My first sober Christmas Eve found me weeping alone in my bedroom while wrapping 73 presents. I knew my husband was downstairs relaxing and drinking special holiday beers because it had always been our tradition. I don’t remember who wrapped presents back when I was drinking, but I’m guessing elves. Although it wasn’t my first pity party, it was the first time I remember crying over not being able to have a drink. Crying alone in my room beat going downstairs for a drink, but it’s one example of how I just barely got through my first sober holiday. I did so many ill-advised things that first year, I compiled a list of seven helpful reminders of what not to do to maintain my sanity and my sobriety, year after year.
1. Don’t eat your way through the holidays
For compulsive people and addicts, the “holidays” begin in October with Halloween. Reminder: Halloween candy is not your friend. It may seem cute and harmless in its “fun-sized” packaging, but it is a gateway drug to too many Christmas cookies and general overeating during the holiday season. Any temporary comfort I got was immediately followed by self-loathing. I wish I’d taken better care of myself and had a smoothie instead every once in a while.
2. Don’t quit your antidepressant a month before the holidays
I seriously did this. See, my antidepressant was making me gain weight and killing my sex drive. These were unforgiveable sins (that I’m sure had nothing to do with all the candy, cookies and self-loathing). I still had enough common sense to see my doctor before stopping cold turkey, so she prescribed one with lesser side effects. I remember her saying to me, “We don’t want you to crash and burn right before the holidays.”
3. Talk to people who get it
I don’t know why this is so hard—newly sober or not. But if I’d opened my mouth and said, “Help me,” at least a half dozen people would have been happy to try. Instead I said nothing and cried in my car a lot. My car became my own private, Mobile Crying Unit, and pathetic as it sounds, I was glad to have it. The antidepressant I’d been on had some nasty discontinuation effects and some of the crying was a normal side effect. But because I rarely opened up and said “Hey, I’m really struggling,” no one had any idea, so I suffered alone.
4. Don’t take on too much
Part of why I never opened up about struggling is because I couldn’t figure out why I was having such a hard time. But in addition to the usual responsibilities at work and home, I was also doing pretty much all of the holiday shopping, wrapping, baking and hostessing—even though my husband offered to help (in the way people do who aren’t really sure they want the job). It seemed easier to keep doing it all myself. I now realize letting someone else do half the work always beats doing everything yourself.
5. Don’t procrastinate
The 73 unwrapped presents on Christmas Eve? I still have nightmares about it. I can’t find the tape and scissors and I never cut the wrapping paper the right size. Oh wait, that wasn’t a dream—It really happened. If I’d done a little bit throughout the month instead of waiting until I had nothing left in the mental coffer, it wouldn’t still haunt me.
6. Take time for yourself
About the only time I took for myself during the most wonderful and stressful time of the year was going to a weekly recovery meeting. One Saturday morning, I was at a meeting waiting for it to end so I could get back to my mobile crying unit when a stranger approached and said, “Wait here…I have something for you.” She disappeared and I wondered if I imagined her or if she would come back with a big butterfly net to haul me away in, but instead she handed me a recovery magazine with a colorful tangle of lights on the cover and the words “Uncrazy Holidays.” I wondered what the hell that meant.
7. No matter what, just don’t drink
Hey, I actually got this one right! Even though Christmas Eve brought me to my knees, I didn’t go downstairs and drink and give it all up. I suffered more than I needed to, but there were some pretty sweet moments in there to make up for it: I didn’t wake up on Christmas morning with a crippling hangover and I was about as fully present as one can be at 5 am watching my kids open presents. I had survived my first sober holiday season and was mostly worn out and relieved it was over, but kind of empowered too.
My second sober Christmas, I knew what to do differently and even managed to make a few changes. I stayed on my antidepressant, which was working nicely for me then. I ate too much candy and cookies, but I ran regularly and the exercise helped burn off stress and some extra calories. I handed over some gift buying duties to my husband, who did such a fantastic job that he took on more the following year. I wrapped presents early and often. I still had some last-minute wrapping, but the tears had long ago dried up. By then, I was also talking regularly to other sober people and opening up in a way that felt natural and easy.
A lot can happen in a year, but a lot more happens in five holiday seasons. If this is your first or if you’re just hoping this year goes better than last, I’m hoping right alongside you. Even though we’re all smart enough to know the things we should be doing (like not eating all the cookies or taking on too much), there’s always room for improvement. Why we don’t do these things continues to baffle therapists everywhere—but sober folks hardly corner the market on self-destructive behavior. What I have found in sobriety is an ability to see when I’m stressed and getting off-track, as well as a willingness to do better. Sober “firsts,” like holidays, are hard and there are a million ways to screw up. But most of them are not the big deal they seem at the time. As long as we stick to the most important rule and don’t drink, we’ll get what really matters: another holiday season.