Many Americans increase their alcohol consumption during the holiday season, often beginning with the night before Thanksgiving. The coronavirus pandemic has been cause for even more imbibing.
Heading into the holidays during a pandemic, then, means anyone who wants to remain sober may have their work cut out for them. But experts say it’s possible to stay sober through planning, focus and an understanding of some common triggers, as well as personal insight into what works best to overcome them.
Here are five things to keep in mind if you’re trying to keep sober during the holidays this year:
Melissa Fors, spokeswoman for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said people tend to experience additional stress around the holidays for a number of reasons, including concerns about money for presents, spending time with family members with whom relationships may be strained or wanting to make everything nice for others.
“People have these high expectations of picture-perfect holidays, and that’s just not reality for so many people. So that in itself, having those very high expectations, creates this very challenging time of year for so many of us,” she said.
This year, there may be the added stress of not being able to see loved ones during the holidays or having to navigate the new normal by replacing in-person visits with virtual ones.
Not seeing the people you care about can add stress and many people have been feeling increasingly lonely during the pandemic, and both of these can trigger the urge to drink.
“Addiction is a disease of isolation. Just because we’re socially distant doesn’t mean we have to be socially isolated,” she said. “This year in particular, I think that social distancing really exacerbates the mental health challenges for so many people, particularly those that are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol or those that are in recovery.”
Many people underestimate the importance of human connection and may not understand why they increasingly feel upset.
“That means whether you’re concerned about a friend or family member or yourself, connection is really the key,” she said. “Talk on the phone, meet on Zoom, FaceTime, text, there are so many different ways and strategies to connect with people so that you’re not being socially isolated.”
Distance can also pose another obstacle for those worried about friends or family members who struggle with sobriety, those who under normal circumstances people might talk to when they’re not drunk.
“Because of concerns about social distancing, you might not be able to this year talk to someone in person, but it is still important that you talk to them,” Fors said.
“You’ve got cocktail parties at work, drinking events to celebrate the holidays with your friends, your family celebrations really often are centered around alcohol use, so this is really a season where there is just a great number of minefields to navigate,” Fors said.
For those gathering in person, it is OK to speak with a host beforehand to ask if alcohol will be served and to either decline an invitation or to explain that you will not be drinking, if that will make you feel accountable. It’s also OK to ask the host to consider having a dry event.
Fors also recommended asking if you can bring a guest — a sober companion — or if going solo, drive yourself to leave when you’d like.
While a bottle of wine is a go-to hostess gift for many, don’t let your sobriety stop you from offering up a traditional gift, said Hilary Sheinbaum, a writer and author of “The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month,” due out Dec. 29.
“If you are going to someone’s home, you can opt to bring a pie or another holiday staple, or even a candle — it doesn’t have to be food and beverage — to show how much you appreciate being there,” Sheinbaum said.
Some people love tradition, and others find them stressful. But just because booze isn’t on your menu doesn’t mean you can’t participate in traditions.
One that has become increasingly popular in recent decades is “Blackout Wednesday” or “Drinksgiving,” the day before Thanksgiving, often thought to be the biggest drinking day of the year.
“Everyone has the next day off. At Christmas that’s true, too, but more people are spending time with family on Christmas Eve,” Fors said.
Those who want to socialize but not drink alcohol can try holding a nonalcoholic drink at all times, so no one offers to buy you a drink, Fors said.
Don’t assume you can’t have eggnog or anything else you usually enjoy during the holidays. There are many nonalcoholic beers, wines and spirits available.
“If you’re looking to not consume alcohol during Thanksgiving or Christmas or Hanukkah or any other festive holiday … you can certainly start making those traditions and announcing them and saying, ‘Instead of our boozy eggnog, or the drink we get together and make every time, this year I’m going to make a hot peppermint cocoa,’” she said.
At the start of the pandemic, alcohol sales saw a massive spike, Fors said. Bars had just closed, so it made sense people would purchase alcohol for home consumption.
But as the year wore on, Fors saw another staggering figure, this time from the Rand Corporation. From 2019 to 2020, there has been a 41% increase in binge drinking by women, defined as having four or more drinks in a sitting.
“Women are dramatically drinking more than 2019,” she said. “There’s so much going on this year. When you think all the stressors, you think about record unemployment, having to home-school your children, not having the support of friends and family, the focus on racial justice, obviously a pandemic, an election.”
Sometimes, people successfully take advantage of what’s known as Dry January, the trend of trying 30 days without alcohol after the holidays, to try to cut down their drinking.
Sheinbaum decided to try “Dry January,” four years ago. At the time, she mainly wrote about food and beverages, and often attended cocktail parties for work. A friend wanted to bet her an expensive dinner he could outlast her attempt, and she “literally rolled my eyes and changed the subject,” she said. But a few minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve, she called him and accepted.
She won — but not just the fancy dinner.
“I just felt, even in the gloomiest, darkest days of New York City winter, like this happy human, and it hadn’t occurred to me that alcohol was affecting me so much.”
But just as a month of sobriety can set a person up for a healthy year ahead, Fors warns the pandemic is making for a slippery slope for those trying to achieve sobriety.
“The CDC had a data point that says 41% of adults are struggling with either mental health issues, substance use issues or suicidal ideation during the pandemic. … That’s why reaching out is so important right now,” she said.
Hazelden is among the treatment programs that offer virtual intensive outpatient services, which can be attended on a computer or a phone. The success rate for people staying sober in online treatment has stayed on par with in-person outpatient services, she said.
Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and the national Treatment Referral Routing Service (1-800-662-HELP) offer 24-hour helplines. Support groups including AA are also offering online meetings, often around the clock.
“Whether for yourself or someone else, whether they’ve relapsed in their recovery or they’re struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, I think a really important point is to know that it doesn’t mean that these are bad people,” Fors said. “It just means they’re sick and they need help, and it’s really OK to get professional help.”
Article by chicagotribune