How To Handle The Holidays If You’re Newly Sober, According To Experts

The holidays are a stressful time for everyone, but for someone who is new to recovery, the daunting prospect of navigating holiday parties without drugs or alcohol can be challenging, to say the least. Being nervous about how to handle the holidays if you're newly sober is totally normal. The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation called Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's the Bermuda triangle for people in recovery, and for a good reason.

"The holidays can take down a lot of people in recovery, but you don't have to be one of them," Michael Graubart, who is in recovery, wrote on the foundation's website. The struggle is real, and with this in mind, experts and people in recovery shared their tips for avoiding potential pitfalls with Bustle. First, it's important to recognize that the pressure of parties, family events, and work obligations that you previously got through with drugs or alcohol, can be a lot to handle if you're new to recovery.

Los Angeles-based recovery breathwork facilitator and travel writer Amanda Fletcher recently celebrated five years in recovery, and during that time she has developed her own personal toolkit for getting through the holidays while maintaining her hard-won sobriety. "Bring your own fancy drink," Fletcher tells Bustle. "Don’t count on the host to have a well thought-out virgin cocktail. Have a sober friend with you when possible. Arrive early, stay for an hour, and get the hell out of there before things get weird." While things will eventually get easier, in the meantime it's important to put your sobriety first.

Make A Game Plan Ahead Of Time

If this is your first sober holiday, going in prepared is your best defense because it can be hard AF. New Life House Recovery Community wrote a blog post that noted that there is significant anecdotal evidence that many relapses occur during the holidays due to the added stress of holiday parties and financial issues that come up during this time. However, you can successfully stay sober during the holidays, and Shatterproof, a national nonprofit committed to reducing the stigma and secrecy associated with substance use disorder, gave Bustle a number of tips for navigating the potential pitfalls of the holidays while maintaining your sobriety, including making a plan ahead of time.

"Practice saying no to a drink offer in advance. If you are not comfortable saying that you are in recovery, a kind but firm 'no thank you' will always do. Plan, plan, plan," Shatterproof ambassadors Laura Silverman, Amy Waldrup, Kyle Mead, and Casey, who asked that they only be identified by their first name, tell Bustle. "You wouldn’t go on a 20-mile hike without planning for it […] approach this the same way. If you are going to a holiday party, drive yourself so you are free to leave if you feel uncomfortable."

Another thing Fletcher suggests is keeping your hands busy. This can mean offering to help in the kitchen, playing a board game, reading tarot cards, or enjoying your own mocktail. Additionally, Shatterproof notes that taking the focus off of yourself can help make things a little easier.

"As a person in recovery I also have a responsibility to take care of myself and my recovery, and the holidays are a great time to take advantage of opportunities to give back," one Shatterproof ambassador, who asked to remain anonymous to maintain their privacy, tells Bustle. "We can strengthen our own recovery by giving it away with acts of kindness, charitable giving, or volunteering our time."

Establish Clear Boundaries

Fletcher also says it's important to establish clear boundaries with those around you. For example, just because you are sober doesn't mean you are responsible for taking care of those who aren't. "Being sober doesn’t automatically make you the designated driver," Fletcher says. "Uber makes people the designated driver." Dr. Ian Tong, chief medical officer at Doctor On Demand, agrees, telling Bustle, "Leave the driving to a driving service."

Graubart wrote for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that the label of "holiday" can increase the pressure to party, but it doesn't have to. "If you take the label off the bottle of fine wine or scotch, it's just plain old alcohol. Just as we take the label off bottles of alcohol, we can also take the label off holidays. Remember that another name for Thanksgiving is… Thursday. You wouldn't drink or use on any other Thursday now that you're in recovery, would you?"

Shatterproof ambassadors also agreed with Fletcher's advice to navigate the holidays with a sober buddy, and added that it's also OK to decline invitations that you think might jeopardize your recovery. Remember that "no" is a complete sentence, and your recovery is the most important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to attend a holiday party. They also added, "If you are going to a holiday party, drive yourself so you are free to leave if you feel uncomfortable." If you don't drive, establish an exit plan, such as pre-ordering an Uber or Lyft for a certain time, in advance.

Finally, acknowledge that the holidays are stressful on their own, but even more so if you're newly in recovery, so make sure you take care of yourself. "Give yourself the gift of self-love; which for someone in recovery means always putting your recovery first," Shatterproof ambassadors tell Bustle. "The best gift you can give to anyone; your family, children, friends, neighbors, and yourself, is the gift of your recovery."