Each year, the winter holidays are when relapse rates are the highest for recovered addicts. Memories of old celebrations or friends/family who still partake in one’s addiction, as well as the loneliness and depression that sometimes accompany the season, can make maintaining sobriety more difficult. However, with a combination of preparation, awareness, and persistence, the holidays can become less of a challenge and more of a celebration.
In their article “12 Tips for Staying Sober During the Holiday Season”, the website for ‘Project Turnabout’ lists many tips on avoiding temptation, but perhaps most importantly: “Take this opportunity to celebrate not only the holidays, but also your new life of sobriety. This in itself is something really worth celebrating”.
Before the invitations come rolling in, practice saying “no”. Turning down an offer of a drink, a gambling opportunity, or even a party all together is commonplace, especially for those who are newly recovered or still recovering. Until friends and family get used to your change in lifestyle, they may still extend an invitation or offer to make your favorite cocktail. If you have a sponsor or support person, discussing these challenges ahead of time can help combat them when they arise.
Even as the years go by, coworkers and new acquaintances may contest your sobriety unknowingly. You can plan your own celebration the same night as the company party or set up time to spend with supportive friends and family to keep you distracted. However, no matter the situation, “You don’t owe anyone an explanation…” or even have a ‘good’ excuse. “…a simple ‘No thank you, but I’ll take a Diet Coke,’ is sufficient.” Expecting these offers to pop up and preparing to turn them down ahead of time can reduce stress and help you navigate the inevitable.
Temptation can come from many other places during the holidays, which is part of why relapse is so common. Avoiding old haunts, traditions, and enablers is very important. Instead of sitting at home by yourself, however, you can start new traditions or replace triggering events with recovery habits instead. Seeking out meetings in your area, volunteering to help others in need, and having an escape route if temptation does sneak up are all productive replacement activities.
Make sure to surround yourself with those who support your recovery rather than those who may encourage you to “treat” yourself with old habits. And plan for your own mode of transportation, in case you need to get away from a situation before it becomes a problem.
Build a Network
Sometimes you’ll still find yourself in a tricky situation, and that’s when your support network will come into play. Make sure to plan as much time with those who understand and help support your sobriety as possible. Planning out the holidays and filling up your schedule will help avoid HALT—an acronym from Project Turnabout that stands for “hungry, angry, lonely, tired”—four things that may encourage a relapse. Additionally, knowing where you’ll be and who you’ll be with increases accountability in a happy, healthy environment.
In case you do find yourself without support people around you, have a list of those you can contact quickly. This list can include family, friends, or a designated sobriety coach or sponsor. Try to list at least ten support people who agree to be available at least some of the time during the holidays so that you don’t take them by surprise. Communication and respect, especially if the support person is not “official”, will help them understand what you need and don’t need from them ahead of time.
An important reminder here is that family do not get a free pass during the holidays. If someone is not being supportive of your recovery, regardless of your relationship to them, you are not obligated to keep them in your network or even spend time with them—ever. Regardless of tradition, you have made a choice for your health and lifestyle that does not need to be put in jeopardy
Keep up Self-Awareness
Outside of events with others, there are ways to connect with your own choices and reinforce your decision to remain sober. “Stay in the moment and live one day at a time. Never mind about what happened or what could happen. Enjoy today. Live today. Celebrate your sobriety!” (Project Turnabout).
You can start this “present moment” mindset, if you haven’t already, by creating a gratitude list. Think about thinks that make you grateful for your sobriety, or simply things that make you smile. Turning this into a daily or weekly ritual makes it an easy way to integrate mindfulness and gratitude into your daily life year-round, which can stave off temptation no matter what the season brings.
If struggles begin to mount, another recommendation is to write yourself a letter about your choices up to this point. “The act of writing your ideas on paper is very powerful. Write down all the activities and events that will help you have a healthy, happy, and sober holiday season”.
Self-awareness and mindfulness also helps you know how well your personal needs are being met. Taking time to eat, exercise, unplug, or reconnect can help you take care of yourself before you “HALT”, or become overwhelmed with temptation.
Regardless of what the holidays throw your way, recurrence is not inevitable. Prepare early and set up a support network of activities and people who will encourage your sobriety rather than challenge it.