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A message to anyone who struggles to stay sober during the holidays

The festive drinks and holiday happy hours are tempting — trust me, I get it. But over time, I’ve found that the temptation lessens.
For people who are sober or simply trying to drink less, the holidays can be a difficult time.
For people who are sober or simply trying to drink less, the holidays can be a difficult time. Cornelia Li for TODAY

Christmas 2016 is a bit of a blur. I can piece most of it together through photos, but I openly admit that my memories are spotty, to say the least. I was at the tail end of my final attempt to control my alcohol use and it wasn’t going well. I had set out to get through the holidays without booze, but the more I attempted to restrict, make rules and monitor my use, the more obsessed with the idea of drinking I became. The holiday happy hours and beer advent calendars were too tempting to avoid.

I realized by New Year’s Day, after I’d blacked out an entire weekend of my life from a simple night out with friends, that I had to call a spade a spade: Alcohol wasn’t serving me.

My drinking had long been a problem. At some point between the birth of my youngest child and his second birthday, my wine drinking ramped up. I seemed to have it all together — I was “high functioning,” you could say — but eventually I couldn’t even fool myself. The “edge” I continued to take off every evening got bigger and bigger until wine wouldn’t even touch it.

I spent the first day of 2017 horribly hungover and never had another drink. Six years later, I’m going into this year’s holiday season booze-free. But that doesn’t mean it was easy.

Early on in my recovery journey, someone compared giving up alcohol to grieving a death: You had to get through the grief of every season. For me, that was very accurate. As I emerged on the other side of the “pink cloud” — the soft, cushy part of early sobriety where everyone is happy for you and you feel strong and full of resolve — I realized that the world around me would continue boozing it up even if I wasn’t. I felt very much on my own.

Sober Mom Squad, Emily Lynn Paulson
Emily Lynn Paulson gave up drinking five years ago, but she remembers the struggle around the holidays. Courtesy of Emily Lynn Paulson

When the next holiday season rolled around, on the eve of my one year of sobriety, I attended parties and carried on the way I had the previous year, minus the booze, which I wouldn’t recommend. Not drinking was still too new, and I found myself miserable and white-knuckling instead of actually enjoying anything. I had yet to get through that season of grief.

By the next Christmas, it was easier, and by the next, I had zero desire to drink — although I know not everyone’s experience will look like mine. But for me, I couldn’t imagine wanting to tarnish the holidays with another drunken episode — or a hangover.

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Holidays are different now and yes, they are better. I began to feel joy in very mundane things. Now I see the holidays through my kids’ eyes and remind myself what Christmas was like as a child. I used to drink to enjoy family events with my kids, and now I realize they are pretty darn enjoyable when I’m not buzzed. I used to drink through the stress of the holidays, and when I stopped, the stress actually decreased.

If you’re trying to get through the holidays without drinking, I’ll share a few things that helped me.

Plan activities that don’t include alcohol

This may seem obvious, but how often do we default to the bar or the happy hour? Be proactive in making plans for your friends and family that don’t involve drinking. Think outside the box — maybe it’s an art class or ice skating. Not sure what you enjoy anymore? Ask yourself what you enjoyed when you were a kid or if there is a hobby you’ve always wanted to learn. Start there.

Keep nonalcoholic beverages handy

Going to a party? Bring your own drinks. Nonalcoholic beverages can be triggering for some, so your mileage may vary, but for me they were incredibly helpful. Some nonalcoholic beers made me check the label twice because they were that close to the alcoholic versions.

If you’re going to a restaurant, don’t be afraid to take up space and ask the server what nonalcoholic beverages they can make.

Be prepared for questions

It’s nobody’s business why you aren't drinking alcohol, but sometimes it brings on questions. (It’s funny how nobody questions why you would give up smoking or even gluten, but declining booze leads to an interrogation: “Are you pregnant?” “Are you on antibiotics?”)

Decide what your comfort level is and how you’ll respond to those questions before you’re in that situation. Have a story, or don’t. It’s fine to simply say, “I’m not drinking tonight.” Who knows — maybe you’ll inspire someone or help them feel less alone.