For some of us it’s time to cue the late ‘40s Bing Crosby, or that ‘80s sugary Wham! seasonal pop topper (NOT my favorite) and float back in time to visit the best of our growing-up holiday memories. The joyful celebrations and good times filled with reminiscing about when things seemed simpler. The lights, shiny packages and snow-globed visions that seem so much better-er. A hot chocolate freshly dressed with the tiny-happy marshmallows, an It’s A Wonderful Life movie flashback. How it used to be, back in the day.
Ok, now turn down the sound of the Hallmark holiday special for a minute.
For some of us, along with the traditional holiday tales, there were also the ones of overdoing it. The “let’s not talk about it” drunken escapades that turned into a personal recurring season’s greeting with a familiar chorus. The inevitable, endless self-questioning about why everyone seems to be having so much fun. Why am I so unable to enjoy the holiday cheer moderately?
There are powerful brain triggers, patterns and habits that we develop when we consistently indulge in any party lubricators. My first sober holiday season was nothing short of an Olympic event, and a real game changer for me. I had no money, a new and humbling job where I was no longer well known, a sleigh full of problems financially and relationship issues. Oh, and a blue Christmas tree. No, I’m not kidding — I really did the whole house, inside and out in depressed, weird blue lights. My neighbors hated me.
Getting or being a sober pledge during the Holidays can really, really suck. It’s seriously hard at the start. All of us who live and prosper in a sober community rely on a few key practices, a toolbox of sorts, to get us through the holiday joy-storm. When we may be around friends who celebrate with alcohol or other mind-altering side dishes, we need to pack our defenses and keep that arsenal handy.
So, what’s in mine?
A Plan. Always have an enter and exit strategy. I like to drive myself and park down the block so I can leave whenever I want. Sometimes I’ll go with another sober brother or sister to tighten up my defense. I stand ready at all times to slip out the back with a Plan B in hand and head to a coffee shop, or just go home and spend some time congratulating myself on making it through the night as a Sober Badass Second Class. It’s always OK to smile, say goodnight and thank you, and just split.
Virtual Comfort Level Meter. Like a sound engineer’s dB meter watching the volume at a gig, I keep a close watch on my feelings and emotions. When in situations where I’m suspecting there may be too much holiday cheer, I will come and leave early. Or I will not go at all if I know if a gathering is going to party hard. It’s important for me to not to isolate during this season, but it’s also important to make sure I am comfortable. When I’m not, I act and change something. Quickly.
Self-Respect. My sobriety is my own business. Early on, I felt that I needed to share my story with everyone. To explain and to be understood. Over time, that has changed. Now, I have learned that there are people to whom I want to give an explanation. “Hey, here’s my story.” Sometimes there are people to whom I will give a simple answer, like, “No thanks, man. I’m not good with drinking… it’s not my thing anymore.”
And then there are people who do not deserve any answer at all. These are usually the ones that have done some pre-gaming and have an unhealthy start on the night. Once, when I was a few months sober, I was cornered, pressured and questioned about why I did not want a drink. I tried to explain myself, but when that former longtime party friend persisted, I knew then and there that I had to cut them out of my life for good. Sometimes you have to trim the dead branches (former “friends”?) to let the new ones grow. For these characters I just smile and walk away.
The really good news is that all this got much, much better as I made my way caroling on the sober trail. Now all my mates rarely notice or care what’s in my Red Solo Santa cup. They are just so happy to have me around again.
The holidays are a time when I live in the moment and stay present. It’s the familiar music I love hearing so much; the lightly falling Ohio snow; that kid at Target that is wide eyed and twirly-happy and so full of wonder. It’s that artsy elderly couple walking arm in arm in top coats, berets and who gives-a-damn caring, loving abandon. It’s the silly colored lights I wrap around my guitar rig at gigs and my annual rendition of a vintage Charles Brown holiday blues song. I am more alive in all of these moments now. My chemical-free life on happiness rocks.
In the end, what I have learned is that love is the only thing that really remains when the holidays come and go, and it’s always the best gift to give and receive. This special time of year is about the here and the now, and the compassionate words I don’t hold back from saying this time. The love that leaks out and fills the room.
So… from the deepest part of my heart to you all, happy holidays. Stay strong, sober if you need, and… steady on.