My First Sober Holiday

How three leading women in the recovery community handled their first holiday season sober.

Holidays aren’t always picture perfect, with families sitting around the dinner table, laughing and joyful. This is especially true of families in recovery, as the effects of addiction weave throughout the family unit: Dysfunction, codependency, stress, and burnout are common themes among recovering families. This scenario can be especially challenging for anyone in recovery to navigate, but particularly so for those in early recovery who are less practiced.

It is possible, however, to get through a Holiday, maintain your recovery, and keep your sanity. Who knows — you might even enjoy yourself!

I spoke to three leaders in our recovery community about how they handled their first Holiday season and what key lessons they learned. They also shared their top tips for someone newly in recovery, about to experience their first Holiday season and how to protect their sobriety.

But first, a little bit about these amazing women and their achievements serving our community.

Lisa Mclaughlin

Lisa McLaughlin, who is in long-term recovery, is the founder and Co-CEO of Workit Health, where she leads a team offering an innovative and digital approach to addiction care. Lisa has held several leadership positions, mentors women in recovery, and has served as an innovation fellow at the University of Michigan’s School of Information. She is one of the most inspiring leaders I know in the recovery community, providing innovative and accessible addiction care.

Dr. Jamie Marich

Jamie Marich, Ph.D., is in long-term recovery and has significant expertise in the fields of trauma, recovery, yoga, expressive arts therapies, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), and mindfulness. What I respect and adore most about Jamie is her passion, expressive nature, and empathy. She creates freedom for people by providing a fluid and creative approach to what is often heavy emotional work. Jamie travels internationally speaking in her fields of expertise, while maintaining a private practice in her home base of Warren, OH. She is the developer of the Dancing Mindfulness practice. Jamie is the author of five books, including the popular EMDR Made Simple and EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma Focused Care, as well as Process Not Perfection: Expressive Arts Solutions for Trauma Recovery.

Mariel Hufnagel

Mariel is in long-term recovery and is well-known for her advocacy and incredible leadership at the Ammon Foundation. She has battled substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, and bulimia nervosa. What is evident in Mariel’s work is her passion for mental health, addiction, and criminal justice reform. She believes in health equity, person-centered systems of care, and the importance of a full continuum of care for addiction that includes, importantly, recovery support services. Mariel holds a Master’s in Public Administration degree. She has worked as an advocacy organizer with the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, and as a chapter manager for Young People in Recovery. In addition to her role as the executive director of the Ammon Foundation, Mariel sits on numerous boards and coalitions. Her work has been recognized through prestigious awards both nationally and locally. What I admire most about Mariel is her tireless commitment to improving the lives of people in recovery through education.

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The main challenges faced during their first Holiday season in recovery

Most challenging for Lisa during her first Holiday season was people who were intoxicated and feeling guilty for their behavior. She recalls: “Definitely the buzzed people apologizing to me for being triggering while slurring and making mock gestures to ‘hide’ the bar from me.”

For Jamie, her first Holiday season wasn’t the most challenging — that came later in recovery. She says, “No one particular thing was challenging about the first one. Years three to four were actually harder.”

And for Mariel, her challenges weren’t limited to recovery from addiction. I think she speaks for a lot of us in recovery, who also have experienced eating disorders. She explains:

“Being in recovery from not only alcohol and drug addiction, but additionally an eating disorder, brought on a whole slew of challenges at my first Holiday sober. For me I didn’t find food or alcohol itself ‘triggering’ per se, but the excess around alcohol and food was really overwhelming for me.”

She continues, “I also found that navigating my family dynamic particularly challenging. Honestly, I was a little unprepared for my first Holiday sober. Luckily, I had a strong network of peers in place who were not only a safe place to share my thoughts and feelings, but also held me accountable to doing things I needed to do for my recovery.”

Key lessons in navigating your first Holiday season

Recovery is the great revealer: It helps us uncover why we used drugs and alcohol — for instance, as a balm for our social anxiety — as well as unnoticed behavioral issues and a lack of coping strategies or boundaries.

Lisa explains, “I learned that I had been medicating my social anxiety a ton with using.” However, she realized that stopping drinking didn’t mean she was lacking in experiences: “I wasn’t missing out on quite as many deep artistic uninhibited convos. Mostly dumb stuff was said by many after 10 p.m. I drank warm cider and felt grateful I wasn’t ‘accidentally’ vomiting anywhere.”

For Jamie, she learned that letting go of expectations was key: “I find that not getting swept up by what society expects a Holiday to be or look like is critical. This can include setting boundaries with families about the need to make a Holiday one’s own. As my first sponsor told me: ‘At the end of the day, it’s just one more day you are being asked to stay sober.’ So, sticking to your regular, daily wellness practices is critical.”

Mariel recounts a crucial lesson that we learn in recovery: There’s something empowering about walking through any challenge we face. She says, “I think every time I walk through something that is difficult or uncomfortable, I come out on the other side better — more confident in myself and more aware about myself and others. I think my first Holiday sober really helped define that for me recovery was about so much more than abstinence, but really about assimilating back into the real world — including challenging ‘people, places and/or things.’ This in turn gave me confidence and courage.”

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Top tips for navigating your first Holiday season in recovery

Having a plan is central to any strategy for navigating the Holidays, whether you are new to recovery or 17 years down the road. When you value your recovery as a precious gift, you are more likely to protect it.

For Lisa, it’s about support networks: “Get support via text from a person in recovery, a Facebook group, some sober tweeps. We’re everywhere!” She also recommends, “Drive separately, always.” And, lastly, “Don’t host boozy family parties where people are going to leave alcohol at your house.”

Jamie echoes the same advice on driving: “I parked where I could easily get out and leave if I had to. Seventeen years later I still do this!” She also reminds us that recovery support should be constant throughout the year: “The importance of daily recovery practice no matter the day or the expectations will not fail me. That is the biggest lesson I learned, and that I can trust myself as long as I practice what works.”

Mariel reminds us that our well-being is paramount, and not to overextend ourselves. “Self-care, self-care, self-care!” she says. “If you feel comfortable, it may be helpful to be honest with people about your newfound sober lifestyle — this way people are aware that you won’t be drinking or partying, so it might limit your exposure. Make sure that you are scheduling time to unwind and engage in activities that enhance your recovery. Don’t spread yourself too thin — you don’t need to be at every party, gathering or event. If you are going to something that you anticipate being particularly difficult, bring someone sober with you! Or bookend it with other obligations — this gives you an “excuse” to arrive/leave at certain times. And always remember, ‘No’ Is a complete sentence.”

Located near Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and recovery advocate. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to providing the ingredients to help people thrive in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts, online publications, and blogs including STAT News, The Fix, Grok Nation, Business Insider, Ravishly, Workit Health, Faces & Voices of Recovery. She also co-hosts the popular podcast Breaking Free: Your Recovery. Your Way.

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Last Updated on July 28, 2020

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