Staying Sober Through the Holidays

Early recovery from substance use disorders brings up a number of new challenges. For a newly sober person the holiday season can be particularly difficult. While most of the world is focused on holiday cheer, addicts in recovery are often worried about potential unresolved family conflicts, relapse triggers, and spending time away from their primary support systems. Many times there are still unresolved wounds in family relationships at this stage – family gatherings can sometimes get dicey, for everyone involved.

Not only is it hard for the person new to recovery, the rest of the family members can feel they are being put in a delicate situation as well. This year, questions always arise about what to do with alcohol in the home, whether or not to go visit relatives, and more. Whether you are new in recovery yourself, or have a family member in early recovery, we hope this post will give you some ideas as to what to expect, and how to set yourself up for success through the new year!

Can you make it through? Absolutely! But the most successful cases are people who think through these nuances in advance, and come up with a plan.

Let’s start by saying that there is no blanket solution because every family’s situation is different. Ultimately, what you decide to do will be something you’ll have to decide using the tools you have available to you. Here are some holiday sobriety suggestions:

For Parents

Remember not to take temporary for permanent

This is an ongoing adage in recovery, because each phase will eventually pass. Remember that early recovery doesn’t last forever – if you have to alter your plans dramatically this year, that doesn’t mean you have to do it this way every year.

Walking on eggshells is not the answer

We often talk in our parent support group meetings about how our kids aren’t “made of glass.” They survived addictions – they are tough, and they are smart! So let yourself off the hook a little. You’re not going to break them with a single sentence or misstep. It’s far better to go into the holidays working as a team. Stay on your kid’s side. This means it’s not “me vs you”. It’s “me and you vs your addiction.”

Ask your child what they think

Ultimately, you are the parent. However, a little input from your newly sober child can go a long way towards both of you feeling like you’re working towards the same goal. What is your child’s comfort level with being around Uncle Joe, who’s known to drink a beer or two every time you get together? Are there any relatives that your child did alcohol and drugs with that it would be best to avoid altogether this year? Would your child feel better if you gave them some space to call their sponsor at some point during the holiday?

Your child may have more insight into these things than you think!

Get on the same page with your spouse

We don’t need to agree on everything, but it’s important that we’re on the same page as parents. Perhaps there’s something your spouse thinks is very important, that you do not. Perhaps your spouse has thought of some nuance that you haven’t. Have these conversations in advance!
How are you planning to handle any situations that arise? If a situation becomes inappropriate, are you willing to leave quickly? How will you handle a relapse? Remember you don’t have to have all the answers – just getting an idea of what you’ll do will allow you the freedom to make decisions on the fly.

Use your counselors, therapists, and peers

Any support you’ve got in place comes in very handy this time of year. Objective third parties are often fantastic at helping us “see around corners.” If you’re using a counselor, therapist, Al-Anon sponsor, etc., now is a good time to talk with them about your plan for the holidays. Their experience and suggestions may prove invaluable.

For young people in recovery

Don’t take temporary for permanent

This bears repeating. Just because this year is tough doesn’t mean every year is going to be tough. Take it easy and stay in the moment. Substance abuse recovery isn’t an overnight matter.

Develop some “escape routes”

Sometimes during the holiday parties we walk into a situation that ends up being more than we bargained for. When cousin Jimmy walks in smelling like weed, it might be more overwhelming than you anticipated. This is normal, but it’s good to have an idea of what you’ll do when things get rough.

If you’re going out of town, is there an Alcathon in your area going on that you can slip away to? If so, how will you do it? Do you have a car that you can use? Is there a spot somewhere that you can quietly slip away to and get a call with your safety net? Simple things, like parking down the street so that your car doesn’t get blocked into a driveway, can be a massive help in these times.

Talk these things through with your parents or immediate family

One of the things that gives everyone in the family anxiety is when we don’t know what the other members are thinking. It can be a very good idea to speak with parents or immediate family members about your plans. Are you going to disappear at some point to call your sponsor? Are you going to try to hit a meeting during the holidays? Is there a possibility that you may suddenly want to leave and go home for the night?

These are all fine things to do, but families often don’t know what to do when their new-in-recovery child disappears. In order to avoid misunderstanding, talk these things out with them in advance. Use your judgement – you don’t have to tell everyone at the party.

Use your network!

Recovery is all about connection. You no longer have to do things alone! This is true even when you’re physically separated from those you normally rely on. Reliable peers from treatment programs or 12-step meetings, sponsors, and even counselors are fantastic resources. All of them will have tips for staying sober during the holidays, so ask them!

Plan to be of service

One of the best ways to flip your perspective on its head is to be of service. Well, during the holidays, we’ll be surrounded by these opportunities! Help out where possible, and use the tools that have helped you stay grateful in the past.

Holidays and recovery

One of the primary objectives in recovery is to get to the point of being able to navigate challenging social situations. The sober life brings many rewards, but it isn’t realistic to believe that one can go through life never being around alcohol or other temptations. However, a young person in early sobriety is particularly vulnerable because they haven’t yet developed confidence in their sober lifestyle.

Holidays can bring heightened expectations for everyone. This pressure can be too much for a newly sober teenager. It will not always be this way. For the first sober holiday season here are a few more ideas that can help:

  • If a large family event is unavoidable, have a way for the young person to be able to leave
  • Make the family event alcohol free
  • Consider hosting others who may need a sober environment

Hopefully this post has provided you with a good start. As mentioned above, the best suggestion is to seek guidance from others who have been in a similar situation before. The priority is for the person in early recovery to have the best opportunity to stay sober through the holidays and for the entire family to enjoy this special time together. Every emotionally challenging situation a sober young person is able to face, the stronger his or her recovery will be.

For further reading, here’s some more tips to stay sober during the holiday season!

Have a wonderful holiday season and enjoy your family!

About the Author

Clint Stonebraker, the executive director of the Insight Program.
Clint Stonebraker has worked in the substance abuse treatment field since 1987 and has been the owner of The Insight Program since 1993. Clint Stonebraker has overseen the expansion of Insight into Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh North Carolina as well as growth in the Atlanta area. Clint is committed to providing quality care to individuals and families affected by substance abuse.

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