I stopped drinking in June of 1997. I went to AA and counted days off of alcohol. As I endured a roller-coaster of emotions day to day, sometimes hour to hour, I pretended to (and sometimes, genuinely did) enjoy my first sober summer New York City. As the hot days transitioned into cooler ones, and as I was safely past my first 90 days sober and experiencing my first sober everything, I prepared for my first holiday season – and potentially visiting my family – without my buffer and crutch, alcohol. I say “prepared for” because at the time, I wasn’t sure what I would do when the time came to fly home to visit my family.
As many are, my family is complicated. I am the oldest of 5 children. So at the time, I wanted to get down to my hometown to visit my siblings because Christmas was still quite “fun” with family gatherings and the younger family members still excited by the Christmas morning surprises. However, my family is much divided, and in spite of my excitement to see everyone, I didn’t have to think too far ahead to anticipate the feeling of dread when faced with the reality of the drama of my large, broken family.
"Alcoholism is a three-fold illness: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve," so the saying goes in AA. Sometimes I roll my eyes at it. How dramatic to attribute so much negative discussion to these beautiful annual traditions. But sometimes I acknowledge just how difficult this time of year can be. That even though I relish the moment that Pumpkin Spice Lattes reappear in the Starbucks menu, and the evenings that I pass the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree when I leave my office, when I take an honest appraisal of my experience in the days leading up to, and celebrating these auspicious holidays, I know that sadness and anxiety creep in when I think of unmet family expectations, addicted family members who turn up in frighteningly bad shape, and the knowledge that one or both parents are sad that our family is divided and not the perfect picture we thought we should be.
When I set out for my first sober holiday trip home, I did so with hopeful, helpful preparation. For me, I had the relationship with my sponsor as well as meetings from which to draw support. Some recovering people might not go to AA but have therapists, trusted clergy people or friends with whom they can discuss anxious feelings or the idea of coming up with a Plan B if the family visit becomes too much. Here are some of the suggestions I took both at my first sober holiday with my family, and in the years after:
1. Have phone numbers of trusted people to call.
In my early years we didn’t have cellphones from which we could text or call a safe person right away. Nonetheless, I kept a list of phone numbers of people who said I could call them if I felt anxious or like I wanted to drink. And I did. And it helped me tremendously! Sometimes just the sound of a friendly, familiar person’s voice calmed me to the extent that I could return to the dinner table where the crazy conversations were happening.
2. Rent a car, or make sure to have your own transportation.
There is nothing worse than feeling trapped at the family home or at the Holiday Party that’s gotten out of control with no means of getting away. I try to always have my own means of transportation when I’m visiting family anyway.
3. Stay in a hotel, or with friends.
I have a good friend who always had “my room” ready for me at her house, which wasn’t too far from my parents’. Sometimes I could afford a hotel, which was luxurious! It was kind of fun acting like a tourist in my own hometown. Other times I couldn’t afford the plane fare, rental car, and a hotel, so I allowed my friend to house me.
Trust me, being able to stay on my own, away from my family, gave me the greatest peace during otherwise emotionally wrought visits home. There might be times when your family “insists” that you stay with them, but I’ve given them excuses such as needing a quiet place to be able to do work, having an allergy to a family pet, or even needing to catch up on my sleep - so that I don’t have to tell them that staying with them breaks my sanity into little pieces.
4. Keep a journal.
Sometimes it helps me to be able to sneak off and just write out how I’m feeling. It’s a simple act but it has given me moments of solace when my mind races with wild emotion. Going off by myself to do a little writing is not a grand gesture, but it gives pause - however small it may be - during my time with the family.
5. Find a way to do service.
If I remember correctly, during my first Christmas vacation to see my family in sobriety, I cried a lot. I felt a lot of responsibility in keeping my family happy and often times, I just broke down and cried. I went to Midnight Mass that year. I cried - Mass was in my childhood church, filled with bittersweet memories - but while there I discovered I could assist the elderly celebrants during services. Being with others took away the sad feelings that were overcoming me. I was making new memories in that church. In late years, I volunteered on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve and Day. I found many organizations outside of my church which gave opportunities to help others during the holidays. Not only did I feel a new usefulness when I volunteered, I met new, really cool people who were there doing the same thing!
6. Try to remember that you’re not alone.
You’re not. You may experience loneliness or extremely difficult feelings which you once drank over. Holidays with or without the family can be difficult. The days and the feelings will pass. Call a friend, a sponsor, anyone you trust to speak to. You may even need to call a hotline. That is okay. I felt incredibly lonely in my early recovery, and I called those lines.
Over the years I’ve learned new, better ways to cope with my feelings during the holidays. I’ll tell you a little secret: this year, I’m not going home at all. I’m staying in New York and doing some of the things I mentioned above. I’ll volunteer. I’ll meet friends for dinner. I’ll go to a meeting. I have learned to take care of myself in ways I didn’t know were possible, but my learning started out slowly. Many things change if we give them time, ask for help, and try to be gentle and considerate of ourselves.
If this is your first sober holiday with family, I wish you well. My hope is that we all continue to grow and gain strength from each sober experience. For me, each experience has provided a bit more new perspective to be able to take on the next. We have come this far sober, and we can continue to do it. Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year to all.