How Going Sober For The Holidays Changed The Merriest Season
The highs and lows.
"Why are we should-ing all over ourselves?"
Erin Darcy, a political consultant, celebrated five years of sobriety this past October. She’s referencing an episode of Sex and the City, where Carrie Bradshaw asks herself this same question, wondering whether or not we want what we’re told are the traditional trimmings of womanhood like marriage, homes, and family, or if we just feel we should want them. Darcy brings it up because it can easily apply to the holidays, too. It’s a time when we’re told that celebrating means indulgence, and on multiple levels: food, drink, gifts, and more. Do we really want those things, or are we told we should want them? If you’re a person who’s sober, celebrating the holidays takes on new meanings and brings new experiences.
“I feel like a lot of logic and healthy behavior goes out the window during the holidays because it's ‘a special time,’” Darcy says. “We live in a capitalist society that encourages us to do all of that overindulgence anyway. So [for me] it had to be a really conscious pulsing of the brakes.” Sobriety can have different meanings for different people — for Darcy it means no alcohol, tobacco, or drugs. For some people it’s also a matter of life or death; for others, it’s a sober month or a sober holiday season. Either way, it changes how you relate to what’s typically the merriest time of the year, in ways that can be enlightening, challenging, both, or more. For starters, sobriety can make you notice just how much drinking is embedded into our cultural experiences. Or rather, what we’re told they should look like (there’s that should again).
It’s important to remember, however, that you get to decide what you want your holidays to be. “I remember the first year just being really amazed at the number of commercials on TV of holiday drinking,” Darcy says. “I really was very cognizant of this [idea that] drinking equals celebration, there's no other way to celebrate if you're not drinking. I had to do a lot of replacement associations of, well, what else does celebrating look like to me?”
Whereas, previously, she remembered heaps of her dad’s chocolate martinis and smoking a blunt before going to church, her first sober Christmas was a lot different. “My very Irish Catholic family was like, we're not going to go to Mass this year. We're gonna go do a sober sound bath at Mom's yoga studio. That was so incredibly healing and lovely and such a different spiritual experience than begrudgingly sitting in church high on Christmas Eve,” she laughs.
Indeed, Tawny Lara, a sobriety expert and author of Dry Humping: A Guide to Dating, Relating, and Hooking Up Without the Booze, says the holidays are a time of finding your own traditions. “It's just doing the things you want to do and the spirit of the holidays is really up to you to define,” she says. Lara and her husband prepare Indigenous Native American foods on Thanksgiving, but before they were together she’d also do a Sex and the City marathon with a friend. “Just let yourself explore what you want tradition to mean.”
Being sober during the holidays also means restructuring an understanding of what it means to spend time with people and who your friends are. You may also find that a drinking buddy and a friend are not the same thing. “When you reevaluate your relationship with alcohol, a lot of truths reveal themselves about yourself, yes, but also your circle – and it can be really painful. Identifying my drinking buddies from my actual friends was a very painful part of early sobriety,” Lara says. “Anyone who gives you shit for not coming to their party because you're trying to stay sober, that's not really a good friend.” You will have to stand up for yourself and your decisions, which can be hard, Lara says, but it will get easier over time.
With this in mind, it’s also important to notice that your relationship to holiday parties will change, and it’s essential to identify what your triggers are. Lara, for example, is fine around people having a glass of wine, but prefers not to be around people doing shots or getting “wasted.” Darcy remembers that first year feeling like she was missing out on spending time with friends who’d go out drinking and feeling left out at parties, so she chose to skip a lot of them. “In the first year, I honestly just stayed away from a lot of people, places, and things that were triggering, just because it was too raw for me, and I didn't really trust myself yet,” she says. Now, though, she has tricks. “I have seltzer and cranberry at a party. I have something in my hand so that I still feel like a part of [the group but] I'm not depriving myself and walking around with a glass of water while everybody else is indulging,” she says.
But that may not be for you. Those are decisions you get to make for yourself. You may notice you have limited energy or patience for parties with excessive indulgence, and that’s OK, too. Where you might normally take in three or four parties, you may only have energy for one or two. Wherever you are, Lara says, make sure you feel safe, in a place where there are nonalcoholic drink options and people aren’t binge drinking.
But you don’t have to do any of this alone, whether it’s a dry month or a dry life, and you shouldn’t. Rather, it’s important to ask for help. “It's not something that you can do on your own, that you can ‘girlboss’ your way through independently,” Darcy says. “You gotta find that community. It's invaluable.” That community can be a friend, a sponsor, an accountability buddy you call when you feel anxious or triggered. There are so many people who are having the same experience as you and having someone to call is vital. “Find a peer support group, find a therapist, there's tons of online groups. Just really don't go it alone,” Lara says.
Darcy was concerned at the beginning that she’d never have a good time again. “I really thought my life was over and that I wasn't going to have fun anymore and I was not going to meet interesting people or go to cool parties or have fun experiences anymore. I can't tell you how different that experience has been.” These days she says she’s able to show up for her partner, her family, friends, and now, her children, in ways she hadn’t been able to previously.
“It's a much more selfless holiday season. Rather than ‘how f*cked up can I get’ and how much weed do I need to get ahead of going home for the holidays or how many bottles of wine do we need at the liquor store and just having having that be the priority, it's like, how can I create this positive holiday experience for my family and my kids… That was just really just a level of like selflessness that I couldn't access.”