Have you recently quit drinking or using? Here are 10 powerful tips to stay sober during the trigger-heavy silly season. December and the festive season can be a particularly dangerous time for people in recovery – especially if you are newly clean and sober. Stressed about staying sober? Addiction expert Sheryl Rahme shares some tried and tested tips.

December: A Dangerous Time for People in Early Recovery

The pressure to have fun can, in itself, be very stressful, particularly if you have a long history of drinking or using during this time. It can trigger memories that can cause powerful cravings or thoughts of indulging in substance use.

“December is usually thought of as a fun and relaxing time but, in reality, it can be a depressing and lonely time for many. People who have recently stopped drinking or using may find the festive period particularly difficult the first few years and may feel sensitive to the fact that they are different from those without an addiction. Additionally, maybe their last couple of festive periods have been the worst using times of their lives and they may be faced with these memories and either get stuck in euphoric recall or remember the hurt and pain associated with those times,” says addiction expert Sheryl Rahme.

“At this time of year, I do think that addicts get caught up in the festive vibe and want to feel ‘normal’ and ‘part of’. Our society equates alcohol with relaxing, socialising, connecting and having fun. It is easy to feel lonely in a group of people. People in early recovery might use this and come up with poor excuses to stop working on their recovery such as ‘I want to take a break’, ‘no-one will know if I have just one’, ‘I can take a break from meetings and pick it up again in January’ or ‘my sponsor is probably busy, I shouldn’t worry her’,” says Rahme who is the Founder and Director of Changes Addiction Rehab in Northcliff.

“We say here that recovery doesn’t take a vacation or break – did we take a break from using or drinking in December?” she says.

Many people fall prey to rationalisations about the benefits of using, that can overshadow all the terrible consequences you have experienced, which is a common feature of addiction. These can include:

  • A drink will help me to relax
  • I deserve a reward for staying sober this long
  • How else am I supposed to have fun?
  • I’m sure I can take a break from recovery and start again in January

Rahme says that this time of year also brings up difficult feelings of inadequacy such as feeling like they haven’t achieved what they ought to have achieved by this age or that they haven’t met their goals or dreams. Many people compare their lives to the lives of others at this time and it can leave them feeling disappointed and unhappy with themselves.

“We need to change perceptions about what the holiday period is and address all the different emotions attached to it,” she says.

But there are a number of very practical ways to ensure that your recovery doesn’t suffer in the festive season.

Here are 10 tips to keep you safe over this period that can help you enter the new year with your recovery intact.

Top 10 Tips to Stay Sober

1. Be aware of potential triggers

The ‘silly season’ comes with potentially powerful triggers. When exposed to a trigger it can cause automatic thoughts and cravings that gain momentum with rationalisations and eventually lead to a relapse on drugs or alcohol.

There are some common triggers as well as some that are particular to each individual. A popular acronym used in recovery circles is HALTS. H – hunger. A – anger. L – loneliness. T – tiredness. S – sickness. These five situations can trigger thoughts of using and cravings. It’s important to eat regularly, get enough sleep, ensure you stay connected to others, deal with anger appropriately and take care of yourself if you start to feel sick. This will go a very long way in keeping your recovery on track.

There are myriad other triggers that only you can identify. But it is important that you know what your particular triggers are and do your best to avoid them. For example, don’t buy cigarettes at the bottle store or spend time with friends who you used to drink or use with.

2. Keep a recovery routine

Your addiction never took a break over the holiday season so why should your recovery? Keep your recovery routine in place over the festive season. Continue to go to your usual 12 step meetings and if you go away research meetings at your holiday destination. If there are no meetings there join online meetings regularly.

Continue with all the other recovery activities you have become accustomed to including daily meditation, stepwork, checking in with your sponsor and reading recovery literature or whatever else that has become part of your daily practice.

“Keep to your routine. Keep your days as normal as possible and reach out to the fellowship as well as partake in fellowship activities. And live just for today. Stay focussed on the present. Use your recovery resources such as your sponsor, your previous addiction treatment centre and other support groups,” says Rahme.

3. Connect with other people in recovery

“Surround yourself with healthy, sober-minded and supportive people,” says Rahme.

One of the best ways to safeguard your recovery is to keep connected to other people in recovery. If you are concerned about being triggered at a particular event, take a sober friend with you. A recovery friend will be able to understand what you are going through and will be best able to support you.

If you can’t take a recovery friend along with you then have a list of sober people to call in case of an emergency. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call these people. There is a lot of support in the recovery space and all you have to do is ask for it.

4. Have an exit plan

For any situation you find yourself in these holidays, have a well thought out exit plan. If you are going to a get together, make sure you park somewhere where it will be easy for you to leave quickly. If you don’t have your own transport then arrange transport so that you are able to leave when you want to.

If you think you will be pressured to stay by others at the event, then do not tell them when you are leaving and send them a message afterwards to say goodbye. It is important that you are able to leave a situation if you are triggered in any way.

5. Don’t drink zero alcohol drinks

It may be tempting to drink zero alcohol drinks in order to fit in or feel ‘normal’. However, these drinks are incredibly dangerous for people with an addiction. They taste like real alcohol and can serve as powerful triggers to your brain which interprets them as if they are alcoholic drinks. Your brain may then start to crave real alcohol and this can lead to an unintentional relapse on drugs or alcohol.

“I say to my clients: Non-alcoholic beers are for ‘non-alcoholics’. They do contain a very small amount of alcohol and are still sold in the alcohol section. Denial strategies addicts use include that they ‘miss the taste of beer or cider or wine’. This is rubbish. They miss the effect, not the taste,” says Rahme.

“When our brain tastes the hops taste in a non-alcoholic beer it is just going to ask for the real thing. A lot of people relapse on drugs or alcohol this way because it doesn’t taste like cooldrink, it tastes like alcohol.”

6. Talk and communicate

One thing we learn in recovery is to talk about what’s going on for us. This includes our feelings and thoughts and, especially, if we have thoughts of using or are experiencing cravings.

This should continue during the holiday period. Sharing our difficulties is a very healthy way we protect our recovery. Often the thoughts and plans to use or drink die on exposure. However, if you keep these thoughts secret you are more likely to act on them.

Communicate with a trusted family member, your sponsor or other friends in recovery.

7. Try something new

A trigger faced by many, especially once the business of the year slows down over the festive season, is boredom. Keep busy to avoid boredom and try new and exciting activities to keep things interesting. Of course, it is important to choose activities that you can enjoy sober such as bowling, a moonlit walk along the beach or watching a play at the theatre. You could also take a class or sign up for a workshop – find out what is available in your area.

8. Ask for family to have sober events

This might seem controversial but if your family is willing to sacrifice alcohol temporarily, it is encouraged. Having sober events is a very helpful way of keeping you safe over the festive season.

“By finding it essential to drink during this time, you’re showing your addicted loved, or are implying, that fun and relaxation are synonymous with alcohol. That’s the message they get – that they will never be able to have fun or relax again. This is untrue. We learn in addiction treatment or in the recovery spaces that you can have fun and relax in many different healthier ways,” says Rahme.

9. If all else fails, stay at home

If it seems too overwhelming or you are concerned that the family event or holiday will put your recovery in danger – stay at home. This might seem difficult especially if you don’t want to disappoint your family, but if they support your recovery, they will understand the choices you make to keep yourself safe. There is always next December or future events or holidays that you can partake in, when you have been in recovery for longer and you feel stronger.

10. Be kind to yourself

This is probably the most important piece of advice. We can be very hard on ourselves, especially if we are still living in shame of our behaviour while using or drinking or if our friends and family are still hurt because of the pain we have caused. It is important to remember that, although we have to take responsibility for our past actions, we have a brain disease and we are doing everything we can to get better and strengthen our recovery.

Be kind to yourself and pat yourself on the back for how far you have come. Be proud of your recovery because it is never an easy process and requires constant work and attention.

“My first Christmas sober was really hard in the beginning. On the day I ended up donating blood and I went and volunteered at a soup kitchen. It ended up being one of the best Christmas’ I’ve ever had – simply because it wasn’t about me,” recalls Rahme.

“It was a Christmas that was free of the unrealistic expectations to have a big impressive party and have the most fun. It’s difficult for people to think of Christmas or New Years’ Eve as just another day or that it’s okay to create new experiences or memories for yourself. In recovery circles we learn to make new associations with new people and fin new things to do. The festive season is a good time to put that into play. I encourage you to make a new tradition based on your new and healthy way of life.”