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Tips for enjoying happy, sober holidays

Editor's note: This article was originally published by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in November 2015 and is reprinted here with permission. A recent survey by the foundation and the American Bar Association indicates that as many as one out of every three lawyers is a problem drinker. The State Bar of California’s Lawyer Assistance Program can help. Call 877-LAP-4HELP (877-527-4435) or email 

"Stressful.” “Weird.” “Dangerous.”

These are unusual adjectives to describe what traditionally is known as the most festive of seasons. But to millions of people in recovery from addiction to alcohol or other drugs, holiday stress can trigger relapse. And families and friends often face the anxiety of dealing with an intoxicated loved one during holiday get-togethers or with the uncertainty of how to act around someone in treatment and recovery.

"For many, the holidays are not a joyous time of the year, but rather a season filled with loneliness, anxiety, self-doubt and unachievable expectations that can result in serious consequences for individuals and families struggling with addiction issues," says Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director of the Youth Continuum at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Plymouth, Minnesota. “Cross-generational family gatherings – those gatherings that happen often during the holiday season – are opportune times to help loved ones struggling with addiction and to support family members who are in recovery."

Holiday tips for all families

Model desired behavior at holiday parties. Surveys continue to confirm that the majority of youth view their parents as their primary role models on issues of using alcohol or other drugs. Holiday family gatherings are an ideal venue in which parents and grandparents can demonstrate the responsible use of alcohol to younger generations.

Share your stories. Personal stories can be enormously powerful in changing lives. These surveys also indicate that hearing their parents' stories about past alcohol or drug use does make a positive difference and can help them make more responsible decisions about their own substance use. Holiday get-togethers are a great time to share stories from one generation to the next.

Set boundaries. If there is known alcohol or other drug use among family members, set firm boundaries around family celebrations. Let family members know ahead of time that substance abuse will not be tolerated during your festivities.

Holiday tips for friends and family of a person in recovery

Have a heart-to-heart talk. To avoid any awkwardness, have a direct conversation with the family member or friend in recovery before the holiday celebration. Tell them you are proud of them and ask if there is anything you can do to make them feel more comfortable at the party.

Prepare as a family. Understand that families cannot cure addiction, nor can they control it or cause a relapse during the holidays. It's up to the recovering person to be responsible for their own recovery. However, families can be supportive of loved ones in recovery – especially during the holidays.

Show your support. "At age 30, I experienced my first sober holiday since I was 16," recalls William C. Moyers, vice president of Public Affairs and Community Relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. "To this day, I distinctly remember feeling out of place and how everyone else was walking on eggshells around me. No one talked about how comfortable or uncomfortable I was, or that I had been in treatment and was now in recovery."

Approach a friend or family member who is in addiction treatment the same way you'd approach them if they were battling any other chronic illness. You can’t ignore it, but you don't need to base the whole experience of your holiday around that person's situation. Acknowledge his or her recovery in a low-key way. It may be very affirming to say: "We're really glad you're here and that you're sober." And it is often healing to talk openly about the change in family dynamics.

Offer alternatives. There should be holiday activities that aren't completely focused on alcohol. Provide alternative drinks and watch out for certain foods. Even though dishes made with wine, beer or hard liquor have no traceable alcohol content, just the flavor of the alcohol could trigger a relapse for someone in recovery.

Holiday tips for those in recovery

Good self care is vital. Because the holidays present unique stressors that are not necessarily prevalent during other times of the year, it is critical to take some quiet time each day and work on an attitude of gratitude. No matter how busy you are, fit relaxation and meditation into your day, even for a few minutes.

Enhance your support system. Holidays are a good time to reach out more frequently to your therapist, sponsor, spiritual advisor or support group. Spend time with fellow people in recovery. Let others help you realize your personal limits. Learn to say "no" in a way that is comfortable for you.

Find new ways to celebrate. Create new symbols and rituals that will help redefine a joyful holiday season. You might host a holiday gathering for recovering friends and/or attend celebrations of your 12-step group. Avoid isolation and spend time with people you like who are not substance users. Don't expose yourself to unnecessary temptations such as gatherings where alcohol is the center of entertainment.

Focus on your recovery program. During the holidays, take time to ask yourself, "What am I working on in my program now?" Focus on following through with your recovery program and talk regularly with your sponsor.

Release your resentments. Resentment has been described as allowing a person you dislike to live in your head, rent-free. Resentments that gain steam during the holidays can be disastrous for anyone, especially for those in recovery.

Bring a buddy. If you are going to a party where alcohol will be present, bring someone with you who is in recovery or who is “safe” and will support you. Have a way out – drive yourself so you have a way to immediately leave the party and go someplace safe. Set a timeframe ahead of the party and clearly state: "I can only stay for an hour." Then stick to your plan.

"Bookends" are important. Talk with your support system before you go to a holiday party and then have a plan to reconnect with them after the event.

Get in touch with spirituality. Holidays may also be a time to evaluate your spirituality and find a personal way to draw support from the spirit of the season. Be intentional about returning the holidays to a spiritual base and stressing the power of unselfish giving.

Learn to say "no" in a way that is comfortable for you.