If you are newly clean and sober, I’m sure you are experiencing a lot of holiday anxiety right about now. Don’t worry, it’s normal. It happens to all of us- even those of us with several years of recovery under our belts.
My first sober Christmas was spent behind bars. That was difficult for a whole other set of reasons, as I’m sure some of you are familiar with. My second sober Christmas (my first REAL sober holiday season) was incredibly difficult, uncomfortable, lonely and triggering.
As recovering addict, we often suffer from anxiety and/or depression. A majority of us use drugs and alcohol to quiet the excessive noise in our heads. When we get clean and sober, we slowly learn coping skills to manage our anxiety and depression, but those coping skills take time and practice to perfect. I didn’t have effective coping skills for the first several years of my sobriety, thus my anxiety was always through the roof as I prepared for the holidays.
Not only do we have to deal with families (extended, in-laws, and our own), many of with whom we have strained relationships because of our using, but we will inevitably be surrounded by alcohol. Some of us might even be lucky enough to be surrounded by active alcoholics or addicts, as addiction has a strong genetic component.
My first sober Christmas after I was released from jail was a disaster. I didn’t drink but my insides felt like a puddle of mud by the time I left. I was surrounded by a large group of extended family but felt incredibly lonely. I didn’t know how to talk to them. I had been in active addiction for several years and had no idea what was happening in their lives. It was awkward to ask about them because they obviously didn’t want to ask about me so conversations were dry and surface level. I was insanely jealous of everyone who was drinking and felt left out and sorry for myself.
But your first sober holiday doesn’t have to be as disastrous as mine. Here are a few helpful tips to keep in mind as you begin your holiday season:
- Make a sober plan. This is, by far, the most critical element to any sober event. Make a plan with another recovering alcoholic to keep yourself accountable. Your plan should be detailed and needs to include an exit strategy. My sober plans always include calling and texting other recovering addicts prior to the gathering, during the gathering if needed and after the gathering. If feeling triggered, I step outside and call someone. If I still feel triggered, I have a story lined up as to why I have to leave the gathering (ex: I have a migraine and need to go home to lay down.
- Stay in the moment. Most of our anxiety comes from thinking about the future, the past or trying to read other people’s thoughts. We consume ourselves with what others are thinking about us and how they are perceiving what we are saying. We feel judged and scrutinized before anyone even opens their mouth to speak to us. The best way to rid our head of negative or scary thoughts is to bring ourselves back into the moment.
- Draw your mind to your five senses. Notice what you are hearing, not what’s in your brain but what noises surround you. Notice the ticking of a clock or music if there’s any playing. Pay attention to how your feet feel against the ground. Draw awareness to your hands and then other parts of your body. Are you warm or cold? Are your socks soft? Does the ground feel hard? Scan the room for sights that bring you peace. Maybe the flicker of a candle or a painting on the wall. Do you smell anything? Repeat this over and over until your anxiety lessens.
- Don’t worry about who’s drinking and who’s not drinking. I promise, unless you have other alcoholics in your family, you are the only one aware of other people’s glasses. No one is looking at your drink. If you feel weird about being the only person not drinking, remember that those who are drinking are not concerned with your beverage. They are paying attention to their own. Try putting sprite with a splash of cranberry juice in a glass for something to hold. If people do not know you quit drinking, it looks like a mixed drinks and you can avoid questions. If asked why you aren’t drinking, a good response is, “I don’t like the way alcohol makes me feel.”
- Bring a list of conversation starters. I know this sounds lame, but hear me out. You can literally guide the conversations so you don’t feel uncomfortable. If a topic comes up that makes you uneasy, change it. You can Google conversation starters and choose some that will fit for you and your family.
- Don’t try to make amends to people who are still hurting from your addiction. Undoubtedly, some of our family members are still sore over things that happened during our addiction. Don’t try to make up for it all in one night. If they need space, give them space. If they are angry, show them grace and kindness. Be a different person than they are used to seeing.
- If you don’t have a place to go for the holidays, look up 12 step meetings in your area. Most cities host meetings all day on holidays. Show up and hang out with others who are recovering, just like you.
And above all else, remember that the way you are feeling now is temporary. The longer you stay sober, the less phased you will be by family gatherings or other seemingly stressful events. You are exactly where you are supposed to be and you are doing a great job.
Happy Holidays my sober friends!