Mind and Body/Opinion

During the holidays, you and your sobriety need to come first

Living on the bright side: How to manage the stress of holiday gatherings

Photo courtesy of Katherine Linwood

Katherine Linwood, author of a regular column in ConvergenceRI on sobriety, "The Bright Side."

By Katherine Linwood
Posted 11/20/23
From the “bright side” of sobriety, columnist Katy Linwood offers some helpful hints and recipes to embrace a sober life during the holiday season.
When asked about all those things that you are thankful for, how many give thanks for the opportunity to share a moment with friends and family over a meal? Have you asked any of your neighbors whom you know to be living alone if they need anything for the holiday season? What is the best Thanksgiving you can remember – and what made it so memorable? Are politics allowed to be discussed during the Thanksgiving Day meal?
For families that are disrupted by divorce and death and denial, Thanksgiving can represent the absolute worst time to attempt to join in a celebration that seeks to honor the concept of families that are, in reality, in total disarray.
Whatever rituals were once part of the family tradition, they often become points of severe emotional conflict, never to be resolved. The opportunities to celebrate together often become a minefield of unresolved conflicts – often about whose version of family history is correct.
Perhaps the best recipe to follow is to follow Katy’s advice: be kind to yourself, and do not try to have any expectations about what might or might not happen. Allow yourself to be surprised. And always find the opportunity to say “thank you!”

PROVIDENCE – The last night I drank, it was the week before Thanksgiving. Heading into the holidays without alcohol seemed like an inconvenient time to quit. [Turns out, with most major life changes, there never really is a convenient time, after all.]

It felt fragile and bizarre and, strangely, light. It was very clear what I needed to do…or rather, not do. Instead of trying to improve something through action, all I needed to do was abstain. Inaction was the goal here – not drinking – so I sought out little steps that I could take to make it all feel more manageable.

Of course, professional help during the process is always a good idea. In my case, I had underlying anxiety I needed to address. Just because I stopped drinking didn’t mean that the anxiety magically went away. I bring this up to share that often there are additional issues that remain, and professional help is important.

But back to facing the holidays without alcohol. Little changes made adapting to a sober life more enjoyable. Getting sober doesn’t have to be a drag.

Here are a few things that helped me then, and still help me now.

  • Prepare for gatherings. What makes you feel good, heading into a social situation? That first holiday season – where I knew there would be lots of toasts and clinking glasses – I made sure I had all of my outfits planned and felt great about how put together I was. Wearing pretty things makes me happy, and appearance helped to increase my confidence. Having an outfit I like, my hair done well, and my skincare on point was like putting armor on.

Maybe appearance doesn’t connect to your confidence. But think about what makes you feel self-assured. Lean into that. I also love to cook and bake. During the first sober holiday, I looked up several new  recipes I wanted to try. I made sure I was quite busy in the kitchen, and even during the gatherings, I let much of my attention sit on the tasks that go into a large meal.

Keeping busy with cooking and cleaning did wonders for me.

What can you do during social gatherings that helps keep your mind busy?

  • Reward yourself. I’ve never been a fan of punishing routines, or denial of pleasure. Since I was giving up alcohol, I told myself I deserved new kinds of treats in my life. I still stick to this without a single apology. I work hard, I like treats and I get them regularly. [Plus, almost a decade in, I can’t even imagine how much money I have saved by having no bar tab or setting foot in any liquor store. This might be venturing into girl math territory, and I’m a fan of that, too.]

So for me, rewards looked like small things I could consume. In my early days of sobriety, I stocked up on every kind of yummy nonalcoholic beverage that caught my fancy. Polar seltzer, cold brew coffee, and kombucha glistened in my fridge.

Why? Because I could. And because it made me happy.

Other small ways I would reward myself in the moment: I’d stop at a cafe before heading into situations with alcohol, so that I could clutch my beloved iced espresso while others enjoyed alcohol. I’d reward myself with a cupcake on the way home from an event held at a bar. I drank more diet cokes in those first few months than I really care to recall.

Every sober anniversary, I purchase a piece of jewelry for myself. It’s a beautiful way to celebrate my achievements. Whatever it looks like for you, reward yourself in the moment and as you continue through your sobriety.

Rest and recharge. I’d recommend assessing what brings you joy, calms you down, and brings you back to yourself. Please do that, and then do that a little more.

I like sleep. I am an 8 hours-a-night kind of girl. I’m not good at being still or relaxing when I’m awake, so I prioritize sleep over just about anything.

I like movement. Physical movement has always been a way for me to reconnect to myself, and to slow the racing thoughts in my mind.

I love animals. Spending time with animals is a guaranteed way to brighten my day. I have two dogs and I couldn’t imagine my life without them!

Living in an area where there are so many dogs to befriend really does wonders for my mental health, too.

Social media helps me here as well – scrolling Tik Tok for a while is a surefire way to lift my spirits with the endless animal content available.

Maybe relaxing for you looks totally different, and yay for that! Binge your favorite shows, read a million books, hike a mountain, knit a sweater, take a nap, build a boat, whatever. Without alcohol you’ll have more time to discover what brings you joy and how to pursue that. And what a gift that time is!

  • Be honest with yourself. While there is fun to be had at events while sober, it’s also undeniably different. There is a certain amount of boredom that accompanies sobriety. It’s just something anyone learning to live without substances will have to sit through.

Conversations with someone several glasses in just is not as interesting when you’re not tipsy. Dancing at weddings might hit differently. Late nights might not be as compelling anymore.

Be honest with yourself about how many events you are up for, about when it’s time to call it a night, about whether those friends are connections centered around drinking. Just stay open to observing how you feel.

  • Stick to boundaries. Some people may not love losing a drinking buddy. I didn’t experience any kind of pressure to drink again after I announced my sobriety, but I’m aware that others have.

Getting sober doesn’t need to make sense to anyone but you. The only kind of boundaries I needed to set and stick to involved being around family members who were actively drinking. It hurt to inform someone very close to me that they could not come to my house until they were sober. This was days after having my daughter. It’s hard but it’s important. You and your sobriety need to come first.

  • Embody gratitude. Time and again, gratitude has been my north star when all else feels difficult. In the beginning, I was so grateful for each morning I woke without wondering how much I drank the night before, or what I said to whom, or if I started another argument with my then-husband. Waking up sober has never lost its shine.

I found it helpful to write down the things I was grateful for: my health, my loved ones, my career, sunlight streaming through leaves, laughing until your stomach hurts, a perfect latté, animals, a good book, etc. Big and small. I don’t want to get too preachy here, so I’ll stop. Just give it a shot.

  • Be kind to you. This is a new experience, and for many, it won’t stick the first time around. And that’s alright. You’re human. It’s your first time living this.

Meaningful personal change takes commitment and kindness for the process. Happy Thanksgiving! I’m cheering you all on.

Katherine Linwood will be writing a monthly column, “The Bright Side,” on sobriety for ConvergenceRI. Connect with her onIG@katherine.linwood


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