The winter holidays, Christmas and New Year’s, and all the festivities (and chaos) they bring can present a serious obstacle for anyone who is carefully and diligently trying to stay sober. How do I make it over the hump and into January without relapsing? That’s a good question. But just by asking it, you are taking the first step. Here is a guide for staying sober and drug-free during the craziness we call the holiday season:
1. Know your triggers.
If you’ve been through any sort of rehab process, chances are you know what some of your major triggers are. For some, being lonely is a trigger. While others feel compelled to use in social settings. The holidays are especially tricky because they set you up for both. If you are alone and not participating, you may feel cravings set in. But if you’re at a party and everyone is drinking and having a great time, you may want to participate, i.e. drink. Either scene invites a relapse. The thing to do is know what your individual triggers are and come up with a strategy. It could be having sober friends and family over who know that you’re in recovery. It could be knowing when to leave a party or not going at all. The point is that you have a real plan and stick to it.
2. Depression is common over the holidays.
A lot of people get depressed over the holidays. It can come on unexpectedly, even for no apparent reason. If others are spending time with family and friends are you aren’t, depression could set in. If others are partying and you aren’t, you could feel very down indeed. Even the weather and the fact that it gets dark sooner can play a role. Isolate what sober activities make you happy during the season and do those things. It could be sledding, skiing, ice skating, or just watching a movie with a hot (non-alcoholic) drink. But when you find yourself alone and feeling depressed, you must have someone in your support network you can contact. The holiday season is a time for your supportive friends and family to be especially on the ball. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
3. Boredom is your enemy.
You get time off from work or school and you have nothing to do. It’s a recipe for relapse. Put together a plan on how you’ll stay busy. There are usually Christmas events happening around town. Pick out which ones will keep you interested (and sober), mark your calendar and go to them. Likewise at home, pack your days and evenings with stuff to do. It doesn’t even have to be holiday-related. Use the free time to do some projects around the house. Volunteering at an orphanage, school, church or shelter is a great way to stay occupied and focused on things that really matter. Do some pre-holiday preparations and stick to your plan.
4. Don’t stress so much.
People get really stressed out over the holidays. They get into a state of anxiety because of all the money they spend, the planning and parties, seeing relatives they may not be particularly fond of, traveling expenses and so on. If you’re in recovery, it may be fitting for you to simply take it easy. You don’t have to do everything that everyone else does for Christmas. You can even tell people you are in recovery and will be chilling-out for the season. They are certain to understand and if they don’t that’s really their problem. You can give a few gifts and cards and hang out with people who support your sobriety. If stress is a trigger, skip it. And if you do relapse, don’t sit on it. Rather, tell someone in your support network whom you trust so you can get it sorted out.
5. Traveling can lead to relapse.
If you must travel, understand that it poses unique situations which can lead to relapse. If you have a good recovery routine at home, being thrust into airports, airplanes and unfamiliar surroundings can act as triggers. Being physically tired and mentally stressed plays a role, as does going back to your old neighborhood. Visiting old haunts and former friends who still drink and use can be risky business. Airplanes serve alcohol as do airports and hotels. When you make your travel itinerary, lay out your travel sobriety strategy. Make it into a game where you challenge yourself. How can you have a great time while staying sober and drug-free? Enlist others, including those you’ll be visiting, in your plan. Another option is to simply not go. But if you are going, approach it analytically.
6. Go to meetings & stay connected.
Even if you never did AA or NA, you can still show up to meetings if you think it might help. Wherever you are, there are likely to be meetings, either in your hometown or wherever you’re visiting. There are also online forums where you can talk to people in the same boat. The underlying principles of staying connected are communication and common agreement. This can take place in a meeting or through healthy two-way communication with a person who understands your situation. Stay connected with your sobriety network. If you’re all alone or at a party and feel like you might drink or use, step outside and call someone, take a walk, get into an environment more conducive to sobriety.
7. Partner with sober people.
Team up with a family member or friend and get through the season together. Look out for each other and have one another’s back. Go to alcohol-free and drug-free parties. Visit friends who are also staying clean and sober. If you have friends who’ll be partying and don’t seem to “get it” (what you’re trying to do), don’t even go there. You can also look up and attend parties and events specifically labeled booze-free and drug-free, as long as they are what they say they are. If you have kids, nieces or nephews, or have friends with kids, there are always tons of activities for kids where you can help out. These are usually drink-free because, well, they’re for kids! Keep your sober and supportive family and friends close at hand.
8. Get some dopamine and adrenaline.
There are plenty of ways to get a rush or a buzz that do not involve booze or drugs. While in the kitchen preparing a meal, a coffee and piece of fudge could do the trick for that immediate dopamine buzz. Staying healthy over the holidays is an even better alternative. Get your sleep in and get up in the morning and exercise. Go to the gym for a work-out and a sauna. Do some outdoor sports. If you have snow, go snowboarding, skiing, snowmobiling or whatever appeals to you. The point is to get some excitement into your life that isn’t hazardous to your health. Staying well-rested, keeping a healthy routine, and not overdoing it on the holiday foods and sweets could be just the thing to keep you fit and in a sober state of mind.
9. Stay alert.
Constant alertness is a requirement if you wish to stay free from the grip of alcohol and drug abuse. Be mindful of who you’re associating with. Usually, when you find yourself in a potential relapse situation, you know exactly where you slipped up just a little earlier. Staying alert means envisioning yourself in the future. Muhammad Ali put it eloquently and succinctly when he said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion’.” But you need not even suffer. You just need to stay alert and employ some self-discipline. Look into the future and see yourself still sober and on top of your game. Know when to walk away. Know when to call or text a trusted friend. And know that ultimately, it will be up to you.
10. Keep the faith.
Remember what the holidays are about in the first place. They’re about things like giving, family, friends (real ones), charity, goodwill, spirituality and faith. They’re not about door buster deals, 50% off when you buy two, Black Friday madness, Cyber Monday insanity, crowded malls, getting stressed and getting wasted.
So if all else fails, just remember what you’re supposed to be celebrating in the first place. The winter holidays go back to pre-Christian celebrations of the winter solstice. While the winter solstice hardly represents the end of winter, it is the shortest day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere in late December) signifying a new beginning of longer days and shorter nights. For Christians, the holiday is of course the celebration of the birth of Christ, known as the Light of the World. And the Jewish faith celebrates Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.
It is the time of year we recognize the grip of darkness getting less and less and the outward and inner light getting stronger and stronger. So remember that and put it into the context of your sobriety and your future success and prosperity. And have a happy, safe and sober 2015!