The most ‘wonderful’ time of year can be the most difficult for those in addiction recovery. In fact, excessive holiday alcohol consumption can even be harmful to those not suffering from substance use disorders.
If the words “I need a drink,” have crossed your mind… please keep reading.
Our Brains on Alcohol
Whether you battle a substance use disorder or not, alcohol’s effects on the brain are profound. Those holiday cocktails move fast to the brain, causing immediate cell damage. To boot, the chemical and physical changes brought on by alcohol actually make it difficult to stop drinking. When our brain is fed alcohol, it continues to think that it wants yet another round
Over time, continued alcohol consumption can cause chronic brain problems, some severe, like Wernicke’s disease, with symptoms including confusion and difficulty controlling gait and eye movement. Left untreated, alcohol use can cause Korsakoff’s syndrome, an irreversible disease marked by memory loss and the creation of false memories.
Despite these alarming possibilities, it’s still very hard to stop drinking. Drinking is publicly accepted, it’s everywhere, it’s legal. And, during the holidays, in many circles, it’s actually expected. This time of year accounts for some of the highest incidents of binge drinking and related public health problems.
But, with the right encouragement, understanding, and patience, sobriety can be achieved over the holidays.
Tips For Maintaining Sobriety During the Holidays
- Sobriety is Job 1. Forget cooking, shopping, and office parties. Your sobriety is your top priority. If you are feeling stressed this time of year, attend more recovery meetings. If you are traveling, know where and when those meetings are and add them to your travel plans.
- Plan Healthy. The holidays are a busy time, so be diligent about scheduling exercise, meditation, and other self-care activities. You need these the most during a stressful season.
- Take the short view. Thinking about staying sober for the whole month of December can be overwhelming. But, simply focusing on sobriety TODAY will help you get to the next day.
- Know when it’s time to go… and say no. It’s perfectly acceptable to leave holiday events early or avoid gatherings you know will be difficult. It’s OK to say, “I have to leave for another event,” or “Thank you, but I have to be up early tomorrow morning.”
- Recruit back-up. Before the holidays begin, connect with your recovery friends and attend social events together. Or, come to an agreement that it’s OK to text/call during stressful situations.
- Find a Trusted Wingman/Woman. Tell allies — trusted family and friends — what is happening. Explain what situations are most challenging for you. Share your sobriety plan with them. And always, ask for their understanding and support.
How to Gift Support to Those in Recovery During the Holidays:
- Be patient and gentle. It’s the small things that make the biggest difference. Give them a shoulder squeeze if they look like they need a boost; interrupt a confrontational conversation; quietly place a soda in their hand so they can avoid the bar; make them feel included; and give them permission to leave early or opt-out of events.
- Don’t make a big deal. Don’t draw attention to your friend’s sobriety. Aim for subtle support.
And, if you don’t want to take my medical word for it that holiday sobriety can be done, ask our Gateway Alumni. They tell us that their sobriety transforms a traditionally-difficult season into a time of deeper joy and gratitude. That their new sober path offers up new opportunities for authentic communication and enriched relationships.
Here is to you this holiday season. May it continue to be happy and healthy.
Roueen Rafeyan is the Chief Medical Officer at Gateway, the country’s largest, nonprofit treatment provider specializing in substance use disorder prevention and treatment.