I don’t remember much about the first Thanksgiving that I was sober, except that I was fixated on an old photo of me pouring a bottle of Prosecco on the bird, with a Facebook caption that read, “My contribution to the cooking!” Hey, it’s in the actual recipe, and for the record, I was being instructed by a professional chef I worked with who had kindly come over for Thanksgiving. It made the turkey moist, he said. Friends, I did not care about the tenderness of the turkey.
That was 2013, when I decided that I really was like all of the other people I’d heard about, mostly from memoirs, who loved drinking and then it wrecked them. To be honest, I don’t know how many days I had sober Thanksgiving 2015, though I know I first entered 12 Step Rooms in September, and I took a drink during a work trip in between. Well, more than a drink. I do not have just one.
I have celebrated three holidays sober. It is only on this, the fourth one, that I feel remotely festive, though my holidays, like everything else are markedly different. With about 36 hours before Thanksgiving, I can say that the holidays aren’t particularly angst-ridden for me other than in ways that they are for any other human. I do feel viscerally for the person who is heading into this season during their first, sober holiday season. That is a long way of saying this: if you are that person, or still trying to figure out the first years of sobriety, this is what I’ve learned.
Getting sober and entering into recovery is the single hardest thing I have ever done and continue to do on a daily basis. But also without getting sober and entering into recovery I might be just like the 88,000 people who die every single year because of alcohol. (Including a staggering number of women.) Or maybe I would just continue to spiritually die, to squander all the opportunities I’d worked for and been given, and to generally be a jerk. Somehow I am still here. Life is pretty great in sobriety, which loads of voices are shining a light on these days.
But that first year was hard. And second. And third.
The first year I realized I could no longer hide behind the “festivity” of specialty cocktails and wine (though I knew I’d just end up drinking the rest of the gin or the wine alone after everyone left). It meant instead dragging myself into rooms of strangers and feeling really uncomfortable saying things about myself I didn’t know were yet true (“Hi, I’m Erin, and I’m an alcoholic”), and things I absolutely knew were (“I don’t know how to do this and I am scared.”)
That first season was just prayers to stay sober, to not follow my instinct and the only way that I’d known to cope with my emotion for 20 years. To not pick up a wine glass. To go against the grain in a world that tells us alcohol is inextricably intertwined with celebration. That first year I felt lonely and isolated everywhere except for a few friends I’d met online through digital recovery networks and church basements, though I couldn’t always related to what those folks were saying either. I hadn’t lost everything. Yet. I kept going.
I stayed sober that first holiday but not forever. Three months later, holidays passed, guard down, I drank. And then I stopped. Something guttural, visceral cried out in me. I went back at it, used tools that have worked for other people, stayed willing, stayed open. So far I have not taken a drink. Holidays have come and gone.
There were holidays were, though sober from alcohol, I wasn’t ready to be out to a Christmas dinner. Year two, a joke made here or there about my seltzer, me storming off from the table. There was the year where I sat in a conference room at work alone, while colleagues continued a boozy brunch into the day. (I’ll never forget the one person who ducked his head in and said, “Hey, you OK?”) I was not OK.
Being sober at the holidays is hard. And then it starts to get better. This year is the first year in four where my thawed out feelings could actually feel what I wanted to do again. And that happened to be putting up the gold tinsel tree I got on clearance.
I even broke my own rule, decorating before Thanksgiving. I actually felt festive.
I actually wanted to feel.
I can give you tips about how to survive your first holiday sober, but they aren’t completely original. Yes, always have your own non-alcoholic beverage in your hand, an escape plan, and check-in with yourself about if you actually want to be at an event. Keep your support system handy, don’t be afraid to reach out to other people in recovery, and load up your tool box with things that nourish your soul and spirit and person. Don’t know what they are yet? This is a good time to ask other folks who’ve walked this walk. (Here’s a great episode on holidays from The Unruffled Podcast)
Underneath that, underneath festive mocktails and booze-free alternative activities, there is still you. You, you beautiful human, walking around with all of your humanity that you’re trying to feel and process, maybe for the first time, while the world is on fire.
You will be there the day after Thanksgiving.
You will be there the day after your office party.
You get to wake up and choose, each day, you.
I know, that if I don’t deal with myself, with the ancient wounds, the Whack-A-Mole resentments, the nagging false guilt, I will at worse, drink again. But there are a world of unkind things I can do to myself if I don’t keep doing the work on me. This year I’ve seen so many people return to the thing that anesthetizes them, if not one drug than another. And I’ll be damned if I ever go back to that place.
I like Christmas with gold tinsel trees and remembering what I did the night before. I like my new puppy at my toes and my family under blankets. I like what’s returning. It has taken time, and is still unfolding.
That’s what I want folks who are starting to get sober to know recovery results in miracles but they don’t always come by the time the turkey is served. Mostly I think the biggest lesson I can share is that terrible cliche that time takes time. This may not help you when you are on the edge of trying to decide to take a drink or not, I know. But I hope if you are reading this in a quiet moment, you hear me when I say: “It can get better. Please give this a chance.” And then do whatever it takes to protect the most precious gift you can give yourself: the chance to show up fully for yourself and for the world.
If you are newly sober, or still in year one or two, and teetering this season: I know how hard it is. You are not alone. You are marvelous for choosing to fight for yourself. And, the truth that took me far too long to learn: there is nothing that a single drink, or 10 drinks, will make better. It a warrior way to walk this path, and I promise that sobriety gives everything alcohol promised. And we need you. Keep going.