Alcohol Use Disorder: How to Stay Sober During the Holidays

October through January marks the holiday season, when it seems like there are almost weekly parties celebrating something. Unfortunately, that can be tricky for folks recovering from alcohol use disorder (AUD), because alcohol is such a common component of social events.

“Alcohol is part of the culture as far as celebrating goes,” says Elisa Hallerman PhD , the founder of Recovery Management Agency and author of Soulbriety: A Plan to Heal Your Trauma, Overcome Addiction, and Reconnect with Your Soul . Dr. Hallerman, who’s in her 20th year of sobriety, adds that some people still absentmindedly offer her a bottle of wine as a hostess gift during the holidays.

If you’re one of the roughly 14 million in the United States with an AUD, the stakes are high, and it can make holiday parties feel more like exhausting obstacle courses than joyful celebrations.

What to do? Have a plan for how you’ll navigate parties with booze (or whether to attend them at all), says Brian Couey, PsyD, the director of outpatient services at Betty Ford Center in San Diego. Having only vague ideas of how you’ll handle a party leaves room for disaster, says Couey.

Here are eight questions experts say people with AUD should ask themselves before RSVPing “yes” to any upcoming celebrations.

1. Is This an Event I Need to Attend?

If you’re in recovery, there are certain events that you should absolutely avoid no matter what. Fêtes featuring hard drinking, drug use, or overstimulation are obvious no-gos. “If you’re debating incessantly ‘Should I?’ or ‘Should I not?’ the answer is usually you should not,” says Hallerman. “And if you have anxiety about it until the minute you get into the car, don’t go,” she says.

If you’re still unsure, she suggests checking in with the host to find out what kind of party it will be and asking:

  • “Will alcohol be served?”
  • “Is it a sit-down gathering?”
  • “Can I choose where I sit?”

Also, be conscious of where you are on your recovery journey when considering attending a gathering. “We’re going to be triggered regardless of how long we’ve been sober,” Hallerman explains, “So, really checking in at any stage of recovery about where you are on your healing process [is critical].”

2. How Long Do I Need to Stay?

Figure out the amount of time you’ll need to network, socialize, watch a game, eat, or complete your appearance in earnest at a holiday event — and stick to that time frame, says Dr. Couey. “Any additional time someone spends beyond that increases the likelihood that they may drink when they did not intend to,” he adds.

When doing this, Hallerman says, she factors in what time she wants to be home and in bed. She adds that when you start accounting for getting changed, washing your face, brushing your teeth, and calming down before getting under the covers, an early exit becomes the obvious choice.

What’s more, the later the night gets, the more alcohol will likely have been consumed by people at the party. Coming and leaving early are your safest options, say Couey and Hallerman.

3. How Will I Handle Prying Questions?

Prepare yourself for uncomfortable questions: “Where have you been? Why aren’t you working? Were you in rehab? Are you not drinking? Remember when X happened?”

Don’t worry about being evasive if you choose not to share details about your sobriety. “I don’t think you have to be forthcoming about anything that’s private. I think there’s a big difference between secrecy and privacy, and [your sobriety] requires privacy,” she says.

Couey’s advice for handling the dreaded “Why aren’t you drinking?” question: Make whatever excuse you want. “Medication, I’m pregnant, I’m on a cleanse, I’m driving tonight — there are all kinds of things you can say,” says Couey.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Say 'I'm Not Drinking Tonight'

4. What Will I Have in My Hand?

Already having a nonalcoholic beverage in your hand can deter people from offering you an alcoholic drink. If you want to stay discreet and blend in, try club soda, a brown soda, or cranberry juice. But stick to plain glasses and try to avoid using wine glasses, highball glasses, or cocktailware, warns Hallerman. Even just holding one of these glasses can be very triggering because of the associations with drinking alcohol, and make it difficult to resist drinking.

Or if you prefer to skip the mocktail, bring your own water bottle and say you’re hydrating, suggests Hallerman.

5. Can I Bring a Sober Friend or Another Support Person to Make Things a Little More Comfortable for Me?

There’s strength in numbers, so use a buddy system when you can, says Hallerman. Attending with a sober friend can help you follow your plan and exit uncomfortable situations more quickly than if you go by yourself. You and your buddy could even come up with a hand signal or code word if you need to leave. For example, if you decide ahead of time to use the code word “lemonade” when you decide you want to leave, your sober friend will know to start saying goodbyes and grab your coats.

If you can’t find a sober buddy to attend every event with you, have support lined up virtually via text or a group chat, says Hallerman, who says that she has her own virtual support group nicknamed the “Board of Directors.”

Your virtual support group could include a sponsor (aka a guide or mentor who has also been through recovery and is no longer actively drinking alcohol), a therapist, a sibling, or a best friend.

Hallerman suggests letting your support team know where you are going, when you will be leaving, and then calling when you’re in the getaway car. Plus, if anything during the party trips you up, you can reach out to them in the moment and follow their instructions.

6. What Am I Going to Do if I Get Overwhelmed or Triggered?

If you’re feeling triggered at a party, ground yourself in the present, says Hallerman. Deep breathing is a good way to bring yourself into the present moment and clear your head. Before attending, review the event’s location and take note of the following:

  • Is there outdoor space where you can take some deep breaths if you need to?
  • Is there a safe place to go for a walk?
  • Is there a quiet space indoors where you can be by yourself and reset?

If you do get upset by something when you’re at the party, Hallerman says your goal is to circumvent these triggers, by leaving the party, for example, or opting not to process them that moment or day. You can process them with your clinical team, your sponsor, or your therapist at a later date when you’re in a safe, stable environment, she says.

7. What’s My Escape Plan if I Feel Uncomfortable?

If you feel the urge to drink at any holiday event, it’s best to leave altogether. One of the most important parts of an escape plan is bringing your own transportation and knowing that you can leave at any time, say Couey and Hallerman. Early in recovery, Hallerman says she never went anywhere without a car.

8. When and How Will I Check in With My Sober Community?

If you’re already in a 12-step program — programs that support recovery from substance use — double up on meetings during a busy social time like the holidays, Hallerman advises. There are 12-step meetings 24 hours a day during the holiday season, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, meetings are online, so you could join one from anywhere.

If a program like this is not part of your recovery, make sure to check in with your team and let them know what parties you have coming up and the specifics about those events so they can be available to help if needed.

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