Holidays Can Challenge Sobriety


By Alane Burgess


The holidays are a stressful time in some way, shape, or form for everyone. However, for those folks in recovery, this stress can become intensified around festivities and traditions tied to the season and undermine their sobriety.

An individual in recovery invited to a work gathering may ask themselves, “what am I going to do if someone offers me a drink or they offer me a substance? I may feel uncomfortable disclosing to my colleagues and my co-workers or other people that I am in recovery.”

Holiday gatherings with family members can be an emotional minefield of negative memories, bringing up feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse. There is also the potential for an individual in recovery to know they will be with a close family member with an addiction that is untreated. The person in recovery wants to avoid being offered an alcoholic beverage or other type of substance, and this type of encounter could present an especially stressful situation for them.

The question for the pern in recovery becomes, “am I going to be able to say no or be able to help myself prepare for a situation that I know that I may not feel comfortable in from an emotional standpoint?”

I address these situations around holiday sobriety with the individuals I work with in recovery by telling them to continue to focus on their physical and mental health.

Rest, relax, and rejuvenate are three key words to remember about self-care during the frustrations, busyness, and exhaustion of the holidays. I ask people to ask themselves, “am I getting good sleep at night? Am I eating healthy? Am I engaging in exercise?”

I work, too, with people on the ability to say no or to pass on going to a certain celebration or relative’s house. If someone does go to an event, they should have an exit plan so they can leave if things start to get really uncomfortable or they feel their sobriety might be at risk.

Most importantly, holiday sobriety is about staying connected to one’s support system. This may be a close friend or a fellow member in a self-help meeting. It could be a sponsor or a pastor.

Sometimes people get so caught up in the holidays that they skip a support meeting or call to their sponsor. This could be a real trigger for someone to worry about — that they get out of their routine and their pattern of supports that they have for their security relapse planning.

What would I advise someone hosting a celebration or family gathering and inviting someone they know is in recovery?

Make sure there are a lot of choices available in terms of non-alcoholic beverages — many drinks advertised as “non-alcohol” contain some alcohol.

Also, have an open dialogue with the individual who is in recovery and ask them, “what can be done to help you feel safer and more comfortable with your recovery while you are here?”

I really believe in people having as much open dialogue as possible. The person in recovery is the best person to say what is going to be most helpful to them. Sometimes people’s actions are really well-intended, but they may not realize their actions could trigger a relapse.

And I always tell the person in recovery that their recovery and sobriety come first and to be honest with themselves in that approach. I remind them again: if you don’t feel going to any particular celebration or event is safe for you in your recovery this holiday season, it is OK to say no, and it is important as well to remain engaged with your supports — all those things that have helped you stay in your routines.


Alane Burgess is a licensed mental-health clinician and director of the Mental Health Association’s BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center.