Does the Holiday Season Challenge Your Sobriety?

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On Christmas Eve, 2010, Beth* woke up in her car. Her phone said 11:16 a.m. She recalled leaving her parents’ house sometime that morning, but couldn’t figure out how long she’d been asleep or where she was. Instinctively, she reached for the brown paper bag she knew would be on the passenger seat. It was. She brought it to her lips and drank deeply.

Around her car, shoppers wheeled carts brimming with turkey, pies and fruits. She was in a Whole Foods parking lot in her hometown in California. Was she supposed to pick something up here? Taking one last sip of vodka, Beth started the engine of her car and headed home.

The next thing she knew, Beth was stopped in the middle of a left-turn lane. She barely remembered rear-ending the car in front of her.

The next thing she knew, Beth was stopped in the middle of a left-turn lane. She barely remembered rear-ending the car in front of her. She jumped out and raced to the car in front of her. “Are you OK?” she asked. “I am so, so sorry.”

The driver, a middle-aged woman, looked rattled but physically unharmed. “I’m fine, I think,” she said. Turning to look at Beth, she noticed her bloodshot eyes and sniffed. “Have you been drinking?”

The police were there within minutes, Beth says, though she’s the first to admit that the events of that morning are fuzzy. They asked her to get in her vehicle and pull to the side of the road.

Beth, now 28, flushes pink when she describes what happened next. “I was so drunk and so scared,” she says, “I got into my car and just sped away.”

The cops followed her for a few blocks, but she managed to lose them. That evening, she went to her family’s Christmas Eve celebration as though the events of that morning never happened.

But less than a month later, Beth was in an inpatient addiction treatment program.

Addiction and the Holidays: What’s the Connection?

It’s not just fitness clubs that see a spike in enrollment during the month of January; drug and alcohol treatment centers often do too. Similarly, many people who attend 12-step meetings report noticing a spike in newcomers at this time of year. While some new patients or AA members might be zealously adhering to a New Year’s resolution, far more are trying to put themselves back together after a shattering holiday season.

So what makes this season an especially challenging time for addicts and alcoholics? Ayize Jama-Everett, a former director of an intensive outpatient program for adolescents with substance problems, cites a number of factors, with family issues high on the list. “I think it’s fair to say that many addicts have relationships with family that are, at the least, troubling,” she says. “As the holidays are a time for families to convene, it makes sense that old triggers and sensitivities come to light around this time.”

Eli, a 42 year-old recovering alcoholic in Seattle, didn’t realize how much his family was a trigger for his alcoholic behavior until after he got sober in 2011. “I realized that I was always drinking at family events,” he says. “Alcohol was my way of anesthetizing myself to the annoying behaviors and dynamics of my family.”

Julia, a 51 year-old recovering addict with five years of sobriety, agrees. Like many other addicts, she finds the holidays can mix a cocktail of three dangerous ingredients: travel, family and parties. While she lives in California, her family is everywhere from Texas to Florida, so there is often a lot of traveling involved in her holiday season.“[It can be a] challenge to stay centered, especially when I’m traveling over the holidays and out of my routine.”

The holiday party season is precisely what Kevin, 34, is concerned about. His longest period of sobriety is 18 months, but recently he has only been managing to put together a few days at a time before drinking again. “I’m dreading going to parties and having my club soda with a lime,” he tells me. “I’m dreading trying to hide the fact that I am different from other people—that I’m an alcoholic.”

Mike Neustadt, the founder of a residential drug and alcohol treatment center in Forest Knolls, California, says that concerns like Kevin’s are normal for any person in recovery, especially someone new to the process: “A feeling of missing out on festivities, not being a part of [the people who are drinking] and applying old thinking to a new life of sobriety, all conspire to challenge one’s sobriety.”

So what can a person in recovery do to stay sober and enjoy the holidays? My sources came up with these suggestions:

    • Stay close to your sober support group.“Stay connected with your program and other addicts,” Eli suggests. “We all have crazy families and advice on how to deal with them.” If a 12-step program is part of your recovery, remember that meetings are everywhere. Julia says, “Keep going to meetings, whether you are staying in town or traveling. You undoubtedly will find other like-minded people who are jumping into a strange meeting because they really need one. Often that is as reassuring as anything.”
  • Stay out of toxic situations, or consider ways a situation can become less toxic.“If family and close friends provide a toxic environment, there is no law that mandates you to be around them,” Jama-Everett says. “If being alone in feelings of depression and rejection is a toxic scenario for you, surround yourself with those that understand what you’re going through.”Eli found that telling his family about his alcoholism helped him feel more comfortable: “The best thing I did was ‘come out as an alcoholic’ to my family so that I don’t have the stress of them offering me alcohol anymore. I know this is difficult for some people, but for me it was the only way to ensure I had the respect and boundaries in place that I need as a sober person.”
  • Ask for help.No one needs to go through recovery alone. Millions of addicts and alcoholics have stayed sober through all of the stresses of the holiday season. Early sobriety can make someone feel very alone, but that’s just an illusion. As Jama-Everett says, “The help is out there. You’ve just got to reach out for it.”

But instead of just focusing on the challenges that the holiday season presents, it’s also useful to contemplate the rewards of a sober holiday season.

“People think that the holiday season has to be a source of stress for people in recovery,” Eli says. “The truth is, I enjoy the holidays now much more than I did when I was drinking. I have a way to deal with family issues and can keep things in proper perspective. It’s nice sharing actual moments with people and being present.”

Julia also enjoys the season more now that she no longer uses drugs or alcohol. “I’m calmer in situations that used to make me nervous and jittery,” she says. “I connect more with my nieces and nephews, and enjoy myself in a more genuine way. And going sledding with the kids without a hangover is one of the most fun things ever!”

But it’s not just about fun, Julia says. “When my sister-in-law lost her mother to an aggressive brain disease on December 23, I was able to be there for her in ways that I wouldn’t have been before. I felt lucky, in that moment, to be sober.”

“Every holiday season, I can’t help but reflect on the holidays I had before I got sober,” says Beth. “It was supposed to be this great time with family and friends, but I would ruin it by being unable to control my drinking. Now that I’m sober, I actually have that great time that I missed out on when I spent all those occasions with my face in a bottle. I’m so grateful when I think about how different my life is now than it used to be.”

In the season of giving, Beth says, “staying sober is the best gift I can give to myself and to the people I love. If you think about it that way, there’s nothing contradictory about sobriety and the holidays at all.” Recovery is a gift worth hanging on to, even if it’s not always easy to navigate some of the challenges it brings. And it sure beats waking up in a Whole Foods parking lot.


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