The Holiday Struggle

When Sarah Hepola decided to stop drinking, she struggled around the holidays. As she told NPR, “In those first shaky months, I would stand at the party, piling my plate with cheese cubes and wondering what to say if someone asked why I wasn’t drinking, or worse, tried to twist my arm.” Hepola, the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, quit drinking at the age of 35 and, like many people in recovery, found the holidays to be particularly challenging.

In her interview, Sarah recalled how she used to celebrate the holidays with a steady stream of alcohol throughout the month of December. Getting sober left her wonder what she was supposed to do with her new life…without alcohol.


A big part of staying sober is to keep your mindset in the right place. Relapses start long before a person takes a sip of alcohol. By practicing good self-care, you help to ensure that you make it through the holidays with your sobriety intact. In the recovery community, a commonly used acronym is HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired), which are four words that can indicate that a person is neglecting their self-care. It is important to always try to address these and other needs before they lead to the negative mindset that invites a relapse.

Most importantly, before heading out to an event where temptation could be an issue, check in with yourself. Ask yourself the following:

  • Am I in a head space right now that can handle this event?
  • Have I been staying on top of my recovery plan?
  • Will I likely run into people I’d rather not see? If so, how will I respond to them?
  • Does my sponsor know I’m going to this event, and do they think I’m making a good choice?

Party Time

If you are like Hepola, facing the holidays with dread, you might appreciate some of the tips Jason Wahler, a reality TV star, shared in his HuffPost article, “Staying Sober for the Holidays: The Gift of Recovery”:

  • Take a sober companion. If you are not the only one refraining from drinking at an event, it is easier to say no.
  • Respond with humor. Wahler said that his joke of choice, when asked why he doesn’t drink, is to say that he is allergic. “I break out in handcuffs,” Wahler says.
  • Refuse to attend events that you don’t find meaningful or where you don’t feel you will be supported in your sobriety.
  • Recognize that sobriety is cooler and sexier than being out of control.
  • Turn to loved ones for support.

In addition to Wahler’s tips, the article goes on to share 14 other ways that people in recovery maintain their sobriety during the holidays, including:

  • Attending a recovery meeting right before the event, to strengthen your resolve to stay sober.
  • Keeping a non-alcoholic drink in your hand at all times. If you already have something to drink, you are less likely to be offered a drink, and you have an easy reason to decline offers that may come your way.
  • Being careful not to set down your drink and accidentally pick up another person’s alcoholic beverage.
  • Having a plan for how you will leave, if you don’t feel comfortable.
  • Having a support person on standby and reaching out to them via phone, if needed.

Just Not Ready

Maybe you’ve taken inventory of the situation and decided you are just not ready to jump into all of the social events this year. Good for you! Your recovery has to be your top priority and people who have your best interests at heart should recognize and support this. Even so, skipping out on events you’ve traditionally attended or missing opportunities to see people you would like to spend time with can lead you right back to loneliness, which is itself a relapse risk. What is a person to do in that case? Stay busy.

  • Go to a movie with someone else who isn’t attending this event.
  • Volunteer somewhere.
  • Throw your own sober gathering.
  • Stay home and bake some holiday goodies.
  • Get a jump start on your New Years’ resolution.

At Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA, we understand the delicate balance of holiday celebration and sobriety. We work with our guests to provide tools for maintaining sobriety on any occasion throughout the year and for years to come.

For more information about programs at Safe Harbor Recovery Center, addiction treatment center in Portsmouth, VA, contact us at (888) 932-2304. We are ready to help you make a new beginning.