I just celebrated my first Thanksgiving sober. My parents, three siblings and our 13 children gathered at my brother’s home in the country, where we could social distance and stay outside (in the frigid drizzle around a smoking bonfire—not as cozy as it sounds. Thanks COVID). We told lots of jokes, ate too much food and no one fell off the roof. It was a good day.

I prepared my dishes in advance and brought fixins for mocktails—kombucha, ginger beer and alcohol-free IPAs—so that I could participate in the ceremonial “pouring of the drinks.” To my pleasant surprise. I felt relieved to skip the alcohol this year. Family events are chaotic. Even when everything goes as planned and everyone is on their best behavior, it’s a marathon. In the past, I’d have started with mimosas, moved to cocktails, opened the first bottle of wine and volunteered to find the whiskey once the dinner dishes were cleared. I’d have titrated my intake like a professional, hydrating to stay above the buzz and accentuating the fun in my dysfunctional. All while serving food, helping with clean up and putting out fires (both real and metaphorical).

Newly sober people wonder how to make it through the holidays without drinking. Now that I’ve done it, I have to ask—how did I manage all that chaos while intoxicated? That was exhausting! It’s been eight months since I’ve had a drink, and while I intended to keep it that way, I wondered if I’d really enjoy myself. I was delighted to discover there was no desire to escape from the people I’ve been looking forward to seeing, or to get through the day with the “assistance” of alcohol.

I did need a few time-outs, however. So, I found space on an unoccupied porch, walked around outside and even did some snooping–no dead bodies, porn movies or falsified papers were found, but I do have some follow up questions for my brother that I will save for another time. With so many people in various places, no one missed me for a few minutes here and there. It is possible to carve out alone-time in a crowded place if you don’t count the dogs.

Throughout the day, whenever I started to feel discombobulated, I acknowledged the sensation in the same way I would the need to use the bathroom. It was a private matter that called for healthy emotional hygiene. Alcohol isn’t a cure —it never was. In hindsight, it was actually a huge source of stress. I only needed to catch my breath, quiet my mind and give myself some room. Staying present was a strange and pleasant, albeit mildly taxing experience (meaning that it required some attention and effort). In comparison, it was far better than the alternative. I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time.

An opportunity to share this lesson with my 16-year-old daughter presented itself. She was having fun with her cousins. They were playing Minecraft, shooting hoops, one-upping each other’s stories and Lord-only-knows what else. I hadn’t seen her all day when she pulled me aside. The tears in her eyes startled me. “Mom, do you have anything I can take for anxiety? I’m feeling really overwhelmed.”

A year ago, I’d have rushed to my bag of supplements, essential oils and placebos. I might have even given her a swig of my wine. I still believed in external remedies for internal discomfort (and also that wine was a God-given panacea designed specifically for family gatherings). But this time, I decided to teach her how to soothe herself. As she has her learner’s permit, I offered to let her take us for a drive and listen to some music. We snuck out and hit the country roads. It worked like a charm. Within 15 minutes, we rejoined the party, both of us feeling refreshed. The bonus for me is an awesome memory of the two of us belting out Lady Gaga at the top of our lungs. We nailed it.

I am grateful to have a family that I enjoy being around. For those who are not as lucky, however, the same approach to self-care applies. It’s about setting boundaries and respecting your limits. For some, that may require foregoing a booze-filled gathering all together. For others, it may require a smaller time slot, a sober buddy or change in venue. There is no need to negotiate agreement from other people. You do you. Let other grownups take care of themselves. The only priority is staying sober, whatever that takes.

Sobriety is a gift, not a punishment. Drinking through the holidays is exhausting–brutilizing to both mental and physical health. Alcohol is an addictive substance that requires so much effort to control (only to fail anyway, whether anyone notices or not). This year, I didn’t have to try so hard. I had nothing to hide and no need to second guess what I was thinking, feeling or saying. I enjoyed just being—with the people I love the most—clear-headed, grateful and more energetic than I’ve felt in a long time. I’m thankfully sober . . .

 

 

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