‘Tis The Season: Avoiding Relapse In New Sobriety During The Holidays

envelope with seal on it


The familiar envelope showed up every year, right before Thanksgiving. It was from Terence & Alicia Thurgrood III of Colorado. Avery knew what was in it which is why it remained unopened. The Thurgroods were the unofficial hosts for the yearly reunion in Aspen for ten friends who attended Wharton School of Business. Terry and Alicia sent out the invitations, made dinner reservations, contacted the General Manager for wine, liquor and food preferences, secured room reservations, set up spa appointments, and kept everyone informed of which invitees would attend and with whom.

The partiers flew in from both coasts, plus Texas, Chicago and Nashville.

Everyone anticipated a five star week. Kerry’s mind spins a virtual tour of the past six years in Aspen: fabulous skiing, available right outside their door; lunches around the fire place with glasses flowing with Achaval Ferrer Malbec 2011; wedges of Beaufort D’ete, a French mountain cheese. Later in the day, all would visit the Martini Bar before dinner. Once seated in a dining room overlooking the slopes, Russian Osetra Caviar will arrive, paired with frozen Stolichnaya Elit shots.

This year, Kerry was invited solo. The drinking had gotten out of hand and his marriage fell apart.

Kerry’s first thought is since the family has already been lost to drinking, why not go out and enjoy all the skiing and food with friends. “I am sure if I enjoy one cocktail it won’t destroy the sobriety I have attained.” Kerry reasoned.

This trip was one of the best times in the year. It brings together good friends, elegant food and drink, associations with the A-list. How could anyone live without it?

Super Bowl

In a suburb outside of Manhattan, on Thanksgiving weekend, Rick receives a SAVE THE DATE card from Sam and Kim. They are the official hosts of the Annual Super Bowl Party. In order to avoid any DUI’s, Sam hires a bus to pick up all his friends. He makes his 11 Alarm Chile for the adventurous who can eat it.

Kim caters the food that ranges from sushi to Lasagna. Guests usually bring an array of hors d’oeuvres, anything from stuffed mushrooms to shrimp cocktail.

However, the beer on tap has always been the focal point of the day. Sam sets up several kegs in the garage, which is always cool. At half-time, friends rush to the garage to eat, drink, tell stories and generally poke fun at one another.

Clearly, for someone in new recovery, this is a challenge. “A challenge if I attend and social death if I miss what used to be the culmination of the football season,” considers Rick.

“If I don’t attend, I will miss all the food, laughter, comradery, and general drink-a-fun day.”

But, Rick has been sober for several months and has promised his wife, who is finished with cleaning up after his escapades, that he will follow his AA program.

“On the other hand,” Rick thinks,” how can one day with old friends destroy my sobriety? Surely I have enough Program to enjoy one drink with old friends and not go back into my disease?”

Rick could not imagine his life without his Super Bowl family. What would he do with himself?

Avoiding Relapse

Just One

Believing that one drink (drug, etc.) can’t hurt is a mind game destined to sabotage your sobriety. You know better; your sponsor knows better; your family knows better.

No Substitutions

Another slippery slope is believing you can substitute your drug of choice with some other substance. Not true! Mind altering does just that! Have an Escape Plan: Unless you want to find yourself with a drink, drug, super bowl bet, or a 48 pack of chocolate in your hand, you must have a staying-sober stratagem. Hoping for sudden will power is a clear path to a relapse.

If you decide to attend the family gathering, plan to arrive after the cocktail hour and make your excuses to leave before the drinking, etc. resumes. And, some parties may have to be missed this year.

Avoid People, Places and Things

The operative word in new sobriety is to avoid- people, places and things familiar to your using life!

Avoid places where friends or family from your ‘using’ days will be in attendance, regardless of whether it is your best friend, older brother or your younger cousin. If you used together, it is a trigger for picking up again.

Avoid places that can trigger flashbacks of your previous life. It can exhume overwhelming feelings that you buried alive years ago.

Do Attend

During the holidays, have the phone numbers of members of your AA support system and your sponsor on speed dial. If you have to make twenty calls to get through the day, make them. If you haven’t joined a 12 Step Program, time to consider it.

Look around for Sober Activities groups. Many groups host holiday dinners; New Year’s parties; and Super Bowl gatherings. There are sober ski trips, cruises and singles clubs. Seek out those who are also trying to stay sober.

Special Situations

New Relationships

Nothing is probably more dangerous to new sobriety than the thrill of a new relationship. However, it is sug- gested in most 12 step programs that you not make any relationship changes for a year. Do not end old relationships; do not start a new relationship.

While not much is more energizing than a pair of black leather pants headed in your direction or a hunk with big shoulders on the checkout line, don’t get involved.

The high of new love and its attendant unexplored sex is a common occasion of slipping; the messy ending of an unhealthy relationship, formed because of the neediness of new sobriety, will also derail your efforts.

Single and Sober

If you believe you should be celebrating with the love of your life or getting a fabulous gift from someone other than the cat, Christmas can signal disappointment.

Being with a gorgeous mate does not a relationship make, nor do gifts a destroyed relationship revive.

Want to retain your sobriety? Don’t judge your circumstances against the Hallmark version of the holidays.

Married and Sober

If you are married, and going through a confusing time dealing with new sobriety, do not put your feelings under a microscope. Feelings are not facts- they change.

Don’t torture yourself by scouring the crowds in every mall, looking for happy couples to prove how unlucky you are in love! You really do not know how they are feeling about each other.

“Don’t judge your insides by someone else’s outsides.”

Even with some resistance to your being at meetings all the time, attend them. Invite your spouse to an Al-Anon meeting.

At this moment in time, sobriety is the first priority!

Spouse, Children or Friends

Don’t enable anyone in your life who relapses- spouse, child or significant other.

Don’t clean up the mess, whether that means calling a boss because he/she can’t make it to work or telling friends he/she has the flu and can’t attend the Holiday Dinner.

If, on the morning after, someone is obnoxious and hung over, go out. Attend an Al-Anon meeting; go to church; visit your therapist; have lunch with a friend. Do not be a victim.

Never let anyone drive you home if they have relapsed. Drive you self, or take a cab and take the keys.

New Year’s Eve

This holiday can trigger many of your fondest drunk-o-logue stories. If so, give yourself permission to forget about it for this year. It is one day out of the year. Actually, it is a few hours, in the evening, of one day of the year. You do not have to be alone. Find some sober activities.

What to Do?

• Attend a 12 Step meeting.

• Remember your Serenity Prayer.

• Be on speed dial with your sponsor.

• Attend a gathering, hosted by a 12 Step member.

• Remember your 12 Step Slogans, for example: “Let Go and Let God.” Ask yourself, “How important is it?” “Take it One Day at a Time.”

• H.A.L.T. – Never get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired.

Dr. Dunnells is an International Addictions and Co-Occurring Disorders Counselor (IC & RC). She has a sub-specialty in bereavement counseling and is pursuing a certification in anger management. Her mission is to use “all my knowledge to help people get out from under their addictions and start repairing the hearts they have broken, the relationships they have damaged, and the lives they have stalled. Dr. Dunnells can be reached at: www.drsheilaherenow.net