I hate the holidays. I know that seems like a strong statement, but — even at nearly six years sober — I still find the holidays incredibly challenging. It’s a time loaded with expectations, increased tensions in relationships, competing priorities, stress, and good old family dynamics. As if that isn’t enough, we can start to feel sensory overload in every direction: sounds, crowds of people, flashing lights, food everywhere. Conscious of my limitations and sensitive nature, I just want to crawl into a ball and hibernate at this time of year.
That said — like anything in recovery — we can absolutely keep sane and stay sober. Sobriety gives us the ability to know our limitations and make room for the extra stress and demands placed on us during the holiday season.
It wasn’t always this way for me. I used to be the life and soul of the party. I would relish this time of year — when I used to drink that is!
I loved the holiday season: the festive cheer, the full social calendar, the holiday markets, the warm embrace of family, the gift giving, mulled wine, and the sense of merriment. Except, in reality, I was only happy about the justified reason to get drunk all the time. I relished in it so much that that I RSVP’d to every possible event. November and December months were always a haze of drunkenness and excess. I sort of floated through the holidays in a sea of wine. I recalled very little of this so-called memorable time of year. My family and friends remembered though, and they loved to remind me of my drunken behavior—much to my shame and dismay.
As we know, getting sober has little to do with stopping drinking — rather, sobriety lifts the lid on why we sought to obliterate our reality on a daily basis. An inherent aspect of recovery is revelation — often referred to as the layers of an onion. And I had a number of revelations.
Perhaps most surprising was realizing that I am actually an introvert — which explained why I found social activities (of more than a few hours) emotionally and physically draining. I revealed my need for regular down time and a safe and quiet space to relax.
The next revelation was the reality of how rife codependency was within my family and interpersonal relationships. There is an expectation that we keep our familial roles into adulthood — such as my being in need of others’ help, and seen as vulnerable — any change to that dynamic caused friction. It has taken a number of years to recover from co-dependency and I finally understand that I did not need others approval, I can absolutely tell a family member that my weight isn’t a standing agenda item, and I didn’t have to succumb to family demands to make others happy—especially at the expense of my happiness. Implementing boundaries and being confident that I can make choices based upon what felt right for me, was life-changing.
Over the last five years of recovery, I became acutely aware that I find holidays a difficult time of year. And that was perfectly okay. We can all acknowledge that holidays come with added pressure of attending social and family events, the need to enter into crowds of people—and endless lines—to buy presents, and general feelings of stress.
This level of awareness underlines the importance of listening to what my body needs and my limitations during the holiday period. With that in mind, here are my top tips to stay sane and sober during this stressful time of year:
1. Build in more down time. That means finding relaxing activities, like restorative yoga, candlelit baths, reading a book, lounging on the sofa, cooking your favorite meal—whatever you find restores you.
2. Mindfulness. Taking the time to be present, practice mindful meditation, and tune-in to your body and environment, is essential in being able to listen to what your body needs. I often find that I will crave high carbohydrate foods, or acting out in some other way, when I feel stressed. When I take the time to tune-in, I realize I am overtired and need some restorative activities.
3. Nourish your body with food that is high in nutrients—that supports your immune system and provides a sustained level of energy. That looks like reduced sugar, limited caffeine, and lots of fruits, vegetables and whole foods. I make these interesting by looking up tasty stews, soups, and one-pot meals that excite my taste buds.
4. Nourish your mind by journaling difficult feelings and emotions. There is something so powerful about putting pen to paper—it is like an immediate brain dump which clears your mind of stress and worry.
5. Practice activities that expel stress: I go to the gym four times a week, I cycle most days, I walk, and I practice yoga. Each of these activities help the body process any excess of the stress hormone, cortisol. I feel much calmer and more energized after exercise due to the natural feel-good endorphins that it produces.
6. Strengthen your recovery support network. Whether you go to meetings, or yoga is your recovery, I find it more therapeutic to increase these meetings/ activities during stressful times.
7. Express your boundaries. If something doesn’t feel right, if I feel overwhelmed or tired, I feel confident in saying no, or declining invites. It is natural to feel like we are letting others down, but when that is a motivation to say yes—as opposed to wanting to go to an event—then we abandon ourselves in that process and ignore our needs.
8. Feel comfortable telling others that you are in recovery. Or, if you don’t want to, know that you can leave an event if you start to feel uncomfortable being around drunk people—that is absolutely okay.
9. Enjoy anything you do commit to. If you want a slice of cake, have it and enjoy it. But seeing the holiday as an opportunity to overeat and indulge to excess will only ever make you feel worse. See it as an opportunity to enjoy a treat here and there, guilt-free.
10. Try and be of service. If I have the capacity, I will be of service to my family, or a charity during the holidays. Whether that is giving to those less fortunate, working in a soup kitchen on a wintery evening, or helping out cooking the family meals, the act of selfless giving will help you focus on others. It has also been proven to improve mood and make you feel good. Bonus!
I think what is most important, though, is to not have high expectations of ourselves. So often we compare ourselves to how we used to be, and have this distorted memory of this time of year of one of ease and merriment. If, however, we really challenge it, the truth is that we were anesthetized. And life without our trusted friend, alcohol, can be challenging but it isn’t impossible. If you make time for yourself, and your needs, you absolutely can stay sane and sober at this time of year.
Writer and wellness advocate, Olivia Pennelle believes in a fluid and holistic approach to recovery. Her website, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery.