Advice / Guest blog posts / Life

A Queer’s Guide to Staying Sober during the Holidays

Mary BowersGuest author Mary Bowers is a writer and graphic designer living in Chicago with her wife and two kids. She stopped drinking in October of 2002 and knows exactly what it’s like to confront the wall of holiday booze. You can read other stuff she’s written at here.

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Sober Tips

PHOTO CREDIT: VILLAGEQ

Ah, the holidays – the season of hype, nostalgia, disappointment, expectations, guilt, comparison, and brotherly love. Possibly the most difficult time of year to stay sober. Your homophobic uncle lurks around, blasting fags one second, running his hand up your thigh the next. Your brother-in-law tells your son not to be a pussy. Your mom wonders if your friend might be going to see her own family this year?

Co-workers sip champagne at the office holiday party, cheeks ruddy, skin glowing like a crackling fire, easily flirting that will surely lead to satisfying sex, right after their sled ride home under fat snowflakes plopping on their eager lips.

Meanwhile, without our usual drink to soften the edges, our sweater pinches, fluorescent light magnifies the zits spread across our mouth like tiny marshmallows, our voice squeaks, we smell like fear and the HVAC’s roaring in our ears like the hot panting breath of a wolf.

You can stay sober through this season of endless parties. You can even thrive and emerge into the New Year a happier, more generous and fulfilled version of yourself!

All it takes is a few (dozen) simple tips.

Avoid HALTs

Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired: the four horseman of relapse. Don’t go anywhere hungry, not even to dinner parties.  Food might not be served for hours after your arrival, especially if the host realizes at 9 p.m. that she never turned on the oven in which the turkey is sitting. Maintain your body’s homeostasis; eat three meals a day, sleep eight hours and wear a coat and hat if it’s cold.

Set Boundaries

Determine in advance how long to stay at an event. Work this out with any person(s) you’re attending with. If the time is awkwardly short, let the host know in advance so that you don’t have to make a sneaky, embarrassed escape out the bathroom window. You’re an adult. You don’t need a reason or excuse to leave so don’t worry if people say, “What? Leaving already?”

Get a Buddy

Don’t isolate. Reach out for help. Appoint a sympathetic/sober friend to be on call. Bookend stressful events with calls to your buddy. If you’re triggered during the event, step outside and call your buddy. Be a buddy for someone else.

Create Games

Set specific goals for an event. Some examples: talk to three people, ask four people four questions each, introduce yourself to everyone wearing blue, reach out to the person in the room more awkward than you. Specific tasks distract your mind from its unrealistic ideal of successful mingling.

Help Out

Those who can, mingle. Those who can’t, wash dishes. If you can’t manage small talk but want to remain part of the event, making yourself useful is a win-win. Wash dishes, take out the trash, help the little kids or arthritic people cut their food, clear the table, fill the dishwasher, take coats, wipe up spills.

Sit By the Drunk

Find the loudest, most clueless drunk and park yourself for the best views of him/her barking, braying, dominating the conversation, devouring the crab dip, spilling, tripping, and stumbling into furniture. Your own sobriety will feel so sweet. If you can’t abide the shower of  boozy spittle from your favorite drunk, sit with another teetotaler.

Warning!

Avoid moderate drinkers lest you become obsessed with their barely-sipped glass of Chardonnay and when they’re gonna finish the damn thing already, and why they are letting top-shelf booze go to waste, and what the hell is wrong with them in general. You’ll get jealous and glare bitterly. They’ll wonder if you’re a psychopath.

Be Detached

People acting poorly at the party? Political argument break out? Drunk aunt got you cornered you in the laundry room ranting that no one knows the difference between occupational and physical therapy? If you’re a writer, it’s great material. Observe. Listen. Take notes.

It’s OK To Leave

To you, they’re emerald eyeballs of Sirens luring you to relapse. To everybody else, they’re bottles of beer. If the booze is sucking you in, by all means – make a quick exit. If possible, say goodbye and thank you to the host. You’ll feel much better about yourself in the morning if you don’t just flee.

Take Care of Yourself

Create rewards for surviving particularly stressful events: a fancy skin scrub, a tin of Illy, facial, massage, lipstick, ice cream cone. Alcohol is full of sugar, so you’ll be craving it if you’ve recently stopped drinking,. Carry chocolate to eat when you desire alcohol. Hit the gym, go for a walk, pick up an extra yoga class.

Escape

When the champagne fountains and pervy relatives overwhelm, check out for a while. Binge watch Queer as Folk, overdose on Temple Run, masturbate, sleep, eat Cheetos, sleep more, read mysteries, trashy magazines, gossip columns.

Be Kind

Create a whole new way of being during the holidays. Hold doors and elevators, punch floor buttons, let cars cut in front you, assist at the Ventra machine, give directions, give up your seat, offer quarters to people digging under their floor mats at a parking meter, wave the person with two items ahead of you at the checkout, offer rides, shovel the neighbor’s walk.

Be Creative

Give yourself the gift of a date. Forgo presents with your partner and use that money to hire babysitters if you need to or trade a babysitting evening with your neighbors. Throw a sober party. Make your own festive drinks: grapefruit Izze, Pom mixed with sparkling water, booze-less eggnog, mulled cider.

Volunteer

Focus on what you do have, not what you don’t. Be a secret Santa for a local family, volunteer at a soup kitchen, deliver Thanksgiving turkeys. Donate clothes, food, money, toys. Bring communion to those who are homebound. Give to Smile Train or Women for Afghan Women or any cause that touches you. Visit hospitals and nursing homes. Bring your kids along and explain the realities other families face.

Get Spiritual

Pray. Meditate. Journal. Tithe. Breathe. Attend temple, synagogue, church, mosque, favorite place of worship. Read spiritual books. Don’t know any? Try The Power of Now, When Things Fall Apart, Like A Thousand Suns. Each morning, list the things you’re grateful for.

Take on Projects

Use the time you would have spent passed out to paint the bathroom, organize your bills, put in the storm windows.  Scrubbing the toilet is a great distraction!  Gather up your kid’s overgrown clothes and donate them to a resale shop. Complete projects that create satisfaction. Set realistic goals and follow up with rewards.

Read

Let your mind be blown with great writing and ideas. Read fiction and nonfiction. Find out how other people live. My suggestions: The Shipping News, Beloved, A Fine Balance, A Man Without A Country, God Is Not Great, The White Tiger, Reading Like A Writer, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, Murder City, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, Diary of a Young Girl, Devil in the White City.

Seek Appropriate Help

If you struggle with your desire to stop drinking, attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, find a therapist, put yourself in a treatment program, research alcoholism, read recovery literature.

Hang in there! You’re giving yourself the most precious gift: the gift of yourself. It gets easier. No matter how desperate you may feel in the moment: this too shall pass. As it says in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness… We will comprehend the word serenity …That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. ”

It’s true! Happy Holidays!

BIO PHOTO CREDIT: MARY BOWERS

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15 Comments

  1. This is so great, a really important reminder of self-care during stressful times.

  2. Thanks so much for this, Mary. Great advice on staying sober and sane.

  3. I’m sharing all of your strategies with everyone I know who could use some help this season – sober or not! Thank you, Mary.

  4. Love the way you think about these challenges and the way you handle them, Mary. Excellent. Thank you.

  5. Helpful list, and I’m glad you’re giving space to this issue that affects so many people. This will be my first sober holiday season, and I’m at the point where I’m just excited to know that I don’t even have to go to a party if I don’t want to go. Even knowing I have the option or the ability to take care of myself has been news to me in early recovery (boundaries? What?) Turns out when I keep myself mostly surrounded by people who are interested in me not dying from the disease of alcoholism, everything else flows from there, and having the courage to leave if I freak out, or just…want to leave. Being of service is so important, and it turns out it’s what I want to do more often than not, which is also a big change. This year is all about low-key, and I’m thrilled. The people who matter understand. Sitting by the drunk can be someone else’s gig, as much penance as I should do for all the people who had to sit next to me. 🙂

  6. Great suggestions which can help all of us- no matter our situation. Thanks!

  7. As that moderate drinker who can nurse a glass of Chardonnay for half an evening — I’m so sorry! I love your writing, and I love the suggestions — they have alcohol as the base, but really they’re also about being kind to yourself and taking care of yourself over the holidays. I find myself drinking at all these kinds of parties even when I don’t really feel like a drink because it seems like the socially acceptable thing to do, thing I’ve always done. Okay this in mind.

  8. I’ll keep this in mind. That is.

  9. Arwen Kuttner says:

    This is great, Mary. Specifically your reminder not to let myself get hungry is huge. How many blow-ups with my family have happened when I’m waiting for dinner?

  10. Just dropping by says:

    Thank you for this guide. I love the idea of self-care rewards as part of the recovery. For me, the L of the HALTs might be the hardest to treat (much easier to deal with H, for instance)… I am especially grateful for my chosen family at this time of year.

  11. Livingoutproud says:

    Great advice. Thank you for writing this.

  12. Brilliant. Many many thanks; perfect timing.

  13. Great post. I remind my clients who are new to recovery to lower the social bar during the holidays until they have better strengthened their coping strategies and regained their ability to deal with more intense situations. For those who feel ready to brave the office holiday party, be prepared with coping mechanisms if you encounter triggers, and have an exit strategy if things get too intense. Here’s more information here: http://www.sobernation.com/gearing-holidays/

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