Saturday, 25 Mar 2023

Therapist approved tips on surviving a sober Christmas when you're in recovery

Christmas has a drinking problem.

Whenever the festive period rolls around, so do the boozy dinners, Christmas parties and mulled-wine fuelled days out. 

This invitation to over-indulge is so built into Christmas culture that it can feel as if alcohol is a necessary part of the festivities, when actually, it isn’t.

So the constant bombardment of alcohol based fun can mean this time of year is particularly difficult for anyone who is trying to stay sober. 

Addiction recovery is hard, full stop, but there are things about Christmas that can make it especially tough to resist a drink.

There’s a lot of pressure to be happy and to be spending time – and money on – loved ones. 

Even just feeling sad or alone at a time that’s meant to be especially happy, it can be isolating.

Couple that with the endless temptation to drink over Christmas, and you’ve got a recipe for potential relapse. 

However, it doesn’t have to end with a drink in hand. 

Sober boring 

A sober Christmas can be daunting, especially if it’s your first one.

Addiction therapist Nick Mercer has been sober for the last 30 years, a decision that was the ‘best thing that’s ever happened’, he says. He remembers a time, in those early years of his sobriety, when he realised he didn’t need alcohol to get into the festive spirit. He was studying at college, and his classmates all decided to head to the pub. 

‘I realised the comradery of being there with friends was enough, and the need for alcohol was a myth,’ he tells ‘The atmosphere was intoxicating.’

This realisation has guided Nick throughout his life, and in his work as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and addictions counsellor. 

If you’ve got FOMO about an upcoming sober Christmas, remember: ‘It is always about that connection with other people,’ he says. ‘You don’t need alcohol to feel connected to others, no matter how much it feels like you do.’

Treat it as an experiment 

If you are trying to do a sober Christmas for the first time, treat it like an experiment. Maybe you’ll hate it, or find it really hard, but what if you don’t? What if January rolls around, and you feel great? 

‘Embarking on sobriety is an adventure is not a journey of deprivation,’ says Nick.

‘Treat it as further research. See how you feel. Alcohol will always be here, you can always go back to it.  But you might surprise yourself.

‘Doing [sobriety] is a delight, and we find out the world is much bigger than we realised.’

Find some kind of connection 

Eleven years ago, Nick’s wife was diagnosed with leukaemia. 

It was December, it had been snowing. They were walking through a North London park when they got the call. She was undergoing chemotherapy over Christmas. 

‘We just went to the church. It was a bit drab, but it works. There’s something in sharing the suffering, it helped to remember we are not the first people that suffered.’ 

Regardless of your religion, Nick recommends going anywhere where people gather.

Making it through a sober Christmas is not, ‘wandering around Soho feeling lonely.’

Try, for instance, volunteering. Look locally and online, charities are always looking for people to help out. 

Nick is a big believer in the power of meditation or prayer, Try taking a few deep breaths and a quiet couple of minutes of reflection before you head out to face the day. 

Put your recovery first 

You have to put your own welfare first. Using a ‘selfish’ programme has helped Nick stay sober for all these years. 

He says: ‘In order to be of use to others I must first look after my own needs – physical, emotional and spiritual. Then I can be truly present for my loved ones.

‘The goal is to gain freedom from the past and independence from the opinions and beliefs of others and become my own person. 

‘That is no easy task for any of us and is the work of a lifetime, but sometimes these gentle reminders can keep us on track when we start to drift or lose faith in our mission (which we all do at times).’

It has to be an inside job, something you decide to do for yourself, but it can help to frame it like this. Nick says: ‘If I look after myself, I can look after people I love better.’ 

Commit, but don’t moralise 

There’s a difference between committing to sobriety and publishing yourself. 

Nick suggests writing it down (‘I’m going to be sober this Christmas’), to make it a commitment,  but remember there’s no moral imperative to do it. Essentially, you’re not a bad person if you slip up. 

‘To avoid getting swamped or overwhelmed by too many things to do, always remember: keep it in the day, the hour, the minute.

‘In other words, never mind the future – that will take care of itself. Concentrate on what you have to do now at this minute. Do the next right thing, one task at a time. Feed the dog, get washed, hoover, train, go to a meeting, whatever… Just keep it simple.

‘Commit just to be sober today, and the days will mount up.’

Go to Alcoholics Anonymous 

Above all, if you are ready to commit to sobriety, Nick stresses the importance of going to Alcoholics Anonymous. 

‘There’s no talking cure, so what will cure you is support from people with similar experiences,’ Nick says. 

It can also provide a space to reflect on what feelings are underpinning alcohol abuse. In Nick’s experience, this is often resentment or anger about injustices you feel you have faced or feeling detached and powerless. Pride, arrogance, fear, self-pity, and jealousy can all play into it too.

The goal is to develop humility, and compassion for others, as well as be honest, to yourself and others, and practice love, self-care, selflessness, tolerance and patience. 

Nick remembers the first time he attended an AA meeting. They asked him to make the tea (everyone gets a task when they arrive). He felt resentful at first, but then he did it, and in feeling useful, he felt the voice telling him he was worthless quietened down. 

‘It grounded me,’ he says. 

Everything Nick has learnt that has helped him stay sober came from AA meetings, getting a sponsor and working through the programme. 

‘The more you go to meetings, the more you’ll get it’, he says. ‘Turning up is the first step.’

You can find more about Alcoholics Anonymous, and how to attend meetings, on their website. 

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