A woman pouring a glass of whiskey and missing the glass
A woman pouring a glass of whiskey and missing the glass
#addictionand the holidays #vulnerability

Addiction and the Holidays

Paul Kiernan

If you’re in recovery, drugs, alcohol, turkey sandwiches, whatever is your addiction of choice, the holidays are a bitch. Triggers abound.

This is one I have wanted to write for a while.

I have written about courage, vulnerability, creativity, letting down your guard, and being open to the world, all in the service of pursuing a creative life and how to let your creativity flow. It requires a tremendous amount of courage. It requires you to self-examine on a profound level. How much of a hypocrite would I be if I didn’t follow the paths I speak about? The answer is one colossal hypocrite.

I’m not. So here goes.

If you’re in recovery, drugs, alcohol, turkey sandwiches, whatever is your addiction of choice, the holidays are a bitch. Triggers abound. Temptation is wrapped in pretty paper and delivered under sparkling lights, underscored by the sound of carols and laughter. Among that is the sound of a voice in your head saying, “Why not?” or, “One won't kill you.” Or the best one, “you’ve done well for so long; certainly, you deserve a little celebration.”

There is a line in the Sondheim musical Sweeney Todd where Todd, a barber, finds his razors, holds one aloft, and says, “at last, my arm is complete again.” I am an alcoholic; I’ve been six years sober, and, particularly at Christmas, I have this urge to grab a heavy glass, drop an ice cube in it, fill it with the finest bourbon, hold it aloft and cry at last my arm is complete again.

I am writing from experience, and I hope this article will help others who are in the same boat.

Alcohol and the Holidays

I will be writing from the point of view of an alcoholic, but this applies to most addictions.

Christmas is tough for those in recovery. I mean, it’s tough for those who aren’t as well. There is the pressure of the right gift, the family dinners where an argument is bound to happen. There are a million little things that non-addicts can shrug their shoulders about, slip into the kitchen, and laugh with others over. For an addict, those little things are gigantic walls with the word ‘trigger’ spray painted on them.

For most, the holidays are full of cheer and glitz; for the addict, the holidays are a miasma of temptation and fear. If you’re like me, here are a few tips that will help you not just get through the holidays but they may help you get your joy back as well.

Don’t Hide, Be Honest

A man hiding behind a concrete wall

Don't shut yourself away. There is a desire to avoid the whole thing altogether, but locking yourself away can lead to self-pity and depression, and that is the open door to drinking. You will bargain with yourself. These may sound familiar,

  • I want to be a part of the celebration
  • I don't want to draw attention to myself by not drinking
  • I have been good for so long
  • I am in control; I can handle one drink

It’s essential to recognize that is not you speaking; that is the addiction. You’re in recovery, it’s difficult, but you know that you CANNOT have just one drink. As an alcoholic, you know moderation is in the rearview mirror.

Think about your journey if the temptation arises to join the festive drinking. How long and hard you’ve been working at this. Count your days and imagine having to start at square one again. Weigh the benefits and risks of drinking, and you’ll see that getting drunk, because you will, just isn’t worth it.

To Explain or Not to Explain

If you’ve been in recovery for a while, then close friends and family know this, so they won’t pressure you to drink. However, Christmas is the time of many parties, so co-workers and strangers at the bar may not know, and you may face, “Hey, let me buy you a drink.”

You have a few choices here. I have gotten to the point where I simply say, I’m a recovering alcoholic; you don’t want to see me drunk. But that’s recent for me; I avoided, dodged, and then I got to the point where I accepted it was a disease, and there is NO shame here.

Maybe you’re not there, or perhaps you don't want to reveal that for fear that someone in the office might not understand and start treating you differently. In that case, have a simple excuse ready that you feel comfortable with. Examples.

  • I’m taking meds, and they don’t mix
  • I have a six am call with … (Fill in)
  • I hate being hungover, cannot handle it any longer at my age
  • I’m putting my health first, so I stopped drinking
  • You know, I just don’t enjoy drinking anymore

It’s yours; it’s protection; it’s not cheating; no one says you need to be blunt and just confess. If sharing is not helpful to you, don't do it, have an excuse ready.

“A man who drinks too much on occasion is still the same man as he was sober. An alcoholic, a real alcoholic, is not the same man at all. You can't predict anything about him for sure except that he will be someone you never met before.”
Raymond Chandler
A red exit sign on the ceiling

Time to Go

If you decide to go to the party, but you're wary of the constant need to explain or fend off the “c’mon, you can have one, can’t you?” Like there is a governing board of drunks you can petition to allow you one drink. It’s good to have an exit strategy.

Decide how long you will stay before you go, and stick to that. My friend Heather, who is not an addict but is socially uncomfortable, has a little saying she uses to get her to go to a party. She says, “Cup of punch, say hello to the hostess, and leave.” So, something in that vein. Set a time limit, have an excuse, and stay with it. Anyone can get through 40 minutes; you can too.

A Nice Bottle of Wine, Not a Good Gift

You’re not drinking, but your friends are, and you know they would enjoy a nice bottle of wine or (gulp) bourbon. Don’t do it.

Buying the gift of alcohol means you’ll have it in the house. That’s temptation. Also, it means you’ll have to go to the liquor store to get it. Unless your town has the “doordrunk’ service. The last place you want to be is in a liquor store. That’s 500 square feet of racks temptation.

When you give someone the gift of a fine bottle of bourbon at a party, they are likely to say, let’s crack this open and sample its sweet Godlike powers. That’s what you’ll hear. What they say will most likely be, you wanna drink?

You are dealing with enough involuntary triggers, don't put another one in your way. There are a billion great gifts; choose one of them.

BYO Beverage

Take control and bring your own beverage to the party. If your host knows your situation, they may have some perfect non-alcoholic drinks for you, but just in case, bring something along. There are plenty of delightful beverages to consume.

And don’t try to fake people out by drinking things that could be assumed were alcohol. You can drink tonic water and lime but don’t pretend it’s a vodka tonic. Someone is bound to get you another, and they’ll either assume because that’s YOUR drink, or they’ll ask you, and you’ll be outed. Just drink your non-alcoholic beverage and be okay with it.

There is no shame in recovery.

Stay Positive, Focus on the Good, and Relax

neon lights spelling out and breathe

When I began my recovery journey, I started dreading Christmas right around my birthday. In August. I knew I’d be around masses, and they would all drink. So, like a writer, I filled index cards with excuses for not going to the party, and by the time Christmas rolled around, I had written the War and Peace of excuses. That would be 1,225 pages of excuses for those who don't know.

My avoidance led to loneliness, which ushered in depression, and we all know the best way to cure depression is with a few bottles of Widow Jane, a fine bourbon. Needless to say, that didn’t work the first time around.

The best way to manage the Christmas season is to focus on the good stuff. Honestly, you don’t have to be drunk to enjoy the great food, the fun, and the laughter around Christmas. One thing I enjoyed about Christmas when I started recovery is that I remembered it the next day and for days to come.

If you’ve put the work in, trust it. Trust that you will see and experience goodness even without that glass of bourbon. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Focus on the positive.

If it gets to be too much, make sure there is at least one person at the party who knows your situation and tell them, I’ve hit my limit; I’m going to go. That way, someone has your back, and you don’t feel like a thief on the night stealing away in shame.

Have a Card in Your Pocket

If it is all too much, have a card in your pocket. That card can have the number of your sponsor on it or the number for an outpatient recovery center. If you don’t think you can go it alone, that’s a great thing to recognize, and it’s even better when you reach out for help.

If you need flu medication, is that something to be ashamed of? If you have allergies and you get shots, is that something to be ashamed of? If you have a migraine and need pills to ease the excruciating pain, should you hide that from people?


Alcoholism is a disease, and like any disease, it needs treatment. There is no shame in seeking help. This is a powerful disease. It affects your head as well as your body. It’s like a parasite that gets in your head and tells you that you need a drink, that it won't be fun unless you drink, and that people will think you’re weird if you don’t drink. It is clever, dark, and relentless.

There is help, so get it. Don't be afraid or ashamed to ask. Start living your life with clear eyes and a glad heart.

If you don’t know where to go, call SAMHSA’s national helpline. This is a confidential free service that operates 365 days a year, 24/7. They will get you the help you need.

A hand reaching out into the world

At Last, My Arm is Complete Again

I’m six years sober.

On Christmas of my first year on this journey. It had been a very, very difficult year, and I was scared shitless to walk into that house. I was walking down the sidewalk toward the party and stopped; I didn't think I could do it; my arm was feeling very incomplete.

A dear friend whom I hadn’t seen in years suddenly appeared behind me and said, “Hey stranger, you forget how to walk?” I was so raw, so scared that I just blurted it out. “I’m an alcoholic, I’m one year sober, and I am so, so scared to go to this party.” She nodded and said she understood; she told me she was ten years sober; I never knew. And then she took my hand, and we walked in together.

She checked in on me all night. I didn't stay long, but I was there. It was time for me to go, I had all I could handle, and I found her and told her I was leaving. Again, she took my hand and said, “You did it. You survived, and I’m very proud of you.”

My hand felt warm all the way back to my car. I was proud. I had accomplished something big. And I realized I was not alone. I sat in my car, squeezed my hand into a fist of triumph, and thought, at last, my arm is complete again.