Welcoming the Sober Holidays – 10 Tips to Make them Manageable

sober holiday cornucopia

My family has a legend we talk about from my non-sober holidays past. It’s about the time “Mom”, with a bottle of chardonnay coursing through her system, put hot stuffing into a Pyrex bowl. And while the rest of the Thanksgiving meal was sliced, mashed and dolloped into serving dishes, attempted to keep the stuffing warm on a low fire on the gas stove.


Pyrex, a product boasting “thermal glass”,  explodes like a car window over direct flame. And while Mom/I transferred the stuffing to a safer plastic bowl and began to pluck shards of glass out of the soggy croutons (fully intending to serve it), the fire alarm went off with a whoop whoop. A well meaning dinner guest opened the oven, and was engulfed in smoke and shooting flames like a rookie fire fighter from the movie BACKDRAFT. The layer of extra-large marshmallows on top of the forgotten yams was ablaze. Another guest, elbow-deep in potholders, shouted, “Stand back!” He removed the yams from the oven, dropped them in the sink and unceremoniously turned on the cold-water tap.


After the hoopla, with the whole party watching from the doorway, we fanned the smoke from the kitchen and served dinner without stuffing and yams. (One of the guests insisted he would not allow his children to eat anything laced with glass, and even I knew the yams were not fit to eat.) I continued to drink, however. I wasn’t even particularly embarrassed by the chaos. And the truth is, in those days I was feeling a (not so) quiet desperation – wishing everyone would leave so I could drink more.


Just another Thanksgiving at my house before sober holidays …


Sober Holidays in Early Recovery and Beyond

These days, I am the picture of decorum at holiday events. I am the designated driver, the person who welds sharp knives with impunity, even the one who produces a yam casserole with perfectly golden marshmallows atop. I do not serve broken glass, and I enjoy every minute of every sober holiday event.


It wasn’t always this way. I remember being nervous my first few sober holidays. Would someone ask me why I wasn’t drinking? Would the sights and smells of the holidays trigger a craving? And what if I went to a party and I wanted to leave early? Did I even want to go to a party if I couldn’t use my drug of choice? Airports – everyone drinking in those terminal bars! I used to think, let’s call the whole thing off!


But, it’s the beginning of November. The holiday season is upon us. And as the Grinch opined when he didn’t stop Christmas from coming, “It came! Somehow or other, it came just the same!”  This is a great time to put your holiday recovery plan together. Forewarned is forearmed and with a solid plan, you’re going to make it through this sober holiday season with bells on, whether you are in recovery for a month or ten years.


sober holiday gifts pinecones


10 Tips to Welcome the Sober Holidays

1. Anticipate Triggers

Right now, before the tinsel and the toasts, think about some of the things that might be threats to your sobriety this holiday season. Plan how you intend to manage those situations. If the annual boat parade is always a booze-cruise, you may want to give it a pass this year. And if your mother/sister/uncle gets on your last nerve, plan your answers to their probing questions and your exit strategy.


2. Establish Sober Holiday Boundaries

There is nothing wrong with arriving early and leaving early. In fact, it is a good policy for those new to recovery. Especially in an environment that taxes your recovery plan. It is always prudent to have a sober friend on the ready – to call for advice or a ride home. This will be my 6th sober holiday season, but my loved ones know that when I say it’s time to go, it is time to go.


3. Take Care of Yourself (and your Recovery)

The holidays can be exhausting, expensive and stressful. Take the time this sober holiday to meditate, exercise, sleep and eat.


4. Manage Family Stressors and “Traditions”

Does your family toast with eggnog before Christmas dinner? Or do your family/friends meet for a cocktail at the local pub while the turkey is cooking? The traditional family get-together may be located somewhere you associate with your drug of choice. Let’s face it, you love them but families can push every button. This is the year to set boundaries and enjoy the holidays on your terms. You might feel “left out” or lonely if you have to bow out of a family gathering that feels too risky. Fill the time with a long walk or a movie – something you love to do.


6. Plan your Answer to Inquiring Minds

Miss Manners says it best. “The gracious manner of declining food or drink is, “No, thank you,” and the gracious, not to say decent, response is to let it go at that.” If you are nervous about what to say when someone asks if you’d like an alcoholic drink this sober holiday season, don’t be. It is no one’s business but yours why you requested club soda. If you feel more comfortable saying you are the designated driver (or a person in long term recovery), fine.


7. Address PAWS and SAD (if Appropriate)

Recovery during the holidays can be tough. And if you experience Seasonal Affect Disorder (SAD) when the weather gets bleak, acknowledge that fact. Get the proper professional help. Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) is a group of symptoms that occurs as a result of abstinence from addictive chemicals. If you’re new to recovery, PAWS can impact sleep, concentration, coordination, memory and emotional reactions. Healthy food, regular schedule and loved ones who are educated about the disease of addiction are key to managing PAWS during the sober holiday season.


8. Maintain your Recovery Routine

This is important. There are so many demands on your time during the holidays you might be tempted to miss a 12-step meeting, relapse prevention class or cancel your recovery hike. But the best thing you can do is to keep on a schedule, maintain connectedness and foster your recovery routine.


The holidays come but once a year. Quit pushing yourself. It’s unrealistic to expect to soldier through every trying moment. Instead, ask for extra support. Plan ahead. Do what you’re able (and leave the rest).


9. And your Therapeutic Alliance or Addiction Treatment

Rely on your therapist to help you through the pitfalls and triggers of the sober holidays. And if you decide to make the commitment to addiction treatment during the holidays, good for you. The best gift you could give your loved ones is your commitment to getting healthy during the holidays. The clinical team at Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers understands that the holiday season can bring about additional stressors that require specific interventions and careful response. The Sanford team provides individualized treatment programming that recognizes the potential barriers of being in treatment during the holiday season


10. Have Fun!!!

You may be tempted to join the children’s table if your adult loved ones are in the “party” mood. And with your clarity of mind you will definitely win the Scrabble tournament. Sober holidays are tailor made for good old fashioned fun. If things get stuffy, head outside for a walk or go for a short drive to clear your head. But take the time to stop and think about your life giving recovery. And have fun.


Our holiday family legends are pretty funny to look back on. Especially now that I am not quite as dangerous in the kitchen. Now that I can enjoy the holidays without a substance use disorder demanding my full attention. This is the time of year to be thankful, and I am thankful that the memories I am making this year will be well remembered and that sober holidays are the new normal.

Happy Holidays!





Marilyn Spiller is a writer, sober coach, recovery advocate, and student of the world (she also holds a BA in English). Nine years sober herself, she penned one of the first sobriety blogs, "Waking Up the Ghost" in 2013. The blog garnered an international following, allowing Marilyn to communicate with thousands of folks in all stages of recovery. Marilyn is Sanford's Director of Marketing and serves as Editor-In-Chief for the Sanford online magazine, Excursions. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board, JACK Mental Health Advocacy.