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7 Tips for Staying Sober on the Holidays

7 Tips for Staying Sober on the Holidays

7 Tips for Staying Sober on the Holidays from Eric Rutherford

Whether you’re with your family or friends, your support system is absolutely essential.

I started drinking when I was just 11 years old. As a child actor in my local dinner theatre, I was hanging out with other kids, but also working professionally around adults with a cocktail bar as our backstage area. This meant my exposure to social drinking happened totally prematurely. It all progressed rather quickly -- going from someone buying me a drink because they thought it was 'cute', to smoking pot in the woods, to asking adults to buy us peach schnaps at 7/11, to (finally) going to bars. I went to my first gay bar at 14, tried my first line of coke at 15, began bingeing on cocaine and alcohol by 16, and eventually bottomed out by 17. At the time, I knew I had an issue. I said to my parents, "I think I might have a problem." But at the time, they thought I was too young to be an addict. So we didn't do anything about it.

By the time I turned 21, I was a self-loathing, lost soul that had lost faith in any kind of brighter future. I used to joke that I would be dead by 21 and the way I was going, I was on my way. I remember I was at the swanky, LA, apartment of someone who wanted to date me, drinking a bottle of his expensive champagne all by myself, having my own pity-party, when he approached me and said, "Do you think you've had enough?" I was slurring my words in response when he offered to introduce me to a man named Dennis who was celebrating one year of sobriety the very next day.

There was something in this timing, where a small door opened with a tiny crack of light. I said, yes. And I remember we got to Cedars-Sinai on a Saturday night, and I broke into a sweat when Dennis got up to speak. But that did it for me: I didn't have a drink that night, and the next morning, I stood up at a meeting and said, "Hi, I'm an Eric, and I'm an alcoholic and addict." I've been clean and sober ever since.

Next May will mark 30 years of being clean and sober. Looking back on almost three decades, I can approach sobriety with a bit more lightness than when I first started, and I'm so grateful for that. In the beginning, my biggest struggle was with my sense of worthlessness and self-loathing -- it seemed so dark and deep that I thought I would never get out of it. For the first two years of my sober journey, most of what I can remember was being angry at AA meetings or laying on my bed with a whole lot of crying. Now, when I look back at that person, I just want to tell him that I love him.

Because he got through it! One day at a time, sometimes one minute at a time, I began to change. Eventually, I learned how to maneuver and re-enter the world, and experience friendships, love, and enjoyment on a whole new level. It was not easy, and I needed a support system of people around me, but I did it -- and I know how hard it is for anyone on any part of this journey.

A lot of people experience the hardest parts of sobriety during the holidays -- when family, friends, constant partying around alcohol and substances, and even past traumas from this time of the year -- all seem to be in full force. The holidays may be an extremely difficult time, and experiencing them through sobriety (for the first time, or for the thirtieth!) can sometimes feel daunting. Everyone's journey is different, but I wanted to be able to share some of my coping mechanisms with you in the hopes that it might help. Whether you yourself are sober, or you know someone who is newly sober, I hope you find these tips helpful in your own way. I like to call them my 'tool kit' for living.

1. Have a party pal. Share the fun with a sober friend who you can lean on, laugh with, or get your groove thing on with! It's all about finding that friend, going out, having fun with them, and allowing them to become your wingman. They're there for you to lean on. So many times -- and I had this myself -- people will say to me, "How can you still have fun while sober?!" To be honest, I had to practice this 'new' behaviour. I had to find a way to still have that feeling of lightness, or ebullience on the dance floor. I think having that someone, whether it's at a club or drinks after work with friends or a holiday party, or even going out is essential. And the good news is: You don't need these people to also be sober! You can commission an ally for the evening, and communicate to them that you need someone by your side. What I ask my friends or partners in this instance is to help pull me out of situations where the substance use may be intense or trigger old behaviour. Many times, I'll work out cues with my partner (like an abrupt bathroom break) that communicate I need a break or it's time for us to go. I also ask them ahead of time to interject on my behalf if something is getting out of hand, or if someone is pressuring me (without knowing I'm sober) to have a drink or a puff.

2. Be the sober hostess with the mostest! After getting sober, I often wondered to myself, "Where do I belong?" When you're out in social situations, and the old you was all drinking or using, it all kept you very busy. Once I got sober, I found a way to retain some of my old friend circle by assuming the role of "unofficial host." My favorite thing to do was and is to bring people together and introduce them, which still allows me to be immersed in the center of the activity and the party. When I first got sober, I was acting like a wallflower, unsure how to fit in. By assuming this new role, I was able to enjoy parties in a totally new way and still forge connections with every person in the room (all while being too busy/concerned with everyone else to think about not needing drink).

3. Pick a treat. Instead of reaching for a drink or a drug, pick a "treat" that makes you smile or happy. I know it's not the answer of all, but it helps me a times. It could be jelly beans, Red Bull, or an extra piece of pumpkin pie. I know -- to say "grab a handful of jelly beans" when you want to crawl out of your skin to prevent yourself from getting a drink can seem like superficial advice. But so often, it's just about satisfying a craving or feeling uncomfortable. So if it helps you to get through the scenario with your mom or your dad or that awful drunk uncle, then grab another piece of pie and dig in. It is still healthier for you than reaching for that 5th glass of wine.

4. Let the bathroom be your safe space. In the middle of a dinner party when emotions can run high, and the wine is getting spilled or the weed is wafting into your face, find a way to step away and don't engage. It allows you to disconnect from all the triggers! Take a breath, wash your hands, and look in the mirror and tell that beautiful person: You are A-OK. If the behavior gets messier, walking away and taking a moment will hopefully give you the perspective to know it's time to go home. If excusing yourself for the bathroom feels awkward or forced, you can also pretend you're answering a phone call or text. This small moment may seem insignificant, but it can really help break the emotional grip that's happening, which is often intertwined with alcohol and can lead you to slip.

5. Fake it 'til you make it. To help with peer pressure at a family party or company cocktail hour, pick a drink that "fakes" a cocktail -- club soda with lime, sparkling cider, or cranberry and a splash of seltzer. Most people are too busy to notice you're not drinking a real drink. (And, as a total aside: If you happen to be non-sober and reading this, please don't be an asshole and ask someone why they're not drinking, or cajole someone into getting a drink. You never know the reason why.)

6. Go to a meeting! Or three! I will say, when I first got sober, I was going to 10 or 12 meetings per week. It helps you begin to learn the tools to staying sober while also building back some sense of hope or faith in your life and self. Plus, it gives you a new perspective of the world beyond the constant drinking and using. If you know you're going to a party or seeing your family that night and can't get to a meeting, then I recommend getting one of the sober apps, checking in, or finding a cyber meeting. Or read a chapter of the Big Book -- basically whatever part of this process helps you reconnect with the work and community you've built outside of substance use.

7. Make sure you have a friend or sponsor on text or speed dial to call or message in an emergency. If you're back home with family and are away from your immediate support system -- or if you're at someone else's house and you don't have your support nearby -- make sure you've told your sponsor or your closest loved one that you might need to reach out to talk. A moment with them, even a supportive text, can help center or ground you so you can feel ready and up for any challenge facing you.

Remember, above all, that you have people who love you, support you and believe in you. For you, being sober is far more important than fitting in at any party or family reunion. It's about believing that you are worth living YOUR BEST LIFE. Because I certainly believe you are.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff and Wayne Brady

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Eric Rutherford