On the day before Halloween, I walked into a stationery store to grab a birthday card. I expected the place to be filled with season-appropriate fake cobwebs, cardboard black cats and plastic jack-o-lanterns. I was wrong. The witches and goblins had been shunted to a back corner and the store had already been taken over by Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s decorations. Cards, wrapping paper and holiday knick-knacks filled the tables and walls. And there were plenty of prominently displayed books about the cheeriest holiday cocktails for your big party. Oh no, I thought. They’re already here. And it’s still 70 degrees in New York City! I wanted to give crêpe-paper Santa the finger.
When I first got into recovery, I was warned about surviving the holidays sober. One of the old-timers at my morning meeting started talking early in November about what she called, “The Alcoholic’s Bermuda Triangle,” Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Please, I thought. Isn’t that a little dramatic? I had survived Memorial Day, the Fourth of July and Labor Day. Those were my big three, when my friends were all soaking in sun and partying at the beach. I hadn’t dared test my newfound sobriety with them. It had been a long summer, but I was feeling great. The holidays couldn’t be much worse, right?
As it turned out, they were much worse. Carrying a string bean casserole into my cousin’s house with my parents on Thanksgiving, I slipped on some icy stairs and landed hard on my back. “I’m okay! I’m okay!” I insisted, as they fawned over me and helped me up. Fifteen minutes later, I was sobbing in the bathroom. I’d like to say it was because my back hurt. In truth, it was because as soon as I fell, all I wanted was to go straight to the bar set up for the dinner and start chugging out of the vodka bottle. Instead, I ate double helpings of at least three desserts. Not exactly a success story, but I got through the day without drinking.
I wrapped up that first holiday season with a screaming tirade at the friend who was kind enough to spend a quiet New Year’s Eve with me. He had committed the cardinal sin of daring to drink a single glass of champagne. Let’s just say it was a relief to go back to work after the New Year and put the whole miserable season behind me.
Since that first year, though, I’ve learned a few tricks that have helped me to handle the festivities with a little more grace. It starts with bumping up my program. The holidays are coming whether I like it or not, so I might as well be prepared. While each one is, “just another day,” the cumulative effect of the season, with its constant pressure to shop, travel and socialize—often with people whom I find challenging—is exhausting. I have to take care of myself.
For me, this means going to more meetings, talking to more sober friends and keeping my prayer and meditation routine on track. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. If I can go into the holidays (which according to Hallmark, now start on November 1st) in a good place mentally and spiritually, I have a better shot at getting through, and possibly even enjoying, the season.
When in doubt, I do service. One of the best parts of my recovery is my commitment to take a meeting to a locked-down detox/rehab facility one Saturday a month. That meeting is never more important to me than it is in November and December. There’s gratitude to be found in the opportunity to make the day a little easier for people who are likely not having their best Christmas. It’s also a huge reminder that if I don’t do the things I need to do in order to stay sober, I’ll end up right back in one of the detox beds I found myself in when I bottomed out. When I hear the door click behind me as I leave the unit each month, I’m thankful.
Doing service also puts perspective on the overblown emotions and resentments that tend to bubble up starting right around Thanksgiving. I’m upset about the fact that I have to drink seltzer and cranberry at my office holiday party? Maybe it’s time to make a phone call to the newcomer I met last week and see if she would like to hit a meeting and have a coffee. Maybe my problems aren’t the big deal they feel like in the moment. If I get out of my own head, I feel better every time.
I remind myself “No,” is a complete sentence. Being sober allows me to make choices every day, choices I couldn’t make when I was chained to the bottle and the mirror lined with cocaine. I get to decide whether or not to participate in the parties and other activities that surround the holidays. I first read that, “’No,’” is a complete sentence on the wall of a meeting. Now I use it all the time. A friend might ask, “Do you want to join a bunch of us for a holiday dinner at that place we used to go to?” While I might dress it up with, “I’m having a busy week,” or, “I’ve got too much on my plate,” the answer can still be, “no,” even if what’s on my plate is catching up on Homeland. I find relief in not feeling that I have to do anything other than take the next right action for me and protect my sobriety.
I’m not alone. For all of the craziness surrounding the holidays, it’s remarkable how easy it is to still feel alone. There have been years I found myself doing nothing but isolating as much as possible between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Sometimes I had put up a wall between the rest of the world and me and sometimes I just found myself without a lot of things to do.
The best years have been the ones where I’ve been able to find some balance. Yes, I have to show up to the office holiday party, but I can get there late and leave early. And no, I don’t have to go the New Year’s Day brunch if I want to catch up on sleep and watch movies. The only thing I have to do is to put first things first and not pick up a drink or a drug, one day at time. Now, where’s that pumpkin pie?