How to Survive Christmas as a Sober Alcoholic (Lessons Learned)
So, Christmas is coming, and for those of us recovering from alcoholism that means weeks of other people doing to excess that which we can’t (or won’t, or chose not to) do at all – consume alcohol.
For some, the prospect of a sober Christmas is exciting – a chance to finally experience the love and goodness of being with our families with none of the chaos and suffering that so blighted past festive seasons.
For others, it’s an impending nightmare plagued with questions, worries, doubts.
How will I be able to enjoy myself over the holidays without a drink? (Seriously, were you even enjoying yourself with a drink before you got into recovery)?
How will I cope when everybody else is drinking and I can’t? Won’t I get jealous, angry, and full of resentments?
How will I cope with the stress of planning and getting everything ready.?
I’m. now approaching my sixth sober Christmas, and in my experience the best answer to all of these questions is usually the simplest:
Treat it like any other normal day and do the same things you’ve done every day up to now in order to keep yourself away from that first drink.
But hey, I’m not going to insult your intelligence.
If you’re worried about surviving Christmas as a sober alcoholic in recovery, then me waving my finger and being all smug about the ‘one day at a time’ approach just isn’t going to cut it.
Instead, let me share a few things that have helped me get through this most booze-filled time of year since I got sober.
Always Have An Exit Strategy
There’s the temptation among some of us to believe that being sober means we can’t possibly go to any of the functions, parties, and social events that are such a big part of the holiday season.
Nobody’s saying that’s wrong, either. If I don’t feel comfortable with something or if I’m not sure I can execute a fail-proof escape plan, then I just don’t go.
But for every other occasion, I remember that I didn’t get sober to be miserable and anti-social.
I can go out and I can enjoy myself. As long as I have an exit strategy for when things get too much.
Those things aren’t always a temptation to drink.
In fact, most of the time they’re not.
Most of the time, if I need to use my exit strategy, it’s because being the only sober person at the party and dealing with a group of drunken people pisses me off.
Honestly, have you ever spent any time in the company of drunk people when you’re not one of them?
It quickly gets annoying, doesn’t it?
So I have an exit strategy, which is often just as simple as being able to say ‘I’ve had a lovely time, but I have an early start tomorrow and need to go home,’ then going.
It also means I don’t volunteer to be the designated driver. I mean, have you ever tried telling someone who’s drunk and having fun that it’s time to go?
Yeah, it didn’t work too well for me either.
So I go in there with responsibility for myself and myself alone.
If someone wants to leave when I’m leaving, then by all means come along, buy when I’ve had enough you better believe that I’m going, ready or not.
Avoid Buying Alcohol as Gifts, Or At Least Have Someone Hold it For You
Even without being a sober alcoholic, I’ve never liked the idea of giving booze as a gift.
It’s like saying ‘hey, I couldn’t think of anything to get you that would actually mean something personal to you, so here, go damage your liver instead.’
The truth, however, is that with some people, that’s exactly what I have to say.
Take my sister’s boyfriend. He’s a nice guy, but I really don’t know him well enough to buy him something personal, so he often ends up with a bottle of some description.
When he does, you can bet that said bottle will be kept at my parents house between the day of purchase and the day that it’s presented as a gift.
Look, here’s the thing:
It isn’t that having alcohol in the house is going to lead to greater temptation for me (though I get that it might for some people, and that’s fine too), it’s that should I become vulnerable and tempted to relapse, there’s no defence between me and the alcohol in my home.
Let’s say I’m at home, I’m having a terrible day, and that cunning, devious little gremlin known as my alcoholism decides to rear its ugly head and tempt me to drink.
To get from my house to some alcohol I have to go through several stages:
- Getting ready to go to the store or the nearest bar (getting dressed and/or getting keys, wallet etc)
- Leaving the hose
- Getting to the store
- Going round the store to get the booze
- Getting to the counter and paying for the booze
- Getting back home to drink it.
That’s six stages at which i could potentially come to my senses, six opportunities to get myself out of be situation, and stop myself from getting that drink.
Now let’s say there’s booze in the house.
There’s only one, maybe two stages:
- Get up
- Get the booze.
There’s practically no line of defence there, is there?
Now, I know some of you are probably screaming about what an idiot I am by now – after all, you live with other people who drink and can’t, or don’t want to, stop others from having alcohol in the house.
I get that too. I’m just saying that if you are concerned about getting through Christmas – a stressful time when scores of people do relapse- then anything you can do to put lines of defence between you and the booze is worth doing – and that includes not stocking booze in the home.
Be Prepared With Your ‘Why I Don’t Drink’ Story
The funniest thing that ever happened to me in five years of sobriety happened to me two years ago on Christmas Day.
We were having a big family Christmas lunch – my family, my brother’s girlfriend and her family, none of whom I knew that well.
Before the turkey came out and everyone gorged themselves stupid, my Dad began passing around a bottle of champagne, purposefully not putting any in my glass.
Noticing this, one of the people I didn’t know very well said ‘Hey, Chris doesn’t have any champagne!’ and went to pour some in my glass.
At this point, I swear to you that everyone slowed down into some kind of slow-motion replay scene, waving their arms in a desperate warning motion and yelling ‘Nooooooo’ as if I was going to immediately turn into some horrible creature should I come into contact with booze like some terrible, alcoholic gremlin.
It was hilarious for me, but obviously completely bewildering for people who not only didn’t know that I didn’t drink, but also didn’t know why I didn’t drink.
At that point, it was necessary to offer some explanation, not necessarily the blunt, bare-bones truth (I’m an ex-drunk and if I drink that champagne I’ll likely turn into a monster and ruin this whole dinner) but something that made the hilarious over-reaction by family appear to make sense.
To be honest with you, I can’t remember which explanation I gave, but it was likely one of the stock ones I draw on pretty regularly:
- I’m allergic to alcohol
- It makes me ill
- I’m on medication and can’t drink
- It just doesn’t agree with me.
To varying degrees all of those statements are true, meaning I don’t have to lie (“I’m an international pilot and will be flying to Australia after lunch, honest”) but I don’t have to go into a full History Of My Alcoholism speech either.
I’ve had to use these explanations quite a few times over the last few years, especially at Christmas.
This, remember, is often the time of year when it’s socially acceptable to get shit-faced at office Christmas parties, New Year’s celebrations and the countless other social gatherings that take place during the holidays.
As such, it’s also the one time of year that, more than any other, I find myself explaining why I don’t drink.
It’s not usually a huge deal, but it is worth mentioning that if there was ever a time when you’re likely to be asked why you don’t drink, Christmas is it.
Be Prepared for Post-Christmas Relapses
It’s often said that more recovering alcoholics actually relapse after the holidays are over than they do during the holidays themselves.
If you think about it, this actually makes a good bit of sense.
For many people in recovery, Christmas is a time for being super vigilant. It’s a time when we know there’s a heightened risk of relapsing and thus work harder at recovery and at building up our defences against that first drink.
So we get through all the stress and hassle and headaches of the holiday, and believe the hard work is over.
We did it. We got through it. Normality has been restored.
So we relax.
We let our guard down.
And then all the stress of the previous few weeks catches up to us, and because we’re not on our guard quite so intensely, alcoholism creeps up behind us, grabs us by the short and curlies and pummels us into submission.
We end up picking up a drink, and all that hard work that we put in over Christmas proved to be for nought.
So don’t be fooled into thinking that just because Christmas is over you can let your guard down. Sobriety needs work and it needs vigilance 24/7/365, Christmas or no Christmas.
Remember to Relax and Have Fun
I know, right? A complete contradiction.
Didn’t I just tell you not to relax and keep your guard up?
But that’s not entirely what I meant.
Yes, it’s vital that we keep our guard up and protect, maintain, grow our sobriety, but that doesn’t mean locking ourselves away and shielding ourselves from any sense of fun and enjoyment.
None of us got sober to be miserable or lonely. We got sober to start living, truly living, and to enjoy life to its fullest.
That means embracing the opportunity to spend time with loved ones. It means celebrating what should be a joyous and happy.
It means having a wonderful, sober Christmas, but only on the condition that, yes, we do things one day at a time.