The holiday season can be a tough time for many people, but it can be especially difficult for those in early recovery. Between added downtime, frequent parties where alcohol is served, strained family relationships, and cases of the “holiday blues,” there are a number of triggers that can prompt relapse during this time of year.
Although relapse is always possible, it is never inevitable! Here’s what I have learned during my 25 years in recovery: some simple steps can steer your celebration in the substance-free direction. Remember, if your loved one is in recovery, then cheering them on through a safe and sober holiday is the best gift you can give them.
Don’t stay home and mope. If you’re in recovery and have no holiday plans, spread the news; you’ll be surprised at how many invitations you get! When I first got sober, I didn’t want to miss important holiday parties—even those that I knew would be serving alcohol. But I would arrive late, leave early, and bring a sober friend with me for added support.
Plan ahead and rethink rituals. Remind your family beforehand about your need to stay drug- and alcohol-free. Toast with sparkling fruit juice or ginger ale instead of champagne, and don’t be shy about bringing your own non-alcoholic beverages.
Be prepared for a quick exit. When I was in early recovery, I ended up stuck at a party for two hours longer than I wanted to be there—because I was dependent on others for a ride home. If you can’t make a break for it, you may end up stranded in an uncomfortable situation. The buddy system works well here; bring a friend in recovery and, if possible, your own mode of transportation.
Keep your support system close by. Peers, family members and counselors can lift your spirits if you experience feelings of loneliness or depression. You might also find a support group, NA or AA meeting to attend during the holidays.
Lend a hand. At home, focus on being helpful in small ways instead of over-committing yourself; help to decorate or do the dishes. Out in the community, healthy activities like volunteering not only add structure to your day—they are also feel-good ways of giving back.
Don’t play pretend. A friend in recovery once insisted that he could keep going to bars and parties every night without having a drink—but as the old saying goes, “if you hang out in a barbershop long enough…you’re going to leave with a haircut.” Although I have no problem with people who drink socially, a party is just not going to be fun for me if everyone else is noticeably buzzed. Because of this, it’s important to stay in balance; make an appearance, see your friends, but don’t make party-going the hub of your holiday season.
If you drink or use, don’t hide it. Tell your support system or your sponsor, ask for help and get right back into recovery. One use doesn’t have to lead to a binge or a week-long bender!
If you are newly in recovery, it can feel like you are running on thin ice from Thanksgiving to January—but the holidays and the New Year also provide opportunities to share, heal and rebuild bonds with family and friends. They keys are staying committed, focusing on the positive, and being honest with yourself and your loved ones.
Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer, Phoenix House