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Maintaining Sobriety When Home for the Holidays

Happy young friends with flutes of champagne toasting on ChristmThe family expects it of you. You’ve ruined Christmas dinner for the past three years. Despite your protests each year that “this year it will be different,” it wasn’t. You drank too much, said too much, insulted too many and left in a huff. Why should this year be any different? Why indeed?

You’ve been in recovery for months, that’s why. You made the decision that alcohol was ruining not just Christmas but your whole life. Perhaps the person you loved got tired of competing with alcohol as your one and only and left. Or maybe your doctor told you your liver numbers weren’t good. You may have realized the money you spent on beer over the last year could have bought at least a good used car. Whatever the reason, one morning you woke up and said “enough is enough.” You haven’t had a drink since.

Can you manage the holidays without falling back into a bottle? Sure you can. But it takes some solid thinking and planning to pull it off.

  • Don’t expect the family to have as much confidence in your newfound sobriety as you do.
    They’ve been hurt by your behavior. They expect the worst. They may have even decided that you are the screwup of the family; that you ruin everything; that you can never change. You may find yourself so discouraged by their pessimism that it is tempting to live down to their expectations. Protesting won’t help. Staying the course will. They won’t change their expectations of you until you do – and until you do so enough times and long enough that they can trust you again.
  • Take full responsibility.
    If others are fearful that you will “ruin Christmas” — again — or are angry about the many years that you did, apologize. Apologize profusely. No one made you drink to excess. Even if Uncle Bud insisted that he didn’t like to drink alone or Great Aunt Gertrude greeted you at the door with two drinks in her hand – one for you and one for her, you are the one who drank up and then drank up again and again. Don’t engage in blaming. It won’t help. Once you’ve established blame for starting the party, you were the one who didn’t know when to stop. So apologize and move on.
  • Recognize that drinking is one way that you have coped with stress.
    You are not alone. Many people find that a family gathering can be as stressful as it gets. Think about other ways you have to comfort yourself, to get some breathing room or to separate from interactions you find painful. Maybe you can go for a walk or take a nap. Perhaps you can help out in the kitchen. Or maybe playing with the kids for awhile will give you a break from adult pressures.
  • Stay present — and keep others in the present as well.
    There is no need to rehash last year’s debacle. If someone brings up the past, pull them back to the present. Ask for another ginger ale and emphasize that you are respecting your own limits now. Change the subject to how cute the babies or dogs are (no one can resist the invitation to talk about them) or ask questions that will get folks off the subject of your drinking and onto something they really enjoy. Prep yourself. Remind yourself of topics that each person in your family circle is most interested in. Their latest project? The merits of a gluten-free diet? NASCAR? Their favorite team?
  • Prepare for possible sabotage.
    You know these people well. It’s not new information who will try to knock you off your program. They don’t mean to undermine you. They are just being themselves. There is often someone who is persuasive. (“Oh. One drink won’t really hurt.”) There may be someone who doesn’t think you are celebrating if you don’t join in a toast. (“It’s just one glass of champagne.”) There may be someone who is struggling with his or her own alcohol addiction and who would rather see you fail than feel themselves a failure. (“Come on. You know you really want a drink.”) Forewarned is forearmed. Plan for those comments by having replies at the ready.
  • Have an exit plan.
    If the struggle to stay sober and civil becomes just too much, you will need to leave. Have a reason prepared. You could say you have to check in on an elderly neighbor, for example, or that you need to get back to feed the dog (regardless of whether you have one). Depending on your job, you could claim you need to respond to being “on call” and have to go in. You could even have a friend call at a prearranged time to provide an “emergency” you have to attend to.Come up with something plausible and keep it in reserve in case you need a graceful excuse to leave. If that does happen, leave gracefully — not angrily. Tell your family members how much they all mean to you and how you just hate to have to go. Thank them for a nice time. Leave them with the impression of you at your most adult and loving self. Next year, they will remember that this year things really were different.
Maintaining Sobriety When Home for the Holidays

Marie Hartwell-Walker, Ed.D.

Marie Hartwell-WalkerDr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central's Ask the Therapist feature. She is author of the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.

Check out her book, Unlocking the Secrets of Self-Esteem.

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, M. (2018). Maintaining Sobriety When Home for the Holidays. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 5, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 12 Nov 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.