family gathering around table for holiday meal

By Lizz Dinnigan

The holidays can be considerable triggers for people in recovery. Feelings of stress, loneliness and depression often feel more exaggerated during this time of year. Therefore, to maintain sobriety, it’s important to have a plan in place before attending a family celebration, office holiday party or even just an intimate get-together with friends. These gatherings can make staying sober more challenging than normal. It’s important to remember to go easy on yourself–only you know what approach works best for you, and you’re allowed to put your recovery above everything else. This may mean turning down invitations or slipping out early if you feel it may negatively impact your sobriety or state of mind.

It is highly recommended that you tote around a drink because empty hands can be an invitation for people to offer you a beverage or question why you’re abstaining. Seltzer with lime can easily be mistaken for an actual cocktail. You can even bring along your own fun non-alcoholic drinks. You can firmly but politely decline (figure out that strategy in advance so you’re not caught off-guard) and you can always sneak out (most guests would probably be too buzzed to notice). 

Here are helpful suggestions other alcoholics successfully use during the holidays.

Chris, Fairfield CT (2 years sober)

“We call it the ‘Bermuda Triangle of Holidays:’ Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. It’s about people, places and things. Certain people and places can trigger you. I was all about holiday spirit and cheer for 25 years. It’s a tall order to ask someone not to go to Thanksgiving dinner with your family if they’re a trigger. But I go and bring the phone numbers of a group of guys I can call. I walk outside, take a break to make a call and remove myself from that energy. We call it ‘move a muscle, change a thought.’ For some reason, magic happens when an alcoholic talks to a sober alcoholic. You feel understood and seen in a healthy way. It’s being re-grounded with another sober brother. They remind you of all the reasons you’re not going to drink. It’s like when soldiers come back from war and have PTSD. Talking to other people who were in combat is when the real healing begins. You relate because you were in the trenches together. Who else can understand me but a real alcoholic? I always have a seltzer with lime in my hand. It’s a ritual; it’s the sound the ice makes when it hits the glass. I got my drink. I always have something in my hand that’s not alcoholic. Don’t let anyone fill up a drink for you. I’m in control of what goes into my glass.”

Mike, Whippany, NJ (2 years sober)

“I always let the people in my tribe know where I’m going. I always need to stay protected by my herd, my support system. I tell another alcoholic where I’m going to keep me accountable. I always make sure I have a plan in place if I need to step out. I go in with my eyes open and make sure I know ahead of time if there’s a backyard or park to escape to for a break. Any event I have, I make sure I have an exit strategy. It can be temporary (a walk around block) or permanent (go home).”

Dena, Keyport, NJ (4 years sober)

You will be a deer in the headlights when you encounter alcohol if you have no defense.  There are tools you learn to pack in your “toolbox.” You don’t feel as helpless when you have a plan of action and a way out. Bring your own car so if you’re tempted or uncomfortable, you can have an escape route and leave. In recovery, moments can always arise so you have to remain vigilant. It depends on what’s going on in the individual’s life at the moment. Reach out to your network of people who know you are going to a party with alcohol. It gives you people to touch base with throughout the day to hold yourself accountable.

Robin, Sayreville, NJ (36 years sober)

 “It’s suggested that first you be connected. Get involved in meetings with your home group so you can get close to people in your network. AA Alcathons (continuous meetings 24-7) take place throughout the holidays and can be found on When you call and tell them you’re struggling, someone from Monmouth or Middlesex counties can meet you. If it’s late, AA Night watch volunteers can help. It’s all free. I suggest you call your sponsor before you go to a holiday dinner or bring someone with you that also doesn’t drink or drug. Stay close to someone who is clean, sober and mentally sound. It helped me to stay busy in the kitchen; I ate, chatted and left to go to a meeting. Now I can hang out. You can always leave if you’re uncomfortable because things can get dicey. It’s important to remember that some alcoholics don’t have family they can turn to. Family members may not want the alcoholic at their home and will lock them out because they are no longer trusted. They can do a lot to hurt families: disruption, stealing, dysfunctionalism. The best thing for anyone in recovery is to help someone so they’re not thinking about themselves. Feed the homeless, volunteer at a food bank–help somebody else get through the day.”

Justin, NYC (18 months sober)

For me, there’s a lot of using in my family. I can see my family anytime, so there’s no need to risk my new-found freedom from active addiction. Your family is your family every single day of the year. What they may be able to do socially and celebration-wise is the same thing that will get me killed. Until you’re able to have a solid first step in any fellowship, you might not want to test the waters. Not to mention a lot of people’s families might not want them around during the holidays. A true surrender is needed, being that recovery is mostly a lifestyle. What may make this a hard time is that alcoholics have the kind of brains that say “I can do this.” Even though everything on this planet has shown me that I can’t, I will still believe I can. 

If you happen to relapse during the holidays, be sure to forgive yourself. Recovery is a process. For information about alcohol use disorder and how to get help, please visit:


According to AAA, two people can drink the same amount of alcohol, but their Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) can be different. Gender, body weight, drink strength and size, whether they have food in their stomach, and time spent drinking are all factors that affect a person’s BAC and level of impairment. It is illegal to drive with a BAC of .08 of higher.

Photo by Nicole Michalou

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