A Toast to Brain Health – 10 Strategies to Embrace the Holiday Season

brain health people playing in the snow

Holiday obligations and the disruption to routine can mess with one’s resolve!


If you or a loved one are experiencing your first sober holiday season, I’ll bet I can predict the questions you are noodling. I can also assure you (nine years after my first dry yuletide) that most of your concerns are unfounded. I quit drinking in July, so I had time to get used to the idea before the onslaught of the holiday season. There wasn’t a pandemic or its aftermath to compound the challenge to my brain health. By Halloween, I knew I was committed to sobriety. I spent the first dry trick-or-treat of my adult life dressed as a surly Cruella DeVil (a character I resemble a bit too much in the best of times), drinking gassy water out of a champagne glass and diving into the candy bowl with the zeal previously reserved for Vampire Chardonnay.


When you LOVE the holiday season…

I made it from October to New Year’s Day without alcohol that first year, but it was not easy. One of the difficulties of recovery is saying no to triggering events; addiction is a yes disease. I love the holiday season – even more now. But the obligations and the disruption to routine can mess with one’s resolve. And when you are trying to manage a substance use disorder, the memories and magical moments seem so inextricably linked to drugs/alcohol you want to call the whole thing off.


We are on the holiday home stretch now. I want to share some tips from the therapists at Sanford Behavioral Health and my insights from the other side on navigating a straight holiday season successfully and with style.


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The Sober Holidays Q&A 

1. What do I say if I’m asked what I want to drink?

Answer politely. You might look like a reindeer in the headlights for a minute, but tell them what you want, “Club soda, please.” Please stand firm if the host asks WHY or insists on handing you a cocktail. You do not have to explain or give excuses.


2. What if people try to get me to drink, smoke or use?

This was a big worry for me. And in almost ten years, I can count on two fingers the times someone insisted I party hearty. It happens very rarely. And if it does, you are in a triggering situation, and they are probably not your friends. Hightail it out of there. One good thing about the pandemic is that we are warier now in super-spreader situations. Enjoy the holidays with folks you know and trust.


3. What if I’m at a dinner party, and the server pours me a glass of wine? Or there’s a champagne toast?

You can nip this discomfort in the bud by making a plan beforehand. Could you ask the wait staff to fill your toasting glass with sparkling water? At a work event or with folks you don’t feel comfortable, politely decline and be charming and lively, and no one will notice. If you are new to recovery or do not trust the situation’s safety, you may not be able to attend some gatherings (sorry).


Sober holidays mantel with holiday decorations

Decorations for holidays in rehab – Sanford Behavioral Health


4. If I am having a small outdoor get-together, can I ask my guests not to drink?

Sure. If you don’t want anyone to come. I’m kidding. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone you knew and loved was sober this holiday? If you are committed to recovery and do not feel you can be around temptation, ask your friends and family to respect your decision to change your life. Ideally, the home you live in will provide encouragement. But don’t try to have a big bash early in recovery. Best to keep your sober holidays low-key. The article below will help you explain.



Dear Rae: No Alcohol for the Holidays? I’m Mad!

Dear Rae: I just got an email from my aunt saying our cousin (we’ll call him Bill) is in early recovery from addiction, and to support him,  she is not allowing any alcohol in her house for the holidays. I have to admit it makes me mad! My aunt is always the center of our [read more…]



5. What if everyone else is getting drunk or high?

This is an excellent question.  I still glance at my watch whenever the stories start getting repetitive. Nothing is worse than being the only sober person in a pie-eyed group. Unless you are the only newly sober person. If you must be at a raucous party because of work or your significant other, arrive and leave early.


Alone this holiday season? Three words: telephone, FaceTime, Zoom


6. What if I get lonely, bored, tired, or start craving?

Here’s the bad news – your first holiday season will probably not be your favorite holiday season to remember. But you will remember it. If you are at a gathering and are bored, tired, or drooling over the party punch bowl – go home. Be polite, thank the host, and split. If you are alone this holiday season, three words: telephone, FaceTime, Zoom. Connect with loved ones during your critical craving times. Or change your routine – go for a walk, or join a yoga class when you might typically use or drink.


7. What if I am living with (or dating) someone who still indulges in drugs/alcohol?

This is a tricky question, but you can ask for respect and insist that liquor or drugs are not kept in the house. When in recovery, our housemates’ behavior is more acute. If you are living with or dating someone with a drug or alcohol problem, or if the home front becomes untenable, seek professional help.


8. Should I tell my boss, co-workers, or acquaintances I will be sober this holiday? Should I tell them I have a substance use problem?

That depends on how well you know them (or how compromised your behavior has been). When I quit drinking, I did not have to tell anyone I had a drinking problem. They already knew and were thrilled I had taken control of my life. Disclosing that you are “cutting back” or “not drinking” this holiday can be a good idea to keep you honest. But being open about a substance use disorder, particularly to a boss or co-worker, is dependent upon circumstances. Does it jeopardize your standing in the company? Or are they forward-thinking and proud of you for improving your quality of life?


9. Should I tell my extended family my holidays will be sober?

These are the people who push your buttons. The folks you would like to impress. However, they should be your closest allies in recovery. If your family is not celebrating in person this year, you don’t need to divulge on Teams or Zoom that you have quit drinking. It can wait. At extended family gatherings, tread carefully – listen to your better judgment and follow the family dynamic. Hopefully, your mom or significant other will pave the way.


10. What should I wear?

Exactly. Think about it – you are upright, upstanding, and SOBER this holiday season. You will remember everything. In the mornings, you will feel fabulous and righteous. There are no regrets (except the money spent on that gift to yourself (a small, well-deserved indulgence), and you’ll be just a little bit proud of yourself. Revel in it – sobriety is the holiday gift that keeps on giving – year after year!


Sober Holidays Note to Brain Health

A sponsor, significant other, therapist, or sober companion will be invaluable during the holidays and for years to come. And you can create community, connection, and sober friendships online; this is important if you are alone for the holidays. Rely on those you trust, and do not put yourself near the people, places, and things that cause you to feel uncomfortable. Your recovery is the biggest, grandest, and the most confetti-worthy thing you’ve done this year. Toast your brain health!


844 with lake Michigan


after marilyn head shot bio

Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.