#CELEBRATESOBER: Retreat’s guide to navigating the holiday season in sobriety
Thanksgiving in Recovery
In sleepy New Cumberland, PA, about 10 minutes outside the nearby city of Harrisburg, it was a comfortable 67°F on Thanksgiving Day 2014. For many Americans, the most pressing concern on their minds that particular November 27th was whether to dig into pumpkin, apple, or sweet potato pie. For 26-year-old Mike B., though, something entirely different was on his mind as he walked up to his mom and dad’s front door.
This was to be Mike’s first Thanksgiving in recovery. He had been sober for 220 days.
Prior to treatment, it was in this very same house where after dinner, “I’d go up to my room, shut the door, get my heroin out, and go to town — right there as [my family] were directly underneath my bedroom,” Mike told Retreat.
Now, Mike added, he was uncertain what to expect: “It was the first family get-together that I experienced in my sobriety. I didn’t know how the meal would go… The dynamic with some of my family members wasn’t where I wanted it to be, because relationships take a little bit of time to heal.”
“The wounds were still fresh for my dad… It was almost like some of my family members were walking on eggshells. They were afraid to address my addiction, my recovery,” he recounted in an interview.
Since graduating from Retreat at Lancaster County’s Inpatient Program, Mike has gone on to celebrate four Thanksgivings successfully. He now works full-time as Retreat’s Manager of Patient Care in Palm Beach County, FL, and says he’s come to “embrace the positive much more,” when the holidays roll in.
Nonetheless, the Thanksgiving jitters Mike experienced four years ago aren’t rare: Indeed, the most wonderful time of the year is acutely stressful for the 22 million Americans whom the Research Recovery Institute says are in recovery from substance abuse.
“There’s shame, there’s probably guilt in there too,” for people who have recently entered sobriety and are suddenly surrounded by large volumes of alcohol for the first time, said Jenna M., 33, a former Retreat patient who now works as the company’s National Events Planner in Palm Beach County.
According to a survey from DrugAbuse.com, as many as 38% of Americans report feeling “more depressed” than normal around holiday time, and 32% say they’re “overwhelmingly anxious.” What’s more, alcohol consumption spikes during the holidays, the data found; and December has been well-documented to be the most lethal month for substance abusers, with 90,000 alcohol- or drug-induced deaths reported on average.
In spite of the statistics, the holiday season can still be fun and memorable when you’re in sobriety. Retreat asked experts to share their top tips to #CelebrateSober as the holiday festivities kick off.
Top Tips To Celebrate Sober
- Be proud of your sobriety. “From day one, I’ve always been open that I’m sober, I can’t drink; I was always very open about that,” Helaina Hovitz, 29, a New York City-based journalist and author of the memoir “After 9/11,” told Retreat. “I know who I am now. If I can help people, what good is hiding it?” Events Planner Jenna, for her part, has a simple answer for fellow party-goers who question why she’s not drinking: “I say, ‘No, thanks,’ and, if they press it further…[I might say], I’m actually in recovery. It’s coming up on three years [sober],’ and hopefully, by that point, they would respect it.”
- Brandish your sense of humor: A little laughter can go a long way in diffusing awkward situations. “Some people don’t understand,” why it’s important for people in recovery to abstain from alcohol, Jenna opined, so she might end the conversation on a light note by saying: “Oh, the world’s just a safer place if I don’t drink!”
- Arm yourself with a red plastic cup: A great way to deflect unwanted questions at holiday parties (e.g. “Hey, why aren’t you drinking?) is to hold a cup just like everybody else. Try sipping on some nonalcoholic bubbly like sparkling cider or seltzer with a lime, for instance. The latter “looks exactly the same as a vodka tonic with a lime,” Hovitz said. Alternatively, bring a non-alcoholic holiday cocktail in lieu of a hostess gift. You might whip up your signature non-alcoholic sangria or spiced holiday eggnog, to share your favorite sober recipes with your friends.
- Make friends with the food: The dessert table is a great place to set up base-camp for socializing, so consciously position yourself in proximity to the holiday treats, Hovitz said. “Be the food recommender. Food is such a big deal; everyone takes pictures of it before they eat it,” so this is a convenient way to sneak in a few snapshots with friends for Instagram, too.
- Enlist sober friends. “If you can bring a sober friend with you, that’s ideal, that’s the gold standard of socializing [while in recovery],” Hovitz said. You could even duck out of the party early together before things get too wild and people get too drunk (once you’ve made the rounds and visited with all the guests). “If you can’t have them with you in person, have them with you in your pocket,” she advised. “Let a couple of sober friends know, ‘I’m going to this [event], I’m going to check in and text you before, text you after, and I might text you during.'”
- Attend special holiday AA meetings: Many local AA groups set up special 24-hour meeting schedules during the holidays, so consult your local chapter to find out what their plan is. “To just be around more people, it’s a little easier to get through that period of time than just be by yourself,” Patient Services Manager Mike said. These groups also provide an opportunity to air frustrations and lean on fellow members for support if you’re struggling to resist temptation.
- Let go of your inhibitions — without using alcohol. “When you were drinking, if you danced, do it [sober],” Hovitz, who recently celebrated her seventh anniversary in sobriety, said. “What would you feel comfortable doing if you were drinking, what’s stopping you? Would you be singing? Would you be dancing? Would you be telling a joke? Then do it anyway.”
“At the end of the day the most important thing is just to remember when it feels like you’re in the moment and something uncomfortable is happening, everything passes,” she concluded. “The night’s going to pass; the next morning…everyone else is going to be [focused on] their life, and so are you.”
“You have to ask, ‘How do I want to feel tomorrow? What’s important for me to do for myself [tonight]? You have to answer to you.”