Staying Clean and Sober at Christmas: The Best Tips and Coping Strategies for the Holiday Season

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Staying Clean and Sober at Christmas: The Best Tips and Coping Strategies for the Holiday Season

Merry sober & clean Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Topic at a glance:

  • Tips on how to have a fantastic drug- and alcohol-free Christmas

  • Coping strategies that will help you protect your recovery throughout stressful Christmas preparations and trying family get-togethers

  • Hands-on advice on how to stay clean & sober throughout the holidays and what to do about the New Year’s blues

Is it possible to enjoy Christmas without Alcohol or Drugs?

I remember approaching my first sober Christmas with a feeling of complete dread. I felt resentful when I heard people talking about the parties they were going to. It seemed like every time I turned on the TV, there was a reminder of what I was missing out on. The idea of having a good time at Christmas without alcohol was foreign to me back then. I saw the holidays as just something to get out of the way.

Against expectations, that first sober Christmas turned out to be brilliant. I spent the day with a group of new friends who were similarly committed to a life without drugs. There was a lot of laughing, plenty of delicious food, some games I hadn’t played since childhood, and a fantastic sense of community. In the evening, we even had a bit of a party. I shocked myself by being able to dance for the first time as an adult without being drunk!

So, is it possible to enjoy Christmas without drugs – completely clean & sober? Absolutely.

Reclaiming Christmas – as a clean & sober holiday

Those traditions involving alcohol or other drugs that we associate with this time of year are going to be missing. This can mean the festive season initially feels a bit barren and pointless. The good news is that we can create new traditions that don’t involve intoxication. It is these new traditions that you will associate with Christmas in the future. This is how you reclaim Christmas.

Some possible clean & sober Christmas traditions you might want to try could include:

  • Go to some local Christmas festivities (e.g. carol singing, Christmas pantomime, or the turning-on of the Christmas lights).

  • Go to a Christmas market and soak up the atmosphere.

  • Spend time with your kids, nieces, nephews etc. so they can get you into the Christmas spirit.

  • Decorate your Christmas tree, so it looks like a piece of art.

  • Knit some trendy Christmas jumpers for yourself, your friends, and your family.

  • Volunteer to be Santa and spread some joy around.

  • Take part in the Christmas show (who knows? Maybe this could lead to a career in Hollywood).

  • Go to a drug-free Christmas party (recovery groups in large cities will usually arrange these in December).

  • Spend a bit of time in nature.

  • Try some ice-skating.

  • Cook Christmas dinner and invite some friends around.

Stay safe in your recovery during Christmas: How to manage your stress levels

What do Christmas shopping, family get-togethers, office parties, cooking the turkey, and having the kids off school for the holidays have in common? Answer: These things can be stressful. Those in early recovery have the added stress of dealing with extra relapse triggers, and the sometimes unrealistic expectations of loved ones. Christmas can also be a strong reminder of all we have lost, and this can push our stress levels into the red zone.

It is hard to completely avoid stress at Christmas, but there are things we can do to better cope with it:

  • Set time aside for meditation each day – even 10 minutes of just sitting in silence can help us relax and improve our ability to deal with stress.

  • Avoid unnecessary stress and relapse triggers (e.g. going to bars).

  • If you are a member of a recovery group (e.g. AA, NA, SMART Recovery, or Refuge Recovery), it can be a great idea to go in some extra meetings at this time of year.

  • You may find it helpful to carefully plan each day of the holidays. Christmas is more manageable when you have a to-do list and a plan.

  • A daily gratitude list can keep you feeling positive and mentally strong.

  • Commit to a daily exercise routine.

  • Keep a journal where you can vent your frustrations and celebrate your victories.

Surviving Christmas get-togethers clean & sober

If Tibetan Buddhist monks get overconfident about their spiritual development, they will sometimes be sent back to live with their families. This is a reality test. It is easy to be spiritual in the peaceful environment of a secluded temple or within a supportive and loving therapeutic community, but what about when we are surrounded by people who are experts at ‘pressing our buttons’?

Spending time with loved ones over Christmas can be wonderful and quite a test for our recovery at the same time. Families can be a bit like a powder keg at this time of year. The stress of the holidays and all that extra time spent together sometimes result in heated discussions, angry words, and old wounds being torn open again.

Here are some steps we can take to survive these family get-togethers without picking up again:

  • Don’t be surprised at how easily family members can still press our buttons. It doesn’t mean that the ‘new improved you’ is a sham – it is just that these old habitual responses take longer to eliminate.

  • Some family members may still be struggling to trust us, and they may even decide that now is a good time to highlight our faults. The only way to win back their trust is by staying committed to our new life – arguing with them is unlikely to help.

  • It is helpful to have someone neutral to turn to so that we can let off some steam at regular intervals (other people in recovery can be ideal for this).

  • If we feel ourselves getting triggered, we can try grounding ourselves by focusing on our breath or other body sensation. This can prevent anger boiling-over to a point where we say or do something we later regret.

  • Avoid ‘rising to the bait’. There are people who seem to get a kick out of winding up others (e.g. by bringing up hurtful or controversial topics), the best response is not to fall into their trap.

  • If the adults are getting drunk, it might be best to sit with the kids – this is probably going to be more fun as well.

  • Arrange to have some breaks from the family so it doesn’t become overwhelming (e.g. go for walks or to a recovery meeting).

  • Offer to help prepare the meal or clean up afterwards. That will not only win you some brownie points, but it can also provide a bit of a break.

  • If it all gets too much, make an excuse and leave – even if it is only a temporary break like a walk.

Please check-out our recent post on dealing with resentments for more tips on surviving family get-togethers.

Tips for Christmas on a budget & what really counts in recovery

For those of us who are struggling financially, Christmas is a challenging time – especially if we have children. There can be a sense of shame and sadness when we can’t buy our loved ones the presents we feel they deserve. How can we possibly enjoy the holidays if even buying the ingredients for Christmas dinner is going to be a struggle?

The best gift we can give our family and friends this Christmas is our attention, and this won’t cost us anything. It might sound like a platitude, but please consider this: There are plenty of children who are spoiled with gifts, yet still feel lost and miserable because their parents don’t have any time for them. Addiction and self-obsession go together, but now that we are free of drugs and alcohol, we can be present for our loved ones and give them our full attention – the gift that keeps on giving.

Here are some ideas for enjoying Christmas on a budget:

  • Make your own Christmas gifts (e.g. jumpers, cakes, artwork, or you could even write a song or poem for someone special)

  • Make an agreement with family members to stick to an affordable limit on the amount spent on gifts.

  • Be honest with your family about your financial situation so that they don’t have unrealistic expectations.

  • Share the cost of food by arranging a communal Christmas dinner where everyone contributes ingredients.

  • Make your own Christmas decorations.

  • Take part in free local activities such as carol singing.

  • Put the focus on traditional games like monopoly rather than expensive video games.

Why it is best to avoid going overboard at Christmas

Even if we can afford to splash out on Christmas (or we are willing to go into debt to make it extra special), it is still best to avoid going overboard. This is especially true if our reason for investing so much in the festivities is our desire to make up for the past or win back the trust and respect of our loved ones.

The problem is that it is only by our friends and family seeing how much we have changed that they can trust us again. This change needs to be lasting. We probably won’t speed-up the process by offering expensive presents gifts or lavish get-togethers. The risk is that if we do go overboard at Christmas, we could end up feeling underappreciated, misunderstood, and resentful. We could even use our disappointment as an excuse to relapse.

Remember: The best gift you can give your family and friends this Christmas is the new sober you.

How to avoid a relapse at Christmas

I think most of us are pleasantly surprised to find that our first clean & sober Christmas turns out better than expected. There can be a lot more temptation though, at this time of year, so we do want to take any necessary precautions to avoid relapse such as:

  • If you need to attend a Christmas party where people will be intoxicated, you will probably want to limit your time there and leave early. If possible, bring along a friend with a strong recovery for support.  If you feel too uncomfortable just go – it is not worth the risk.

  • Be prepared to respond to people who will try to encourage you to relapse – a confident ‘no, thank-you’ usually works better than a longer explanation (see below).

  • If you attend recovery meetings, you might want to go more frequently during the Christmas period.

  • If you are going to a family gathering, or some other event, make sure there is a sufficient supply of non-alcoholic drinks that you enjoy. You can bring your own mocktail or special hot chocolate/tea, etc. if in doubt.

  • Make sure you have someone you talk to if you start to feel a bit wobblily.

  • Avoid non-alcoholic (pretend) beer as this can increase the sense of missing out on something.

  • Be honest about any struggles you are having.

  • Loneliness is a common relapse trigger over the Christmas period, so be sure to spend time with other people.

No need to justify staying clean & sober

I discovered that the more I tried to justify not drinking, the more of an issue it became with other people. I started to see that it was usually those who had drinking problems themselves who were most fascinated by the fact that I wasn’t indulging. Any explanation I gave these guys usually led to more questions and encouragements to drink. I never liked making up excuses anyway (e.g. ‘I’m on medication’) – as if not drinking was something I needed to be ashamed about and tell lies to justify. I eventually realized it was much easier to just tell people ‘I don’t drink’ and leave it at that.

The Christmas Day Comedown

I love Christmas, but there is always a sense of ‘is that it?’ that pops up by the end of Christmas Day. This experience of melancholy is common and understandable. The build-up to Christmas now begins in mid-November, but the day itself goes by so fast. It is little wonder that some of us experience a bit of a comedown afterwards. If we are prepared for this episode of ‘is that it?’, it will pass quickly, and we can go back to enjoying ourselves.

Bah Humbug! But What If I Hate Christmas?

Let’s face it, some of us just don’t like Christmas, and the fact that we are now sober/clean isn’t going to change that. The advice to ‘get into the Christmas spirit’ can have the same effect as telling a depressed person, ‘you should cheer up’. There is no law that says you must take part in the festivities, and for many of us, the best advice might be to treat Christmas like any other day of the year.

Starting the New Year clean & sober

Once you made it through the Christmas holidays clean & sober, New Year’s Eve is already lurking around the corner. Many of us will be in the habit of ‘seeing in the New Year’ through a chemical haze, dancing the night away at some party or drowning the sorrows of last year in alcohol. Therefore, we may be at a complete loss about how to do things sober. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Go to a drug-free New Year’s Eve party

  • Instead of medicating your way into the New Year why not try meditation. You can sit down to meditate a few minutes before midnight and keep going into the next year.

  • Getting out into nature can be a fantastic way to begin the New Year.

  • New Year is a great time to review your life. Look at how far you have come and to consider the possibilities that lie in front of you.

Dealing with the Post-Christmas Blues

Once all the excitement about Christmas and New Year subsides some of us can feel a bit down or even lost. January can feel dark and bleak, especially if we live in a cold climate where the days are short. We may also miss our family and friends after having spent so much time with them over the holidays. Others might feel the need to celebrate or urge to reward themselves for the fact that they made it through the holidays clean & sober with a drink or a pill. This is why relapse rates stay high throughout these first weeks for the new year. One way to beat the blues is to take on some projects. Make sure you have some things to look forward to (in terms of a reward: a spa day, watching a movie at the cinema or a ticket to the next game of your favorite team could be healthy alternatives to picking up the bottle or drugs again). It is also important to talk to people about how we are feeling: Reach out to your support network and be transparent about what’s going on for you.

Wishing you all a happy sober Christmas! If you want to give us a gift this Christmas, you could do just that by sharing this post.

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