How to be Sober and Sane for the Holidays in Early Recovery

Not so Happy Holidays?

How to be Sober and Sane in Early Recovery

Linda Wilk, MA, QMHP

We all like to think that when we recover, it is going to mean that the powerless and unmanageability are going to go away.  Everything will be merry and bright.  Once the person who is addicted enters treatment, long, loud audible sighs of relief can be heard from the homestead.  Finally, an end to the madness, right?  For family members, at least, it can mean we finally get a break from all the tension, searching for bottles or baggies, waiting for the other shoe to drop, some calm in the home, and seeing what life feels like without constant crises.


For the person in early recovery, the relief may not come so quickly.  There’s the week or two of detox and shakiness, the unsureness of what will be expected, both from self and outside sources (counselors, bosses, family members, friends), the inner dialogues (Do I really want to be here, I have to, no I don’t, yes I do, what the hell, oh my god…) and maybe even the shock of facing what happened to end up in treatment at all.

Then life settles into more or less of a rhythm.  Counseling, groups, family program, insights, conversations with family members, introspection, 12 step meetings…it’s new at first but it begins to have familiarity and a new life begins to emerge for all involved.  Small spurts of discomfort as the clinicians push for growth emerge.  All in all, it seems livable and even pleasant.  New friendships or acquaintances develop. Life seems to have promise.  One might even approach that beautiful pink cloud, that euphoric feeling that Life is Good!


Then come the holidays.  Those haunting traditions that bear the bad tidings of all the nasty habits of Christmas and New Year’s past.  The times you made a fool of yourself at the office party and were almost fired.  You knocked over the beautiful home Christmas tree because you were in a drunken stupor. Was that you who failed to show up for your mom’s dinner because you had drunk and partied so much Christmas eve that you stayed out all night with your friends, went to bed 6am on the morning after, forgetting it was Christmas and the whole family was meeting up at your parents?  Or you who never showed up to meet your fiancé for New Year’s because the guys started drinking at noon on New Year’s eve at the office and just kept going through the evening?


Maybe the family never knew you did drugs, and you have avoided it up until the week before the intervention that brought you here.  Your husband might know the horrible story of your drinking life, but you think the kids don’t know because they are too young, and you are being discharged just before Christmas and everyone plans to go to your parents (Grandma and Grampa’s house) where Grampa and all your siblings drink.  What’s a girl to do?

Maybe, if you are the family member expecting your bright-faced recovering person home, you are filled with equal dread! How are you supposed to manage all of the relatives, with their varying levels of Christmas cheer (read alcohol) along with your recovering alcoholic?  Ask yourself, having endured eight weeks of Family Education, is that really your job?  What is your task in this family now?  You’ve just been tasked with Applied Codependency in Recovery 101!


So, alcoholic or co-alcoholic, answer me this:  What comes first when you are trying to do recovery differently? COMMUNICATION.  Yes, you got it!  In the old drunken and high days, the rules said, don’t talk about it, ignore the problem and it will go away.  Our new rule is talking it through.  Lay the problem on the table, ask for help, and together, you might come up with a new way through.  If you are unsure, talk to others who have more recovery and you might find out that some people have more experience in this area and can lend you a hand.   I was shocked to find out in my first year of recovery that of the millions who had recovered and the thousands who lived near where I did, quite a few spoke up when I brought up my fears in a meeting, and shared their experience and what they’d done about it.

Many shared that they talked to their families about not having alcohol around.  Many went to family events for a short time and then came to a meeting right after.  Some brought program friends with them to family gatherings. Some chose not to go the first year, and did service at AA or shelters or churches instead.  Some went to others’ houses.  What I heard was that the emphasis was on putting one’s sobriety first.  I also heard people asking about what I needed to stay safe and sober, and some talked about forming new sober traditions.  This was a concept I had never heard of.

I tried to talk to my family about staying sober, but they were still drinking.  They weren’t open to communicating.  I hadn’t been to a rehab or had a family program with them.  So there were limitations to what could be changed.  After a lot of consideration, and with my sponsor’s help, I chose to go to my parent’s house for a short visit, getting home in time for a favorite meeting. I had my sponsor’s number as well as others’ with me and I was prepared to leave if there was drunkenness or fighting. This was a plan that worked for me.  I stayed only about two hours, but everyone seemed satisfied that I’d made an appearance.  After the fourth round of relatives dropping in for highballs, as my father started to be a little less than stabile, I decided it was time to go.  Only 3 pm in the afternoon – plenty of time to get home, call friends in the program and get to a meeting.


My first new Holiday Tradition was born that first year sober.  I found out there were a host of young folks who had done the same thing.  We all ended up stumbling lost and confused into an evening meeting that was our home group, and talking about our ridiculous first Christmas sober.  That led old timers and everyone in between to share stories and it was a hilarious, yet melancholy meeting about all the first sober holidays we’d had, tinged with the amends we all wished for or had already made.  When it was over, we found our way to the twenty-four hour, never close diner, and to our surprise, we were not the worst characters out on Christmas.  This filled us with ribald laughter, and we stayed out until we simply couldn’t keep our eyes open, hugging each other as we parted with comments about true family.

I found out that first sober holiday season that I really did have a soul.  I’d  wondered until then.  I’d had trouble feeling anything at all in the months leading up to December.  Addiction numbs your spirit and causes you to lie, steal, and turn on the very values you were raised with. Even if you are a family member to an addict you may have found yourself thinking these things.  The first year of recovery is rocky.  You may find yourself unsure if you even want to be with the person you fought so hard to get into recovery.  Twelve step programs tell you, no major changes for the first year.  There’s a good reason for that.  You don’t really know yourself or each other.


We need to learn to communicate.  That isn’t really talking.  It’s listening, too, or maybe mostly.  It’s unhooking all the tape recordings that run in our mind, and starting over new.  It’s a little like pretending to have amnesia, or like having had eye surgery, so we can see the person with new eyes.  Sometimes there is so much hurt, it takes a miracle to heal the heart and make it possible. 

There is one thing that is absolutely certain about recovery.  We cannot heal the other person.  We can only heal ourself, in preparation to receive the other person in a new way.  We have to continue, whether addict/alcoholic or family member, to ask ourselves, “What is my part in this?  What do I need to work on?”  This is the only way that families heal.  The minute that first finger comes up to point at anyone else, we are lost.


On page 66 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (The Big Book), at the bottom, there is a paragraph that defines this beautifully:  This was our course:  We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick.  Though we did not like their symptoms and the way these disturbed us, they, like ourselves, were sick too.  We asked God to help us show them the same tolerance, pity and patience that we would cheerfully grant a sick friend.  When a person offended we said to ourselves, “This is a sick man.  How can I be helpful to him?  God save me from being angry.  Thy will be done.”  It goes on from there.


This was a tremendous gift to me in changing my attitude towards others, and I pass it to you.  I am powerless to change others, but I can change my attitude toward them.  If I can’t change my attitude, I can remove myself before I create more harm.  I can feel good about who I am in this world.  The more that I act in a way that I respect myself, the more I feel that change resound inside.  Gradually, I start to love myself, and this reverberates outward.

The first few years were not that easy in recovery.  Each time stability came, another event would happen – a new job, an old bill, new friends, an old secret – this was not what I expected!  As I grew to let go of expectations and learned to live more and more in the moment, life became more serene.  Today I celebrate the holidays in a totally different way than my parents did, and I am serene, joyous, and free.

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