4 Strategies to Maintain Sobriety During the Holidays

Original post date November 2016.

Giving the gift of recovery to ourselves and the people we love

By Emily Giattina, LCSW, Dual Diagnosis Counselor, Skyland Trail

The holidays can be a challenging time to manage sobriety. You may receive more invitations to parties or social gatherings than usual – some that you may feel obligated to attend like the boss’s office party or the big family dinner at your mom’s house. You may travel out of town. And there are so many “inputs” during the holidays – from those tear-jerking holiday commercials to the music playing in the grocery store – that it can be hard to anticipate how it all will affect your mood.

Here are a few strategies for preventing relapse during the holidays… while still enjoying the season.

1)      Plan ahead.

Planning ahead is key, especially if your holiday plans involve travel or a break from your usual routine.

If you are traveling, before you leave, research the 12-step meetings close to your destination. Schedule a time to go to at least one of the meetings. Share your schedule with your  family or friends  so they know not to plan the annual family photo during your 6:00 meeting.

If you’re going to a party or family gathering, have an exit strategy. That way,  if you’re at the big family dinner and you start feeling overwhelmed or triggered, you already have your escape plan mapped out – whether that’s leaving and going to a 12-step meeting or going back to your hotel room and calling your sponsor.  Maybe you go see a movie or go on a walk. You could invite others to join you or you could express the need for personal space. Share your plan with your closest friend or loved one and rehearse it in advance. That way if you need to activate your plan, you can feel confident and in control.

Finally, plan for the worst case scenario. Even if you feel really confident in your recovery now, spending time with family or old friends can sometimes trigger you in ways you do not expect. Know the schedules and best contact information for the people in your support network. If you need to get away and call someone for support on Christmas Day at noon, know who will be available to answer your call. If you discuss your emergency plan in advance, your friend or loved one will know that if you call, you may be in a higher risk situation, and you need their attention.

2)      Lean on your support network.

Don’t feel like to you have to navigate the holidays alone. If you are going to a social gathering or party with alcohol, bring a supportive friend. Create a sense of accountability: call your sponsor on the way to the party and call your sponsor when you leave.

And know whom you can call for help if you start to feel triggered or overwhelmed. Many clubhouses have meetings around the clock on holidays. Know the locations in advance and use it if you need it.

3)      Manage expectations

Understand that sober holidays are going to be different. They may be better in some ways, and they may be more challenging or even disappointing in other ways. Your first holiday sober can be especially different.

Consider asking your sponsor about his or her first holiday sober. How did her expectations compare to reality? Talk honestly about your expectations. Consider some of the different feelings that may arise and how you could prepare for them in advance or handle them in the moment.

4)      Remember that the most important thing is you and your sobriety.

Setting boundaries is healthy. It’s ok to say “no.” If you think attending a family function will lead to unhealthy outcomes for you, you can decline the invitation.  Maybe suggest a smaller get together with your loved ones on a different day. Take your mom out to lunch instead. Or if being with your family is unhealthy, organize a holiday get together with your friends. You need to take care of you.

If you are a friend or family member of someone in recovery, the holidays may be challenging – or different  –  for you as well. Remember that while it can be incredibly helpful to be supportive and encouraging, it is not your job to make your loved one stay sober.  If your loved one is actively using, it’s ok to not invite him or her to the family activities, even if it’s hard. Communicate that the door will be wide open when he or she is sober.  And take care of yourself. Attend AL-ANON meetings and talk to people in your support network who may have gone through this before.

For those in recovery and for their family members, remember not to place too much weight on the holidays. If someone in recovery needs to leave a family gathering, try not to read it as a failure – on his part or yours. He is being responsible for maintaining his sobriety.  That’s a good thing even though you will feel his absence.

Try to be flexible. Consider starting new family holiday traditions that support health for all your family members. And keep the big picture in mind.  Maybe that one day didn’t play out like the pinterest-inspired masterpiece you envisioned, or you didn’t get the family photo in matching pajamas that you wanted for the holiday card. It’s ok. Maintaining sobriety and supporting recovery are some of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves and the people we love. 

Emily Giattina, LCSW, is the primary counselor for the Dual Diagnosis recovery community at Skyland Trail. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has experience working with young adults and adults with dual diagnosis in inpatient, residential and outpatient settings. She earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Georgia.