Being newly sober during the holiday season is hard, and at times can feel impossible. Walking into a home full of boisterous friends and relatives with silly sweaters, reindeer headbands, and glasses swirling with wine can trigger a sense of dread, and easily lead to slips.
If this is your first December without alcohol, you might be asking yourself, “How the fuck do I do this?” You can, and as someone who has lived through this discomfort, I have advice. But the tips below are not just drawn from my own experience: over the years I’ve polled hundreds of women in recovery to see what has worked for them. I hope what I have to share will help you.
Say No. That family party? That neighbour’s open house? You do not need to go.
If you aren’t feeling ready to walk into a space where the alcohol is flowing, you don’t need to go. Decline, decline, decline. Remove yourself from tricky situations and take yourself out to the movies instead. Or head to a meeting (there are so many happening all the time). Or find a friend who likes to go for long walks with herbal tea.
Stepping into a space that feels unsafe, where you’re going to feel uncomfortable or tempted to imbibe isn’t worth it. It’s also the easiest way to mess up your sobriety. Protect yourself. If you need help with setting boundaries, Melissa Urban’s The Book Of Boundaries: Set The Limits That Will Set You Free is a great resource, and she’s always sharing tips on her Instagram feed too.
If you absolutely must be somewhere, think ahead & make a plan.
While not attending/hosting is your first line of defence, I realize that sometimes it’s hard to get out of a social situation, especially if kids or other family members are involved. If you are feeling anxious about an upcoming event, start devising a plan now to make things as easy as possible.
- Don’t wait until the day of the event to make food. Prepare dishes ahead of time, so that the day of the event is less nerve wracking, and less messy.
- Be clear with your communication and set boundaries upfront. For example: “Looking forward to tomorrow!! It will be a quick visit, as I have to leave by 9pm, but can’t wait to see you.” You do not need to over explain, but if pressed, have a response ready. “I am helping my sister-in-law early in the morning, and I need sleep.”
- Rehearse a few lines for tough conversations. What are you going to say when a nosy neighbour asks “Why aren’t you drinking?” Come up with a script. My response is always “Drinking didn’t serve me, so I stopped.” If you’re not ready to tell the truth, for whatever reason, this is an occasion where I think it’s totally okay to lie. “I’m on antibiotics” will hopefully shut them up. (If they do keep asking, it’s likely because they are struggling with their own issues with alcohol.)
- Carve out time to calm your nervous system. If you know you have an overwhelming day ahead, make sure you carve out time to unwind and restore your energy. Go for a walk, lie down and listen to a 15-minute meditation through Insight (a wonderful FREE meditation app), do some deep breathing, listen to a podcast, or blare some music and dance/shake around your living room. Do whatever relaxes you and makes you feel good.
Actively build your circle of support.
Recovering alone isn’t impossible, but it’s definitely a far lonelier and more difficult road than recovering with a community. One of the best things you can do for yourself in early sobriety is to grow your circle of support, and the best way to do that is to surround yourself with people who understand your circumstances, preferably with people who lift you up.
- AA isn’t an attractive option for a lot of people, for various reasons, but it has worked for so many (myself included) because it’s accessible, free, and the community support is readily available. On average, there are 20+ meetings in central Toronto to choose from every day, with several online options. If anonymity is a concern, join an online group in NYC or San Francisco! If you’re nervous about the religious component, or dislike the patriarchal language (I totally understand), advice that is often echoed in “the rooms” is: take what you want and leave the rest. You don’t need to agree with every single thing, simply being there, sitting alongside other people in recovery, listening and sharing, will be tremendously helpful. Bonus: the stories are incredibly compelling and inspiring (and usually wilder than most films). If you haven’t tried attending a meeting, I highly encourage you to try. Just try. Why not? Check out different locations. Treat it as an adventure. I will admit that I don’t attend AA anymore, but I credit my first two years of sobriety to this program and made many lifelong friends in church basements.
- She Recovers is another great option for women in recovery. They have a tremendously active and supportive online community, and regularly host Zoom meetings.
- Finding a person who you can count on to agree to be “on standby” for calls and texts is also a good idea. Save their contact info and reach out. Even a simple text to say “I’m having a hard time today”, will take your mind to a better place. It’s amazing what happens when you purge the thoughts and feelings running through your head. Find someone who you feel comfortable talking to, someone you look up to.
Remove “the shoulds” and start new traditions.
There is a lot of pressure regarding how we celebrate Christmas, or NYE. Do what feels comfortable. If that means ordering in pizza and binge-watching a series you love, go for it! There are no rules for how one must do this time of year, despite what all the Christmas films might lead you to believe.
Fill your evenings with ice skating, light shows, yoga classes, or volunteering. Having stretches of time where you’re alone at home without a game plan is challenging—get creative with your schedule, and try new things. You were used to doing things one way, and sometimes it’s hard to imagine that there are other ways of doing things, but there are. Test out new traditions and see what you fall in love with.
Stock your fridge with non-alcoholic options that feel special.
When I got sober in 2010, the non-alcoholic options on the shelves were abysmal, but in recent years, the non-alcoholic category has exploded. It has never been easier to find really lovely non-alcoholic drinks that taste great and feel special.
If drinking something that tastes like beer or wine worries you, as you think you’ll be triggered to reach for the “real” stuff, stick to sparkling waters, herbal teas, or delicious superfood BLUME lattes (see their lovely holiday bundle here). For those of you who feel comfortable trying out non-alcoholic wines and beers, we are huge fans of Libra, and love the assortment of sparkling non-alcoholic wines from Clearsips. All of the above are Canadian companies changing the game. It’s lovely and encouraging to see.
Quit-Lit that will help you on this journey.
Similar to the explosion of excellent non-alcoholic drink options, the past decade has also seen a surge of incredible self-development books and memoirs that share how women stopped drinking and maintained sobriety, as well as the many gifts that they’ve experienced in recovery.
Some all-time favourites:
Soberful – Veronica Valli
The Naked Mind – Annie Grace
We Are The Luckiest – Laura McKowen
Drunk Mom – Jowita Bydlowska
Quit Like a Woman – Holly Whitaker
Nothing Good Can Come From This – Kristi Coulter
Nourish yourself this holiday season.
During this time of year, it’s easy to coast on tea and chocolates. It’s also easy to skip meals when you’re stressed. Do try to nourish yourself. At the start of the day, cut up a bunch of fruit and veggies that you can quickly grab, or take time to enjoy the process of making a beautiful soup. This may all sound so basic, but we also know how easy it can be to ignore self nourishment when you are dealing with fraught situations that come with heavy and complicated feelings.
If you’ve noticed your sugar cravings in hyperdrive since quitting booze (a very common side effect), Veronica Valli, creator of the Soberful Program, has a wonderful online course to help beat sugar cravings.
Sleep and rest are crucial.
Never underestimate the power that comes from a good night’s sleep. When our body is well rested, we’re better able to manage what life throws at us. Figure out what works best for you to ensure you get the rest you need. Go to bed with a book, instead of your phone; limit your caffeine intake; tidy your room; get a good walk in during the day for fresh air and exercise; start your bedtime routine early; enjoy baths, journalling – or whatever you do to feel good before heading to bed.
Remember to take breaks and step away from the chaos.
Step away from the noise. This might mean actually exiting your home for a peaceful solitary walk, taking a break from social media, or creating a cozy nook for meditation and “me time”. As Jean McCarthy, author of Unpickled: The Holiday Survival Guide and host of award-winning recovery podcast The Bubble Hour says, “Everything is magnified this time of year.” The holidays are branded as magical, and there are definitely magical elements, but it’s a time of year that also comes with heavy pressures, hectic schedules, illness, seasonal depression, and family drama. The good news is that when you remove alcohol, these things all become more manageable, but it takes time. That said, the gifts start to appear quickly.
“There’s this wonderful awareness that comes with being free of alcohol,” says McCarthy. “It’s like being a child again. Enjoying the lights of the Christmas tree and getting up early and having your coffee in the dark, alone, with the Christmas tree, without that hangover and shame. It’s such a sparkly time of year… It really is lovely to experience it in that clear-eyed way for the first time.”
I know it’s tough, and going about your day can feel like trudging in three feet of snow—with each step requiring so much effort—but believe me when I tell you that joy awaits.
Take it day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Wishing you a restful and healthy holiday season.