Tips to Stay Sober During Thanksgiving and Holiday Season


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Thanksgiving is the kickoff for the holiday season and Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s seem to follow quickly. For many people in recovery, the 2020 holidays may be the first sober ones they celebrate without using alcohol or substances.  Spreading joy and focusing on friends and family are the themes for many this time of year, while the shadow of Covid-19 and restrictions are causing uncertainty and separation for many, not just people in recovery.

It’s easy to have an unrealistic expectation for the perfect first sober holiday season. Because alcoholism and addiction take a person away from friends and family (physically or emotionally), it’s tempting to expect now that you’re sober, holidays will be perfect.  It doesn’t always work out this way, yet a person can stay sober while enjoying the season’s celebrations.

Preparing for Your First Sober Holidays

There is no point in denying that you will face challenges this holiday season, perhaps your first sober holiday season in a while. Having reliable support resources, realistic expectations of yourself and others, and staying consistent in your recovery can help you stay sober no matter what holidays you are celebrating (Festivus anyone?).

Here are ten tried and true tips for staying sober and thriving this year and beyond:

1. Remember Why You’re Sober

There are many reasons people enter recovery.  For some, it’s families, courts, health, mental health, or even career reasons.  Make a list of your reasons for recovery and keep it with you.  If you struggle throughout the day, re-read your list.

2. Identify Potential Triggers Ahead of Time

If you are going to stay sober during the holidays, you need to plan ahead of time for situations that you believe will be stressful. In dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), this is called “Cope Ahead.”  This skill decreases your stress tress so that you can manage difficult situations.

  • Describe the situation you are facing.  Check the facts, for example, ask yourself if every person in the room will be offering you a drink?  Chances are, this isn’t a fact.

  • Decide how you will cope in the situation.  Will you call a friend, pray, walk away, or leave?  Remember, how you choose to manage your feelings and stay sober is for a choice.

  • Rehearse how you will cope.  Practice saying no thank you by thinking of what you will say and how you will say it. You may need to practice this for each person you’ll be talking to at an event.

  • Find a quiet space you can use if feeling stressed. Perhaps going outside for a short walk with a family pet is soothing to you. You can also bring a survival kit with objects that soothe you. Some ideas for your kit can be essential oils, an inspirational book, tea, or a photograph. The goal is for you to choose what will help you ahead of time, rather than in the stressful moment.

3. Stay Connected

Connection is the opposite of addiction.  Your sponsor, a friend, or even a therapist are all there to support you in this new stage of recovery.  If possible, invite a sober friend to celebrate with you.

Communicate with your supports before, during, and after attending holiday parties. Don’t be afraid to tell them how you are feeling. Remember, they are there to encourage you to get the most out of life without using drugs or taking another drink.  Friends in a support group or a 12-step sponsor have all probably had a first sober holiday season.

4. Stay Focused on the Good Things About the Holidays

Remember, the holiday season did not come into being so that people could gather to drink alcohol. Having drinks is but a tiny portion of what people do during the holidays.

There are so many positive things that happen during Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season. Here is a list of good things to remember:

  • The smell of turkey and cookies coming out of the oven.

  • The chance to see friends and relatives you haven’t seen for awhile

  • Holiday decorations dotting the community and malls

  • The opportunity to give unique gifts to special people, don’t worry about the expense. You can always make something memorable!

5. Is it absolutely necessary to attend all events?

A short answer.  No.  If, for any reason, you think attending a specific holiday event could put your sobriety at risk, think closely about why you’re attending.  In the past, you might have felt obligated to attend holiday events. The reality is you do have a choice.

6. It’s okay to leave early

While attending holiday events and parties, you can count on a lot of activity taking place. Things usually start slow and start picking up speed and excitement as the night wears on. There is nothing wrong with making an early exit if you feel uncomfortable.

7. Be Prepared to Say No

If drinking is taking place as part of the festivities, there will be people who offer you a drink. You don’t need to explain why to say no thank you.  If they persist, you can politely say no thank you and walk away. No one is entitled to an explanation.

8. Be accountable

Before going to a party where you expect people will be drinking, you might want to consider creating the right mindset to stay strong by attending a 12 Step meeting. By telling other members about where you are headed, you make yourself accountable. If you want to increase your accountability, you could ask another member to call you during the event or party. You can also set the table for the rest of the holiday season by attending Thanksgiving recovery activities.

9. Be Prepared for Awkward Moments

Sometimes seeing family and friends is uncomfortable. They may not believe you are genuinely sober; they may even feel hurt and angry about things that happened while you were actively using. It is possible to make it through these moments. Some tips for awkward moments:

  • You are not responsible for how other people express their feelings towards you. How you react is within your power, you can try excusing yourself from a conversation and ask to schedule a time to talk where you and they can be fully present. Remember, you don’t need to engage in every situation, especially if it would harm the relationship.

  • Everyone is imperfect, and feeling challenged by someone is a perfect chance to work on your patience and compassion. The hurt caused during addiction is valid, and always remember, they didn’t go through treatment to learn how to handle their feelings. Be an example of recovery.

  • It’s okay to have boundaries. You can say no to a conversation or an invitation.

10. Have Fun!

In looking at all the ways to stay sober during the holidays, one often gets overlooked.  That one is to have fun!  While this is sometimes hard to do, it’s important to have a joyous time with friends or whether on Zoom or in person.  Recovery means you will be present and begin building memories and increasing the happiness that is part of life.  It is a new tradition you are creating.

Here’s to wishing you a safe and happy holiday season filled with new traditions and joy!  Remember, you are not alone.  Plenty of people in recovery have faced a first holiday season in recovery – you can too!

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