“Encouragement for the Holidays” written and read by Jean McCarthy for UnPickled Blog Dec 2021

Well hello, friends! I’m checking in to see how you are feeling about the holidays the year.

My life has been swimming merrily along, as I take sobriety in stride and live life to the fullest. Most of my energy has been directed to book projects (stay tuned for news about two new books in the UnPickled series!) and The Bubble Hour podcast, although I took a break from everything over the past six months. I’m feeling a bit sheepish as I return, as if I went out for milk and did not come back, but it just felt so good to fully engage in my own life.

It feels important to make time for a holiday check in, though, because this can be a difficult time of year for people in any stage of recovery. Those in the first year of sobriety may have several months under their belts yet aren’t prepared for how the extra demands of family gatherings, financial pressures, social expectations and other stresses might disrupt their patterns and invite a wobble. A few years into recovery, we have a better idea of how to manage these extra challenges. Still, sobriety doesn’t excuse us from life’s ups and downs, so some years are better than others.

I’ve noticed that the same message resonates differently for me from year to year.

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An insight that felt profound and powerful at one stage of my recovery might barely give me pause a year or two later, perhaps because I’ve incorporated the idea into my mindset, or grown past it, or tried it and realized it wasn’t for me. Have you had this experience?

Meanwhile, other ideas that seem irrelevant initially can hit home down the road. Brene Brown notes how a “shame identity” can keep us from engaging with certain concepts. For example, I always refused to consider dealing with symptoms of anxiety, even when two different doctors suggested it directly. I insisted that I was stressed, not anxious, and felt there was an important distinction (stress was for the strong and anxiety was for the weak). Also, I believed that being uptight, hyperaware, guarded, and reactive was working for me. I got a lot done and received a lot of accolades for all I achieved. I saw anxiety as shameful, so I pushed the concept away and reframed my symptoms as positives. A decade later, with a little therapy and sober time, I was able to shift my perspective and acknowledging anxiety was a huge relief.

So go ahead and read my list of holiday survival tips below, even if you’ve heard them before. You’re in a different place and so are the people around you. An old idea may land in a new way.

HOLIDAY TIP #1 – You don’t have to go. Please consider this. The world will not end if you decline an invitation, even if someone you love is disappointed with your decision.

HOLIDAY TIP #2 – Sobriety does not obligate you to be a designated driver for all the drinkers. It’s nice to be able to leave when you’re ready, so be in charge of your own transportation. If you are attending with a partner or friend, have a conversation about this ahead of time and work out the details (perhaps you can arrive together but leave separately).

HOLIDAY TIP #3 – Bring your own drinks. If you are very lucky, the host may be one of those super considerate people who offer a gorgeous array of non-alcoholic options for the non-drinkers, but don’t count on it. Tuck a few cans of sparkling water or the beverage of your choice in a tote, just in case. There is nothing worse than being handed a sippy box from the kids’ table because no one thought to provide options.

HOLIDAY TIP #4 – Bring some protein. There is rarely a shortage of food at holiday gatherings, but festive offerings can be heavy on the sweets. Alcohol cravings can be negated by eating something sugary and pleasurable, but protein works even better as it helps stabilize blood glucose. Tuck a small bag of trail mix in your pocket or bag, just in case the buffet doesn’t have suitable snacks.

HOLIDAY TIP #5 – Bring along some support, real or digital. Will there be people at the event who are aware of, and supportive of, your efforts to be sober? Someone who will scoot you out of an awkward moment, bring you a refill of your drink of choice, or give you a wink when you need it? If not, can you bring a companion who will fill the role? If you are in it on your own, be sure to engage online support or a friend to text if you need encouragement. Let them know ahead of time that you are going to be at a party and that you’ll check in to let them know how it’s going.

HOLIDAY TIP #6 – Keep your expectations in check. Commenters right here in the early days of this blog introduced me to an old recovery gem: expectations are resentments waiting to happen. Do you have expectations of the evening? That your family will behave perfectly, or that a certain relative will be critical, or that the special occasion might evoke some magical element of happiness? Are you rigid about traditions? Expectations can appear in the opposing cloaks. Anticipation feels hopeful and positive, dread feels gloomy and negative; both are expectations in disguise. It is okay to feel these things, as long as you are aware of them and understand how they might play a role in negative feelings if things don’t go as you thought.

HOLIDAY TIP #7 – Take breaks. If you feel overwhelmed, find a quiet spot away from the crowd. You might visit a restroom and run your hands under cool water, or step outside and breath in the fresh air. Some like to pop into the kitchen and wash a few dishes, others favor crashing the kids’ party for a hand of Uno or to watch a few minutes of <a href=”http://<a target=”_blank” href=”https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00J2PF4ZU/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=B00J2PF4ZU&linkCode=as2&tag=unpickled04-20&linkId=dbea6399091ec84f2a3b5ac579042369″>Frozen (2013)Frozen.

HOLIDAY TIP #8 – Have a reward waiting at home. Before you go out to an event, leave a little prize or reward to celebrate returning home sober. Knowing that a fragrant bath bomb and a pair of cozy pajamas await you at home can be a comforting thought as you maneuver an evening out. A special ice cream treat in the freezer, or a few episodes of your favorite show. Whatever you might enjoy the thought of returning to, prepare that for yourself. Walking into a dark house can feel a bit deflating after a party, especially if you left feeling uncomfortable. Looking forward to that lovely treat will make it easier to leave when you need to, and returning home becomes a mini-celebration of your success.

HOLIDAY TIP #9 – If you are involved in hosting duties, don’t handle alcohol. Once I was washing dishes after a party and a tray of empty wine glasses was brought in for rinsing. Several of them still had wine in them, and the smell was strong. I was taken aback, and hadn’t considered how this might affect me. On a good day, it might be no big deal. But at the end of a party, when I was tired and unguarded, it left me feeling shaken and emotional. I dried my hands and asked my daughter-in-law to takeover. Alcohol can pop up and confront us the we don’t expect. If someone hands you a bottle alcohol and asks you to top up everyone’s glasses, you may manage the task just fine but why not save your energy for something else? If you have that support person with you, they’ll be there to take over for you. If not, delegate the job to someone else and help where you can. It is okay to politely set a boundary around handling alcohol.

HOLIDAY TIP #10 – Be sure to share your success! Let your recovery friends know how you are managing the holidays and share what worked for you. Find places to exchange ideas and experiences, either online or in person. Comment on this blog (anonymously if you like!) if you don’t have other places to engage with non-drinkers. It helps enormously to connect with people who understand and your experiences will help others more than you know (including me!).