Psychology Magazine

How the Newly Sober Can Navigate the Holidays

By Garrickkreitzer @GarrickKreitzer

As I sit to write my first blog post, it seems fitting to address a topic that weighs heavily on the minds of many of my clients at this time of year. The following is the first installment in a series of blog posts to help newly sober individuals navigate the holiday season successfully. It is a compilation of concepts, insights, and suggestions collected over the years from my work as an addiction specialist.

The holiday season is that two months at the end of the year where we give thanks, enjoy time off work, and celebrate with our loved ones. But for the newly sober and their families, the holidays can represent a time of anxiety and doubt, as this will be the first time they have celebrated the holidays sober. Although staying on the straight and narrow through January 1st can seem like a formidable challenge for those in early recovery, I’m here to tell you, “It can be done.”

But first, let’s look at what the holidays were like in the past.

Before we were sober, the holidays were a time of indulgence and “partying” with all the friends and family who came into town to celebrate. For at least two months, we seemed like everyone else – “just celebrating the season”. Even if we knew we had a problem with drugs and alcohol, we could drink and use with less guilt over the holidays. Because everybody drank and used like us over the holidays (or so we thought). We could overdo it without the typical glares from our concerned family members or other judgmental bystanders. When we woke up with a hangover and began drinking to chase it off, the chances were high that we could find someone to join us and normalize our behavior.

Also, we were always the “rock stars” of the holiday season, weren’t we? When people came in town for the holidays and wanted to party, they knew to look for us. We showed them a good time. Showed them how to “do it right”. Who cared that those same people wouldn’t be seen with us any other time of the year? For those two sacred months, we felt valued. We felt talented. We felt appreciated.

It might take some digging, but when we look carefully we see that underneath these beliefs lies a fundamental human construct. It is the motivation for our actions…both good and bad. It is the very essence of who we are. And for those of us in early recovery who are experiencing the holidays for the first time, sober, it can be the foundation of intense anxiety and doubt. The construct is identity.

More specifically, self-identity.

Although sober now, we previously used alcohol and drugs for so long and at such high levels that we reached a crisis point and decided to be sober. During those hard-using years, our addiction had incorporated itself into our self-identity. Our use of alcohol and drugs (chemicals) was a big part of how we defined ourselves. It was a part of who we were. So when we decided to get healthy, we severed that part of our identity, causing a crisis.

For some of us, alcohol and drugs helped us be something we thought we couldn’t be without them. Consider the role addiction plays in the following statements from some of my counseling clients. Then consider how their self-identities might have been affected when they got sober…

-“I guess I was ‘The Party Guy’ – the one people come to when they wanted to tear it up.”

-“I was a player. I always got the ladies.”

-“I don’t know. I thought I was different than the rest of society. I didn’t play by their (crappy) rules. I did what I wanted.”

For others, alcohol and drugs seemingly helped us NOT be something we thought we WOULD be without them…

-“I thought that if I couldn’t drink – that I’d be one mean lady. That I’d probably end up in jail. That I definitely couldn’t handle my kids.”

-“Without coke, I thought I’d be alone. Without it, I was too shy to even talk.”

-“I thought my depression would kick in real bad. I was scared I’d kill myself.”

Listening to these and countless other statements from clients describing themselves and their addiction, it is apparent that they are talking about how their chemicals became a significant part of who they thought they were, who they wanted to be, and who they didn’t want to be.

When we become sober and decide to abstain from drugs and alcohol, we are effectively creating an identity crisis within ourselves. When we ask, “How am I going to be able to have fun without alcohol” or “What kind of mother am I going to be without Valium,” what we are truly saying is, “I have no clue who I really am. I am scared to death that I might not like myself and that no one else will like me either.”

For those of us about to go into the holiday season sober, for the first time, this identity crisis is magnified. For instance, we are going to see people we normally wouldn’t – people who are only in town for the holidays. These people might have expectations of us…expectations derived from when we were drinking and using. “Old friends” might call us to go out and “party”. They might want to buy some drugs, and we were “the one with the quality connections.”

Or maybe we are worried that we don’t know how to celebrate or have fun without chemicals. That people will see us as a “downer” or a “bump on a log.” Maybe we are afraid that we will be unable to endure the stress of the holidays without any chemical assistance. Whatever our fears may be, we know that we don’t have the luxury of slowly incorporating sobriety into our self-identity. Due to the upcoming holidays, we will be thrust into a “trial by fire.”

If I can say one thing to the newly sober people heading into the holiday season, it’s this:

“I hear you.”

That’s it.

“I hear you.”

I hear you when you say that this is terrifying and uncomfortable. I hear you when you say that you doubt yourself. I hear you when you say you don’t know who you really are at this point in time.

“I hear you.”

And it’s ok to feel like that. It’s ok to feel however it is you are feeling. There is nothing wrong with you. This stuff takes years – a lifetime. You are not expected to have it all figured out “now that you’re sober.”

Just do what you need to do in order to get through this first holiday season sober. I can promise you – next year will be easier. And within the upcoming year, you will begin the process of discovering who you really are.

In my years working as an addiction specialist, I’ve come to three fundamental realizations about sobriety:

1.) Sobriety is difficult.

2.) Sobriety is scary.

3.) Sobriety is worth it.


My next post will address other aspects of staying sober during the holiday season. I’ll cover some specific scenarios and touch on frequently used tactics that help people in recovery respectfully and assertively refuse chemicals.

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