The holidays can be an emotional time for many people, but for those who have recently stopped drinking, navigating the holidays can be especially challenging.
What makes the holidays so appealing to people — catching up with the same relatives and friends and doing the same traditions year after year — is exactly what can make it tough for newly sober people to stay sober.
“Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded in the 1930s before we had a lot of neuroscience knowledge, understood that we respond to cues around us,” explains David Baron, Medical Director at Yellowbrick and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Chicago Medical School.
“Addictions have a lot to do with the dopamine reward system,” Baron says, explaining that addicts associate certain people, places and things with drinking, which they associate with feeling good, and that feeling drives their desire to drink.
So if every Thanksgiving meant drinking beer while you watched a football game with your family, just the act of watching the football game can make you want a drink.
“What people are feeling when they anticipate the holidays is because their brains have learned to respond that way, including rewiring circuits so they respond to those external cues,” he says. “Those circuits can be re-wired again in many cases, but it takes sustained sobriety over a period of time, and re-learning new, non-drinking responses to the same cues.”
Luckily, there are ways that people who are newly sober can go back into old situations and manage not to drink. Here are a few tips for how to stay sober (and sane) during the holidays.
1. Avoid Old Drinking Buddies
For many young adults, going home for the holidays often means catching up with old high school friends, and if those people were ones you used to drink with, getting together with them now that you’re sober might prove difficult. “It might mean telling friends that you can’t see them if that’s what it takes to stay sober,” Baron says.
2. Find a List of Local Meetings
Before you head home for the holidays, make sure to make a list of all of the 12-step meetings nearby. You can even tell your sponsor which ones you plan to attend to keep yourself accountable. Depending on how you’re feeling, you may need to go to only one or two meetings during your visit, or you may need to go to multiple meetings a day. Many AA meetings make a point of being open on holidays, but some groups do close on Thanksgiving or Christmas, so make sure to call the local number to check which ones will be taking place.
3. Have an Honest Conversation with Your Family
Let your family members know what sorts of things may make you want to drink. Let them know that you may need to excuse yourself from certain family events that may trigger you, or that you may need to pass on other activities in order to go to a meeting. Assure them that it’s not hostile, it’s just what you need to do to take care of yourself.
4. Plan Ahead
Baron recommends that your talk to your sponsor ahead of time and tell him or her what you’re going to be doing and when.Baron says it’s also smart to create a relapse prevention plan and anticipate what you’re going to do in different circumstances. For example, you can make a plan that if you start to feel angry or upset with your mom, you can tell her assertively what’s bothering you, and if she persists, you can let her know you will have to leave the room to avoid drinking in response to your feelings. If you’re still triggered after a few minutes, you will call your sponsor. And if you do that and you still feel like drinking, you can go to a meeting. Remember, it’s ok to leave a family event if that’s what you need to do to stay sober.
5. Make Phone Calls
For many, when you spend time with your family, staying connected to your sponsor and other people in your AA group is crucial. Making calls — if necessary, scheduled ones — to support people and telling them how you’re feeling will go a long way in enabling you to tolerate your family.
6. Encourage Your Family and Friends to Support You
If you’re newly sober, the last thing you want is for someone to keep offering you a drink and forcing you repeatedly to make a difficult choice not to drink. To avoid this, you may need to be honest with your family and friends about your sobriety and ask them to support you by not offering you anything to drink.Also, many family members and friends may ask you if it’s ok for them to drink, even if you’re sober. If it is, great. If not, don’t be afraid to tell them you’d rather they abstained too.