10 Tips for a Sober Holiday

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, I 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 and I transferred the stuffing to a safer plastic bowl and began to pluck shards of glass out of the soggy croutons, 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 firefighter 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 uproar, with the whole party watching from the doorway, we fanned the smoke from the kitchen and served dinner without stuffing and yams. 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 the sober holidays. If you are struggling with staying sober during the holidays, reach out to Sanford Behavioral Health today at 616.202.3326. Our outpatient addiction treatment could provide the support you need to navigate potential triggers and sober-friendly seasonal celebrations.

Sober Holidays in Early Recovery and Beyond

These days, I’m the picture of decorum at holiday events. I’m 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 enjoy every minute of every sober holiday event.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember being nervous during 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 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! However, there can be many benefits of sober holidays, such as:

  • Increased confidence in your sober lifestyle
  • Ability to bond with other sober people and build a sober support network
  • Opportunities to practice your sober coping skills without judgment or pressure
  • A sense of accomplishment and pride in your ability to stay sober through challenging social events

If you are worried about sober holidays in early recovery, know that there is no shame in seeking support and help.

10 Tips for Staying Sober During the Holidays

Here are some tips for staying sober during the holidays this year and beyond.

1. Anticipate Triggers

Before the tinsel and the toasts, think about some things that might threaten your sobriety this holiday season. Plan how you intend to manage those situations. If the annual boat parade is always an alcohol cruise, give it a pass this year. And if your mother, sister, or 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. It is a good policy for those new to recovery, especially in an environment that taxes your recovery plan. Having a sober friend ready to call for advice or a ride home is always prudent. This will be my sixth 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 Answers 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, the 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

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 resulting from abstinence from addictive chemicals. If you’re new to recovery, PAWS can impact sleep, concentration, coordination, memory, and emotional reactions. Healthy food, a 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. 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 commit 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 Sanford Addiction Treatment Centers clinical team understands that the holiday season can bring about additional stressors that require specific interventions and detailed responses. The Sanford team provides individualized treatment programming that recognizes the potential barriers to 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 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. 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.

Learn More Ways for Staying Clean and Sober During the Holidays at Sanford Behavioral Health

Sanford Behavioral Health has a team of experienced therapists, counselors, and addiction specialists who are here to help you navigate the sober holiday season with confidence. Staying sober during the holidays is possible with the proper support and healthy habits. Visit us online today to find out more about our comprehensive addiction treatment programs, or call us at 616.202.3326 to schedule a free consultation.

after marilyn head shot bio

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.