November 19th, 2017

The Holidays And Recovery: Strategies For Staying Sober

Staying sober during the holiday season can be challenging for people in recovery and particularly for those early in the process.  There are many social events during the holidays, and many opportunities, and even pressure, to drink alcohol or use drugs.

When this is combined with the gathering of family members – who may be hearing for the first time about the newly launched effort to abstain from alcohol and drugs – anxiety and tension can be intense. This is especially the case when some family members are not knowledgeable about addiction or are active addicts themselves. The situation can be worsened by an expectation that one is to have a “joyous” holiday experience.

Fortunately, because this scenario is so predictable, much work has gone into figuring out how to manage it successfully. The key is to become familiar with this work and to take time to prepare for holiday events.

My first suggestion to my patients is to set a realistic, first-time goal: getting through the season without a relapse rather than enjoying themselves. I would not rule out pleasure, but I think there’s a better chance of experiencing it the second time around.

The Kolmac staff in our Baltimore office compiled 12 suggestions that I hope you and/or your patients will find useful during the holidays. Here are the first six. I will share the others next week.

  1. Plan ahead. Know which events are coming up each day and what your game plan is. If you know you have an event where drugs and alcohol may be present, think about what might help you to prepare.  Consider skipping an event if the risk is too great; it will probably be more manageable next year when you have more recovery time behind you.
  2. Get help from friends. It might be a good idea to bring a sober friend with you to a work or family event. You may also want to tell a friend or sponsor that you will call them when the event is over to check in.
  3. Set limits. The holidays can be a stressful time of year due to financial troubles, grief over lost loved ones, family conflicts, extra commitments, etc. So, don’t feel bad about saying no or limiting the amount of time you stay at an event in order to guard yourself against stress.
  4. Identify your triggers and avoid them. You know yourself best, so know the types of situations, people, or places that trigger you to drink or use drugs. For example, if certain people cause a lot of stress for you, limit your time with them so you can avoid confrontations. Especially pay attention to and address being Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and Tired (“HALT”) as these are vulnerable times for you in your recovery.
  5. Keep your hands occupied. Here’s one strategy that you may find appealing: while at a party or gathering, plan to have a non-alcoholic beverage in your hand. This keeps you occupied, and people are less likely to ask you if you need a drink.

Let the host of the event know your situation. That way they won’t take it personally if you need to leave early. Always have an exit strategy. For some, being the designated driver is a helpful way to remain in a social setting. Others don’t want to have to be at the party until its end and be forced to wait around all evening. If you are one of these, have your car at the event so you can leave when you want if things get tough.

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