The holidays are here, but for recovering addicts and alcoholics, what should be the happiest time of year can fill us with dread. It’s hard enough to fight the urges and stay sober on an everyday basis. When you throw in the holidays, the parties, get-togethers, and general expectations of happiness are overwhelmingly stressful.
The pressure to join in and be happy is relentless. For many people who suffer from addiction, social situations are almost impossible. You’re almost certain to encounter people who trigger hard-to-handle emotions, regrets, or memories from the past you’d rather forget.
Michael Castanon, CEO of Luminance Recovery, says, “Planning is the answer for nearly every situation in life, and the holidays – especially when it comes to your sobriety – are no exception. It’s hard to predict how your friends and family will behave. Even if they know you’re in recovery, they may try to tempt you back into your old ways by encouraging you to drink or do drugs. Be prepared and plan ahead for these potential instances to ensure you aren’t caught off-guard or without a plan to remain on-track and sober.”
Here are five ways to prepare yourself and stay clean and sober, no matter what stressors you encounter.
1. Have a drink on hand.
If you feel comfortable sharing your sober success, then do so. However, in some situations, it may not be wise to disclose your personal struggles. In that case, camouflage and an exit strategy is the way to go.
Keep a non-alcoholic drink in hand at all times. You can refill discreetly and avoid the inevitable discussions of why you aren’t drinking alcohol.
If someone does ask if you’d like a drink or a refill, you don’t need to explain. A simple “no, thank you” should satisfy most people. If you’re pressed or feel uncomfortable, find an excuse to walk away. Go to the bathroom, step outside for a breather, or explain that you’re looking for someone.
If you’re cornered and absolutely must explain, pick one simple, credible excuse and stick with it:
● I’m taking medication for an ear infection, and can’t drink.
● I’m the designated driver.
● I have an important early-morning meeting. I need to stay sharp.
2. Write down craving strategies.
Cravings are easily triggered, even reminiscing with your old friends can make you miss the old days, before you had to worry about maintaining sobriety. Make a list of distractions or coping skills that have worked for you in the past. Everyone is different, but common strategies include doing a relaxing activity like yoga or meditation, vigorous exercise, or reading an inspirational self-help book.
3. Lower your expectations.
Real life is not a TV commercial. Your family might not be warm and wonderful. Your table might not groan under the weight of more home-cooked dishes than you can count. You know your family, and you know there will be inside jokes (some of them at your expense), political arguments, a creepy uncle, an aunt who asks way too many intrusive personal questions, and a cousin who drinks too much and throws up in a potted plant.
To reduce the stress of family gatherings, go in with realistic expectations and try to keep your conversations positive and on safe ground. If your family drives you nuts, limit your exposure by staying at a hotel and planning your time wisely. Arrive early and leave at the first sign of trouble. Respect your own need to escape when necessary.
4. Phone a friend.
If you’re a member of AA or NA, call your sponsor. If not, when you feel yourself slipping, phone a close friend who knows what you’re going through and supports you. When you’re tempted to use, talk it out. A good friend will remind you about how far you’ve come and how hard you struggled to get there, and about how bad it was when you were using. Talk about your future plans, and laugh about your crazy family or coworkers.
5. Find a safe place.
When you’re completely overwhelmed, go to a public location where you feel safe and calm, and there is no access to drugs or alcohol. It might be a library, a meeting, a coffee shop, an art gallery, or a friend’s house. A long drive on the coast or in the country or a trip to the ocean to hear the waves and smell the salt air may calm you. Your safe place is personal to you. Some people respond best to distractions or alternate (healthy) addictions, like playing a video game or long distance running. Find your safe place, where there are no dangerous substances and you can think about anything but your craving.
Addiction is a chronic disease, and to be successful, you have to be ready for anything, including the sadness so many people are overcome with during the holidays. With effective coping strategies in place, you will be able to handle anything that comes your way. But remember, you’re human, and humans make mistakes. If you eat a few rum balls by accident or succumb to temptation, don’t let it ruin your sobriety. Acknowledge it, forgive yourself, and get back on the program with renewed determination.