Staying Clean and Sober During the Holidays

By Tim Ryan

A friend of mine dragged me into a Yankee Candle store and picked up a candle named “Home for the Holidays.” Bringing it to his nose, he took a deep whiff and handed it to me saying,

 “Wow! Take a sniff. It lives up to its name. It smells like rage and disappointment!”

 Whether you’re in recovery or not, the holiday season is often a time of exhaustion, broken routines, eating too much, financial worry, and over-commitment. And if you’re one of millions returning home for the holidays, time with family can trigger good memories or unaddressed emotional trauma. 

If you’re in active recovery, the holidays can be even more challenging. Most gatherings with “normals” will include alcohol and maybe even so-called recreational drugs. The recovering addict—especially those celebrating the holidays for the first time clean and sober—may face a whole new level of temptation to use to avoid standing out or to question “Am I really an alcoholic or drug addict? Maybe I’m not. I should have just one…”

Others in active recovery might find time with family and friends stressful for other reasons. Most people I know in recovery have experienced social anxiety, and many people—even “normals”—often reach for a social lubricant to feel less awkward and more relaxed.

So how do you safeguard against relapse during the season?

1. Plan to Stay Active in Your Recovery

In active addiction, my entire world revolved around scoring my next fix. I planned my day around securing cash, driving into the city, and buying as much dope as I could. That strategy meant that I usually had what I needed when I needed it.

Make staying sober an active plan. Even if you’re traveling away from your home group, sponsor, and support network, you can still stay plugged in to recovery.

  • Call your sponsor and support network from the road
  • Ask those closest to you to help hold you accountable to your sobriety
  • Download a free app like Meeting Guide so you can find a meeting whenever you travel

If you’re staying close to home, attend sober events and festivities. If you must attend an event that you know will be full of triggers, call your sponsor before and after so you aren’t going in or out without support. Drive your own car to events (if possible) so you don’t have to rely on someone else who might wish to stay longer. And if it’s possible, you can always stay away from known people, places, and events that serve as your triggers.

2. Look for Ways to Serve

Do you remember your life in active addiction? I do. It was miserable, I was miserable, and I spread my misery around to others. Active addicts are joy thieves, always taking more than they give in relationships.

Do the opposite this holiday season. Make someone’s day every day. Smile. Be courteous, even in traffic and crowded stores. Hold doors open for others. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk and driveway. Serve a meal at a shelter. Bring food to someone homeless. Visit a shut-in or someone without family nearby. Write a holiday thank-you with a few bucks for your trash collector and mail carrier.

Giving helps others. No doubt. But giving helps the giver even more. Fight any lingering obsessions with alcohol by being out there as a giver of light to someone else.

 3. Keep a Full Drink in Your Hand at Gatherings

 A gracious host and hostess may work around a party with a bottle of whatever people are drinking so they can top off drinks along the way. You don’t have to be unkind or indignant to anyone who offers you a drink. They are trying to serve. But you can most easily avoid having alcohol brought to your face if you keep a full glass in your hand at all times.

4. Rely on More Than Willpower

Willpower wasn’t enough to keep me away from my addictions for long. Recently, I learned why. A Harvard psychologist calls willpower a muscle that actually weakens with repeated use. So if you’re relying on willpower alone—as opposed to continuing the spiritual work of recovery—don’t be surprised if you have strong urges after you’ve made it through the holidays.

You can prevent that by keeping your recovery routine during the holidays. If you go to a meeting every day in June, go to a meeting a day during the holidays. If you start your mornings on your knees asking your Higher Power for strength and direction, do the same during the holidays.

What are you going to do this holiday season to keep your recovery your priority?

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