Updated: Apr 27
Ah, the holidays! For those of us with addictive substance problems (and tons of other people, too!), the holidays can present additional challenges and some fierce emotions and beliefs that can be tough to handle, in addition to all the deeply embedded expectations and rituals pairing alcohol and parties and social events with friends, family and colleagues.
Christmas decorations. Petr Kratochvil, Wikimedia.
Pressure and demands come from all directions -- to be joyful, to relish the decorations and entertaining and going out and parties and gifting and enforced closeness with strained relationships sometimes. If we don’t love the whole whirlwind or feel depressed or don’t feel like we’re keeping up, it can feel overwhelming and like there’s something wrong with us.
When we’re recovering from addictive behavior, our pathways are already filled with obstacles and difficulties. The holidays can really kick that into overdrive in all directions.
We may have a lot of conflicting feelings. We want to participate, but we don’t know how to do that without drinking or over-indulgence. Our family get togethers may include drinking and partying heavily. We may fall back on addictive responses to escape the stress of family and measuring up. Work events abound and provide opportunities (and the dangers) for free booze and loosening up a little. Alcohol and sugar are everywhere.Our entire culture pushes them.
It can feel beyond awkward to try to participate without the lubricant of alcohol or the comfort of food, and we may feel like we stick out like a sore thumb. But we want to be able to go to parties and have fun, whether we’re trying to stay sober or whatever our goals.
The first order of business is to assess.
In order to do that, first, one step back:
What are the overall goals for the holidays?
What holiday situation might jeopardize any of those?
How important is each of these events to you?
What would happen if you didn’t attend/host one (all) of these events at all? World collapse? Family disinheritance? Shunned in the community? Lost opportunities that can never be regained?
Party scene. Geralt, Pixabay
I Want to Go to Holiday Parties, but I Don’t Want to Overdo It
Okay, so just give that a little bit of thought.
How much time and energy do you want to spend at parties? A particular event?
Is it important? Where does it fall on a scale of 1-10?
How hard will it be to go to parties and not get caught up in the food or drinks or drugs.
Will you moderate or abstain? (Plan what you’re trying to do upfront, either way.)
What if I think I shouldn’t go, but I really hate that idea? What about having fun? What about how great it feels to be social at a party?
“I don’t want to give up going to parties! I don’t want to have to THINK about alcohol. I want to be able to enjoy a couple of drinks,” said me.
Well okay. Nobody says you CAN’T do that. This is about you assessing what makes sense in your own life. You know yourself best. If you are able to do that without negative consequences (short or longer-term), then sure.
Some are able to set reasonable boundaries for themselves and stick to them. Some of us prefer to stay away from drinking or [insert behavior or drug of choice here] altogether (and possibly all those people, places and things for a while). For me, it was very easy to get caught up in the atmosphere if I wasn’t paying close attention.
And it did feel different at first. Not great. I felt a little removed, but over time that shifted to feeling much MORE comfortable, because I wasn’t constantly worried about slurring or embarrassing myself or trying to count my drinks.
How do I know what to do? What if it’s a really special party?
Well, the past is often informative. Does that mean you can’t do it? No. But it might make sense to ask yourself some questions, to make sure you’re doing what YOU want to do. To do that, it helps to start with a rough plan. What makes this party special? Is it the drinking part that’s important?
Be realistic about real risks. Is it “dangerous” for you to drink or over-drink at a particular event? Work events can be tricky. Driving. Friends may be more forgiving if things go overboard. Family situations can go either way.
If you Decide to Go to the Party
Have it in mind what you’re going to do.
You are going to a party, and you are: Not going to drink alcohol? Drink no more than X alcoholic beverages? You can choose to drink with abandon, too, but the consequences of that are heavy. Is that worth it? Is this the venue for it?
What’s that irritating little saying? “Failing to plan is planning to fail?” Ah yes.
Once you’re there, be aware. Ask yourself: is changing my mind about whether I really want to drink or how much:
An impulsive change of heart in the face of temptation? This is a good idea, because?
What has changed that now I feel I can do this without issue?
Or is the issue solved or no longer important?
Just know what you are trying to do beforehand and try to stick to that. If you don’t plan on drinking, don’t drink. If you plan on having a couple, stick to that. If you don’t think you can do it, consider your options.
First, do remember that you don’t HAVE to go. We’ll talk more about this later.
If you don’t want to drink:
Get a non-alcoholic drink in hand right away or bring one with you.
Be prepared to excuse yourself if you need to catch your breath.
Have one line you can use -- “No thanks, No, not right now. I’m good.” You can make up an excuse, but it’s not necessary (medication, general health, taking a break, feel better without)
Have a strategy -- how long will you stay? Can you arrive a little late? Leave early? Tell a friend? Have an exit strategy. If you’re moderating with something, be realistic and be prepared to get out if it’s proving too hard.
Sometimes having a cover story can help. If you tell someone you haven’t been feeling well or you have to get up early, taking an antibiotic, you might be less tempted to go back on that …
If you want to drink moderately:
Decide what your guideline or limits are in advance
Order water or something non-alcoholic in between drinks
Eat - before and during
Arriving late and leaving early is usually a good option
Don’t go home and binge wildly after
What if it doesn’t go to plan!!! Does that mean I’m doomed?
No, of course not!! Don’t use something like that as an excuse to give in to addictive habits for the entire holiday season or longer. If you don’t quite hit your goal or something goes wrong, take a deep breath. Reassess on the importance of remaining events, and refocus immediately. I’ve felt this more and more important as I go on. Remind yourself of all the reasons you had/HAVE for stopping or changing your habits. Commit to yourself that you will not be derailed, no matter what.
What About Family Holiday Celebrations?
Everything tells us we “should” enjoy the holidays and find ourselves filled with love, happiness, and cheerfulness. We believe this. We feel defective when we don’t fit into this perfect picture of our imaginations. Looking back at childhood, we may romanticize our holiday celebrations or conversely, we may so associate them with times of misery that we don’t want any part of them. Shaky family dynamics can be stressful and unpredictable, or depressingly predictable with no known successful way out.
Or maybe we’re just trying to do what’s expected and show a veneer of perfection and forced good cheer (sound familiar re social media and such right now?). We are constantly assaulted by pictures of happy people drinking merrily. It used to be just advertising, but now it’s all of social media, as well. No wonder we feel like our lives (and we) are defective.
It’s impossible to measure up, and it can all feel empty and hopeless, as we hide all these seething mixed-up feelings we may have towards ourselves and others and the holidays themselves. The holidays sometimes seem to let all kinds of addictive demons loose and reinforce the painful weight of feelings of failure, disappointment, anger, pain, that have led us to the whole battle with addiction to begin with.
Now, given all that, remember, upfront, that emotionally charged family dynamics don’t pair well with over-drinking and such, no matter how compelling or familiar that attempt to escape may feel.
Tips for Family Holiday Celebrations
You may be able to limit the time spent involving the heavier drinking or partying
Don’t arrive days early; or consider staying somewhere else.
Bring your own beverages
Possibly let people, maybe select people, know what you’re trying to do
Practice responses to questions you anticipate
If you have friends or family with kids, seek them out. Do something silly and fun with them. Kids really give us a break to be ourselves and are a great reminder of what fun is all about.
Practically, same things as with parties, make sure an alternate beverage is handy, that you have an escape hatch if you start feeling urgey or overly-anxious or start to waiver on sticking to your plan, so you can give yourself some room to breathe and reinforce what you’re doing.
Step outside, retire into a bedroom for a few minutes, plead a headache, offer to go to the store. (Know yourself in these situations. Don’t offer to go to the store if you’re likely to sneak-drink or score on the way back.)
What would happen if you skipped it?
This goes for parties too (even more so). Would the world end? You CAN make up an excuse or just say that the pressure is too much, and you want to be low-key. There are any number of ways to handle that. Now, there may well be consequences in deciding to break with tradition -- people’s feelings get hurt, misunderstandings can spring up, sometimes it gets wielded like a weapon -- so those are all things to consider, too, and weigh.
I think family and traditions and even work events are important, personally, but it’s nice to know that it’s ALWAYS an option not to go. Now, the fallout may not be worth it, but it’s still an option. And the world actually won’t stop spinning if I decide it’s really not a good idea for me, whether I feel horribly guilty or not.
Being Alone Over the Holidays
So even though we know that the holidays are not all rosy-cheeked adoring families, cheer and parties with beloved friends, or wine and cider by the fireplace with twinkling lights, oh it’s hard not to feel sad and empty if we’re all alone for the holidays.
For some, the holidays remind us of the past, good or bad. Some of us have memories of sadness, regrets, loss, shame. Some of us work or are far away from family. Being alone can nudge us to sink into feelings of being defective for not having the scene we imagine and can kick up tons of hurt from years past.
Here, we want to take a look a little bit differently. Sometimes we don’t want to participate in a lot of activities, and that can be fine, IF we’re not just withdrawing from life. We don’t have to feel extra cheerful, and it’s okay to feel sad and disappointed if we don’t have our family traditions or loved ones or the life we’ve imagined. Note: I am glossing over the very real dangers of depression here. Please seek additional help if you have felt continuously depressed for more than two weeks.
It can be easy to try to substitute addictive use of substances or activities in order to feel better and less alone. It’s a lie, though. It's not ultimately satisfying. Addictive attachment doesn't fulfill our desires for connection, activity, love, entertainment and self-reflection. It can’t. And of course, it can be dangerous and damaging in so many ways.
See if you can’t find small ways to enjoy your days. Spend some time enjoying your home, snuggled up with some cocoa, or listening to music or baking. Or fix it up a little. Hang some lights or something. Go out someplace festive just to be around other people -- the Christmas tree in the town square. Volunteer for something. Feed yourself well, traditionally or with whatever you want! Go to a local event or a church service or a concert. Even though we may have to push ourselves to do things, it’s usually worth it.
Take some walks to clear your head and enjoy whatever you find -- the bite of the air, trees, leaves, the architecture, the sounds, the birds, the fact that you’re alive. Read, pamper yourself, get some exercise, nap, do something fun, watch a movie …
Remember to breathe. Fight back against thoughts that aren’t helpful to you. We can take a small break from sad, mad, hurt thoughts and just try to enjoy a few hours, life, the day, the world around us such as it is for a day or two.
If someone you cared about were in your circumstances, what would you want to do for them or suggest? Do that for you.
An encouraging word ...
The holidays are filled with excitement, expectations and emotion, as well as just being busy and frantic and somewhat overwhelming. Holiday drinking and partying is everywhere, but that doesn’t mean it will make us happy or that it can’t get us into trouble. If we’ve made solid decisions about what we’re doing, we don’t have to let holiday celebrations or their absence throw us.
What was the big, big reason you wanted to take a look at or reduce or get rid of your drinking (or other)?
Yeah. That’s why we want to stick to our goals -- even though it’s the holidays.
You can do this. Put your personal well-being first. Be safe and have fun!