand and give yourself the best possible chance at the table.
"Take time for yourself," Paulson says. "Exercise, proper nutrition, and sleep can do wonders for your well-being. The better you feel physically, the better you will feel emotionally." Make sure you go into Thanksgiving feeling as good as you can.
2. Have Scripts Ready — For Yourself And Others
You may be dreading the conversations about your sobriety at the Thanksgiving table, but you can get through them successfully. Paulson suggests having rehearsed answers on hand. "It’s nobody’s business but your own, but you may want to be prepared with something to say," she tells Bustle. "You can say that you have early plans tomorrow morning, or that you don’t drink for health reasons, or so on." Or you can simply say you're not talking about it, or deflect the question by changing the subject.
It can be a good idea to enlist a partner or relative to do help if the conversation gets too probing. It's also kind to let your host know about your sobriety before you turn up, so that they can make sure they aren't covering your food options with alcoholic glazes.
3. Have A Support Network On Hand
Emergency friends on speed dial: check. "Depending on your level of transparency with the people around you, your friends can help support you," Paulson tells Bustle. "You should find a trusted friend who you can turn to if and when you have a craving to drink. When you experience an urge or craving, you can step outside and call this person. Better yet, bring a sober buddy with you, if possible!"
If you're in recovery, Paulson suggests going to a support meeting directly before or after your meal, to help yourself and others. If you're not drinking for other reasons, it's valuable to have people onside to support you and help you vent.
4. Make Sure You Have Options
Hosting Thanksgiving makes life a bit easier for sober people because it guarantees that there will be a non-alcoholic option on the table. People who are going home for Thanksgiving, Paulson suggests, should provide something for themselves. "If you’re concerned that there won’t be anything for you to drink at Thanksgiving dinner, consider bringing a non-alcoholic gift for the host, or pack seltzers or sodas for yourself so you have something in your hand at all times," she tells Bustle.
5. Host Your Own Sober Party
"If you'd prefer your Thanksgiving to be totally sober, it might be worth hosting it yourself. That way, it's easy to make the absence of alcohol an afterthought," event planner Lauren Grech tells Bustle. "Instead of having everyone bring their own dishes, sides, or desserts over, open up your kitchen to allow the cooking to be part of the party," she says. "This will give everyone an activity to do together that doesn't have to involve drinking." She also notes that everybody you've invited should know explicitly ahead of time that there won't be alcohol, so there's no confusion on the day.
6. Suggest New Traditions
Some of the traditions at your family's house may be difficult — like drinking beer and watching football after Thanksgiving dinner. Forewarned is forearmed, so plan for this ahead of time; have your own non-alcoholic drink ready, or simply slip away or help with washing-up.
If people in your family might be up for a change, you can also be proactive and talk about changing the day's schedule. "Why not suggest new traditions?" Paulson tells Bustle. "Focus on the giving part of Thanksgiving by volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen. Being of service to others is always in season, and doesn’t cause a hangover!" Thanksgivings without alcohol will also give you the edge for Black Friday sales, which could appeal to serious shoppers at the party.
You can also plan a family-friendly activity that doesn't involve alcohol. "Go apple-picking," Grech suggests. "You can then use the apples to create specialty non-alcoholic drinks like spiced caramel apple cider or apple cider floats."
7. Have An Exit Strategy
If it all becomes too much, it's worth knowing that you can escape without notice. "If possible, bring your own car," Paulson tells Bustle. "Make sure you can leave the gathering at any time by driving yourself, and don’t force yourself to be the designated driver." She also suggests making plans for afterwards with supportive friends, if you know it's going to be a stressful experience.
Hosting the event means you have a bit less control over your escape plan, but also means you have built-in breathing room: going to check the cooking, clean up or supervise visiting children for a bit is all part of the job, but it also gets you away from the pressure for a bit.
With some planning, sober Thanksgiving can be pretty awesome — complete with delicious non-alcoholic seasonal mocktails and some proper holiday cheer. And that's surely something to be thankful for.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for substance use, call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357).
Lauren Grech, CEO of LLG Events
Emily Lynn Paulson, certified recovery coach and author of Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond The Filtered Life