How to Get Through the Holiday’s When You’re a Recovering Alcoholic

Doctor urges pre-New Year’s resolution: Stay sober
hand reject a bottle of beer

For recovering alcoholics, particularly those who quit drinking in the recent past, this festive time of the year can be a difficult one — and altering your usual holiday routine to encourage sobriety is definitely something to consider, says Jason Jerry, MD, staff physician at the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center at Cleveland Clinic’s Lutheran Hospital.

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“There’s no party so important that you should put your sobriety on the line,” Dr. Jerry says. “For some people, the thought of revising their schedule simply hasn’t occurred to them. They say, ‘Well, that makes sense, but I never considered doing that.’”

Know these 3 triggers

Dr. Jerry mentions three primary triggers to be aware of at this time of year that can lead to alcoholic cravings:

  • Contextual situations — whether people, places or events — that one links with drinking in the past. If there’s a particular holiday gathering that has been traditionally associated with high use of alcohol, perhaps you want to modify the tradition,” he says. “Perhaps forgo the Christmas party at work if, in the past, it’s been nothing but a thinly veiled excuse to drink.” This is especially important for the early recovering alcoholic, he adds.
  • Extremes of emotion such as anger, depression and anxiety. This also can lead to relapse, especially for early recovering alcoholics because they “may revert to the only coping mechanism they know — the bottle,” Dr. Jerry says. “The holidays are a time when emotions can get stirred up for a variety of reasons: for example, certain relatives that you only see at this time of year who can get under your skin. Approaching with caution and avoiding those situations that can lead to extreme swings of emotion are important.”
  • Imbibing even small amounts of alcohol. This can cause “priming,” which Dr. Jerry says “is basically just a fancy way of saying, if one is exposed to a small amount, this  can lead to a craving to consume more and more. You might want to stay away from that rum cake, or something that has lower amounts of alcohol.” If there’s eggnog on the drink table, make sure it’s not spiked, he adds, “or maybe it’s not a good idea to drink eggnog at all because it will act as a cue and potentially trigger a craving.”

Other tips for avoiding relapse

Stepping up your recovery group attendance instead of attending some of the parties on the calendar serves the salutary purpose of reinforcing a recovering alcoholic’s sobriety, Dr. Jerry says.

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“It is extremely important to go to more meetings – and not less. Get out there and immerse yourself as much as you can, and being among fellow recovering people. Reach out to your sponsor as much as possible,” he says.

Dr. Jerry begins to see the critical nature of such steps every year starting around Thanksgiving and continuing through the holiday weeks.

“The holidays are a trying time, and alcohol has been interwoven into their routine,” he says. “I had patients who found Thanksgiving to be a difficult day to navigate. They reached out to their sponsor and people they met in 12-step programs. Picking up the phone and reaching out to people who get it was extremely helpful and got them through the day clean and sober,” he says.

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