It hardly seems possible that this is the EIGHTH (!) Annual Holiday Survival Guide I'm posting.
I've made very few changes to it over the years -- each time I re-read it to do an edit I find myself thinking, "Based on my experience this really does pretty much cover it for me." It bears repeating: In sobriety I find that it's less about constantly finding new things to do as it is about remembering to do the things that work.
In years past it was pointed out that I put this up on the blog a little late to be of any practical use to people. So here, two and a half weeks before Thanksgiving -- in all its sugar-coated, carb-laden glory --explodes across dining room tables everywhere, and while travel arrangements might still be in the works, (and thus this Guide for alcoholics would hopefully be more helpful) is... "Mr. SponsorPants Annual Sober Holiday Survival Guide"
This is a group of broad suggestions to cover whether you're newcomer or long-timer, host or guest, travelling to family out of town or (God help you) having the familial hordes descend upon you, attending a work function, a casual gathering or a formal affair.
I sincerely hope there is something helpful here for everyone.
Holidays, families and alcoholics. A potent combination, be it for feeling gratitude or copping an attitude. As the old joke goes, no one knows how to push your buttons like your family -- after all, they installed them. With that said, here is some of the best I can offer when it comes to holiday parties, family visits, and this whole wonderful/terrible time of year:
1. Remember, you don't have to go. Yes, yes, maybe you should go. Maybe it's a bad idea for your career, or it would be hurtful or disappointing to someone if you don't go -- those can be compelling reasons to get on a plane or show up at a party -- but you don't have to go. You aren't trapped, and you can change your mind at any time if you need to -- you can turn that car right around on the way to the airport or before you enter the parking structure. If you are a real addict your life is on the line, and though we can be prone to drama and selfish decisions, it's obviously better to stay sober, and after the fact determine if you might have been oversensitive or dramatic (a very real possibility), than to force yourself to go somewhere slippery when you're feeling frightened, resentful and trapped -- and then relapse. Because if you really are an alcoholic then your alcoholism really is trying to kill you -- and you may have taken the holiday off, but it hasn't.
2. Remember, you can leave. In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a toast, in the middle of the cutting of a cake, you can, without drama, without a scene, excuse yourself and leave. If the occasion or the moment seems to indicate a reason should be offered, just say you suddenly feel ill and step out. It's not even a falsehood, though you may mean emotionally or spiritually ill and others may think the artichoke dip didn't agree with you. In fact, it doesn't matter if people in the moment believe you or not, or if you have to explain a little more later, or make amends after the fact -- it is better to leave quietly and stay sober than remain at an event and relapse -- because if you relapse, they'll most likely wish you had left. As I've said to sponsees, you can leave with a fork halfway to your mouth, if you have to. Which leads me to...
3. Remember, if at all possible, drive yourself and don't give anyone a lift -- not out of selfishness, out of self preservation. If you have to leave because you are freaking out and you think you might not be able to stay sober then you need to leave -- not wait for someone to dither around saying goodbye or getting their coat or finishing that last slice of pie. If you do have someone with you, hopefully you can explain in advance that you might have to leave abruptly -- not that you're planning on it, but that you might need to -- so help them have a Plan B for leaving if they want to stay, or perhaps agree that they're willing to leave on short notice with you. If you're the passenger, be ready to call a cab or walk to the bus stop or at least step outside for some air. Which brings us to...
4. Remember, you can leave and then return. Leaving doesn't have to mean leaving the whole event and going home or back to the hotel or wherever -- go for a walk, get some of that aforementioned air, sit in the car and scream (though the valet may look at you funny) -- and then once you've gotten your equilibrium again go back in -- with an eye on the Exit for Round 2, if you have to.
5. Remember, don't expect Program responses from people who aren't in the Program. There you are, flush with recovery and armed with a whole new language to identify how you feel and communicate it with people. Remember that the family dinner table is not a 12 Step Meeting, and if you start "sharing" rather than talking you may be met with "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Or worse (in my book) patronizing smiles that are the equivalent of a pat on the head and a "isn't that nice, dear." Again: Don't expect people who aren't in a 12 Step Program to act like people in a 12 Step Program. (And what's the set up there? The evil alcoholic node in that sentence? "expect" -- expectations of family are some of the deepest -- and often least conscious -- and most lethal expectations an alcoholic can have. Yes, it's a high bar to clear -- an impossible bar to clear in fact, to have absolutely no expectations of people -- but if you're aware of the mechanism at work it helps keep the resentments from running you ragged.)
6. Remember, for most addicts, maybe = yes. If you think you might drink or use if you visit certain people or places then that's just a prelude to actually doing so. Be sure of yourself. If you're not sure, the stakes are too high to play a people-pleasing game and place yourself at risk.
7. Remember, other people find the holidays difficult and emotionally charged as well -- you're not the only one having a tough time of it -- watch for ego and hyper-sensitivity, and rather than sit in your own upset, see who and how you can help wherever you may be or whomever you may be with. Short answer: Want to feel better? Be of service.
8. Remember, "Please pass the gravy" is not code for "Please, now that you're sober, unload all of your pent up anger and frustration you've been stuffing for the past X years, right here right now, during dinner."
9. Remember, Alcoholics Anonymous suggests when dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. Even for those of us who are learning that we are not doormats it is not necessarily smart to immediately confront a situation head on. In fact, by writing out a quick inventory (and be careful where you leave that paper lying around if you're visiting home, Bucko) and organizing your thoughts and feelings you can then confront something and talk about the actual thing that caused your resentment, rather than get all tripped up talking about your feelings and anger. It's a very different thing to say "Please don't make jokes about my job" instead of "I feel angry when you make jokes about my job." The latter will just create a discussion about your feelings, and that's not what you're trying to do -- you're setting a boundary, not inviting opinions on your emotional sensitivity level. If you write out your resentment you can get clarity in your head before you open your mouth -- I've tried it the other way, to spectacularly poor results, I assure you. And all that is said with a giant IF in front of the idea that it is wise for you to "confront" anyone at all. Most of the time it probably isn't.
10. Remember, it is possible to look like you're listening intently to someone while you are actually saying The Serenity Prayer over and over in your head.
11. Remember, "love and tolerance is our code." If your family, or your boss, or your employees, or whomever, actually could do any better they probably would. For particularly difficult, toxic or challenging people try to consider that it is much worse to be them than to deal with them -- keep at the forefront of your mind that those who trouble us are spiritually sick themselves, and are deserving of our compassion (as difficult as it may be to summon for some) more than our criticism.
12. Remember, you may not have been such a winner yourself on past occasions -- it may take a while for people to "see" who you are today. Be patient, show who you are now rather than tell who you are now, and things will eventually change.
13. Remember, miracles do happen -- damaged relationships heal, wounded parties forgive, shattered families come back together ... it doesn't happen the way we may envision it, or with a clever soundtrack and excellent lighting as in your favorite independent film, but it really does happen.
14. Remember, breathe. Just three deep breaths before speaking can save a life. I am not exaggerating.
15. Remember, it is not your family's job to understand alcoholism or Alcoholics Anonymous -- it's yours.
16. Remember, it's not your job to diagnose everyone with your magical sober powers, nor is it your job to whip out your spiritual took kit and try to fix anyone around you. AA is a program of attraction, not promotion. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. If you're being an example you don't have to explain, and if you find yourself doing a lot or explaining you're probably doing a poor job of being an example.
17. Remember, AA is a "design for living" -- and what that means in the real world is that other people's behavior does not dictate my behavior -- you can't make me yell or behave badly, only I can make me do that. I am not a doormat, but I don't have to go to every fight I'm invited to, either. A smile and shrug is an excellent strategy for quietly deflecting things.
18. And finally, remember, bring your Higher Power with you -- you're not going in there alone. Why 18 and not a nice round number like 20? Dunno -- I only have 18 I guess. Happy holidays to all, and while whatever you celebrate and whomever you celebrate it with can make for a wonderful/terrible day, it is also just another 24 hours, and one minute at a time, this too shall pass. Cheers!