Refusing Drugs & Alcohol at Holiday Parties

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Staying Sober During the Holiday Season

One of the most important pieces involved in staying sober long-term is knowing how to identify and work through your personal relapse triggers. Depending on your personal experiences, your relapse triggers will vary – they might include avoiding certain people, places or things, or knowing which personal boundaries you need to set and maintain within your interpersonal relationships. However, there are certain relapse triggers that remain somewhat constant across the board. You might have heard the phrase, “H.A.L.T – hungry, angry, lonely or tired.” This phrase is commonly used in recovery communities because hunger, anger, loneliness and social isolation and exhaustion can trigger a return to substance use no matter who you are or what you have been through. Boredom is another big one to keep your eye out for – especially with another round of COVID-related shutdowns and lockdowns looming. An article was published in the AA Grapevine (The International Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous) way back in 1982, titled, “Halt.” The article suggests that no matter how long an alcoholic is sober, he or she immensely benefits from remembering this basic tool. The author of the article noted that with decades of sobriety under her belt, she still refers to this basic phrase on a day-to-day basis. If you suddenly feel like picking up a drink or engaging in drug use is a good idea, it is recommended that you check in with yourself, paying attention to any uncomfortable feelings or emotions that could be triggering these cravings.

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The Most Wonderful Time of The Year… Or So They Say

Another very common relapse trigger is the holiday season – this is the case for a wide variety of reasons. The holiday season is typically full of hustle and bustle, with many of us scrambling to prepare extravagant meals, host and attend numerous holiday-themed parties and travel home to be with our loved ones over Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years. We have time off work, which can be a blessing for some and a curse for others. Financial stressors run exceptionally high during this time of year, as we tend to feel pressured to engage in gift-giving, traveling and generally spending more than we otherwise would. Many of us have to cope with a highly dysfunctional family, knowing that we are about to step head first into seemingly endless political arguments and the drunk musings of our extended family members. Some of us have experienced loss, like the death of a loved one, which makes this time of year extremely difficult from an emotional standpoint. no matter what the holiday season brings about for you, there is a good chance that it is not all smooth sailing.

Holiday Parties – Social Pressures

With the holiday season comes a range of holiday parties, from office parties to White Elephant gift exchanges among friends. The good news is, in light of the recent global pandemic, it will be easier than ever before to avoid social events you simply do not feel like going to (or social events that you know might be a tad bit triggering). If your office party, traditional, family Christmas dinner or “ugly sweater” rendezvous is not canceled in its entirety, you can easily get out of it by saying that you don’t yet feel comfortable intermingling at a large (or small) social gathering. However, there is a good chance that you will still be invited to some small scale social events this year, and hopefully by next Christmas things have been restored to normal and you will have to deal with a barrage of unwanted invitations.

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Holiday Parties and Relapse Triggers

Holiday parties can be triggering for a few reasons. First of all, most of us feel pressured to participate in whatever theme the party has been allotted – whether that means finding the ugliest sweater, purchasing the funniest gift or crafting the most delicious casserole for the holiday potluck. Social pressures take another form, and many holiday parties are written with some degree of peer pressure. When most of us think of peer pressure, we think of a group of high school students surrounding a classmate with a red Solo cup in hand, chanting, “Drink, drink, drink!” One article published in the Drug and Alcohol Review titled, “How the quality of peer relations influences college alcohol use” found that while peer pressure is common among college students and increases rates of college student drinking, research also suggests that adults experience social pressures when it comes to drinking as well. Many holiday parties are rife with peer pressure, even if we fail to realize what is happening in the moment. There is a very good chance that no matter which parties we choose to attend, we will be repeatedly offered alcoholic drinks – and sometimes, even recreational drugs. How do we keep our sobriety intact if we are constantly being offered chemical substances? Are we best to avoid holiday parties all together, or is there a way that we can politely refuse and get our point across firmly without delving into the details of our recovery?

What To Do When You’re Offered Drugs and Alcohol

There is a good chance that you’ll be offered spiked eggnog or another boozy holiday beverage at least once – and you might even be offered a recreational drug like marijuana or cocaine, depending on what kind of party you’re attending. Refusing drugs is pretty easy – simply say, “No thank you,” and no one will ask any questions. Alcohol is another story. Because drinking excessively is so socially acceptable (and encouraged), people might start to ask questions if you simply refuse a drink. Below are several safe and effective ways to politely refuse chemical substances at holiday parties (and to avoid being offered drinks and drugs altogether).

  • Make sure that you always have a drink in hand (non-alcoholic), preferably one that looks like it could contain alcohol – Grab a soda water and garnish it with a lime, or walk around with a champagne flute full of Martinelli’s. If you have a drink in hand, people typically won’t offer you a second.
  • Play the role of designated driver – If you say that you are DD, people won’t pressure you to imbibe – doing so would be harshly irresponsible. If someone does offer you a cup of spiked punch, simply let them know that you are driving and so you aren’t drinking at all.
  • If you feel comfortable doing so, let the partygoers know that you are in recovery – Of course, this is private information, and you need not share it with anyone. But if you do feel comfortable letting people know that you are sober, this is an excellent way to avoid being offered all chemical substances in the future as well. People generally respect sobriety.

Sobriety Never Takes a Vacation

It is important to know that sobriety never takes a vacation – not even over the holidays. In fact, during stressful times of year it is more important than ever that you stay on top of your personal recovery program and do what you need to do in order to maintain the integrity of your sobriety. This might look like amping up your 12-step meeting schedule, scheduling two one-on-one therapy sessions every week rather than one, diving headfirst into your stepwork or spending five more minutes every day engaged in prayer and meditation. While different methods work for different people, we also recommend having a plan in place should you find yourself at a booze-fueled holiday event. Some steps you can take include:

  • Developing an escape plan before you attend a party, which could look like having an excuse ready to go if you feel like you need to get out of there.
  • Having your sober friends on speed dial – let members of your sober support group know that you are about to brave a party with an open bar, and let them know to make themselves available should you call within the next four hours (or however long).
  • Rehearse what you are going to say in the case that you are offered a drink or a drug – remember that “no thank you” is always sufficient.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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