There is a sign on Interstate 70 eastbound in the Floyd Hill area just before you exit the Rocky Mountains headed for Denver that says, “Attention Truckers: You Are Not Down Yet – Four More Miles of Steep and Winding Highway.” I am in pretty close contact with a lot of people who are navigating the holidays sober for the first time. If you are one of those people, that message on I70 is meant for you.
If you made it through Halloween without drinking, I am proud of you. Congratulations if you successfully abstained through Thanksgiving. That is awesome. If you waded through the excesses and overindulgence of December, including Christmas Day, and you protected your sobriety, that is outstanding. But don’t drop your guard now. There is a lot of work and immediate threat staring you in the face, and I’m not talking about New Year’s Eve.
Attention former drinkers: you are not done yet! Don’t drop your guard. There are miles of winding triggers still in your immediate future!
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that while there are as many reasons that people drink as there are drinkers, we all share one thing in common. Once we’ve learned to drink, we use alcohol to fill the gaps in our lives. Whether we own our addiction, or describe ourselves as slogging through the gray area of potentially problematic drinking, we’ve all grown uncomfortable with idle, restful, quiet time. We don’t know what to do with ourselves when we don’t know what to do. And what do we do when we don’t know? We drink. We fill the void with the remedy we’ve assigned to virtually everything for years, maybe decades.
Lonely? Drinking blunts the sharpness of isolation. Bored? Alcohol soothes the synapses that are eager for stimulation. Restless when you’d prefer to be restful? Booze can throw the switch from engaged to numb like no other tool I’ve ever encountered. Waiting? Nothing passes time like the elixir that leaves wasted opportunities and flickering memories in its wake.
In early sobriety, we have our guard up defending at maximum threat level in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Office parties and neighborhood boozers are around every corner, and we can’t be too careful. Early sobriety is a delicate dream to be protected at all costs. We can’t accept bottles of wine as gifts. We can’t toast to the successes of the year, alcoholic beverage of choice hoisted high. We can’t stay out late and behave with reckless abandon because recklessness is the reason we’re in this jam to begin with.
But now, Christmas is behind us for another year. The threat level diminishes, and we feel immense relief for having survived the season with our dignity and sobriety intact. New Year’s Eve is just one night of buffoonery, and it doesn’t pose the same hazard as a month of excess. So what does the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day have in store for us? For most of us, this week presents us with lots of down time at precisely the moment we drop our defenses.
This week combines weakness with boredom. That, my friends, is a recipe for relapse.
No one will be looking. All of those people who noticed your abstinence during holiday parties and happy hours in December, they won’t notice if you drink this week. Your family is returning to the normal activities of midwinter without giving your sobriety a second thought. All the tough conversations and awkward moments you prepared yourself for are already a distant memory. You made it. You passed the test. The pressure to resist, along with the inseparable accountability are both long gone. If you drink now, it will be off the radar.
But you’ll know. You’ll suffer and self-loathe and be overwhelmed by shame. How could the person who exhibited such strength against such odds be brought to his knees by complacency and idleness?
I can’t count the times I made it over a sobriety hump only to crumble a few days later and drink. It’s a trap. The reward of relaxation and solemnity are nothing but trouble when our subconscious mind is still grooved to make us consume alcohol at any cost. We must realize that as we bask in the shimmering light of successfully navigating Christmas sober, the much more daunting danger lies ahead. We aren’t down yet. Miles of steep and winding highway lie ahead.
So how do we ward off the demon of quiet stillness? Connect. Find sober friends. Don’t let our families slink away back to their routines and private lives. Ask for help from the very people who saw you look so in control as the holidays approached. Don’t let them distance themselves and leave you to your own lonely devices. Make plans and keep them. Volunteer. Take a class. Shovel snow for a neighbor. Take your mom to lunch. Do something with someone. Just don’t isolate and let the thoughts of “just one” or “this time will be different” creep in. Muster back the strength of mid-December, and acknowledge that the threat level remains high. It’s going to be high for quite a while. You’re not down yet. Keep going, but proceed with caution.
I’m proud of you. Your efforts are going to payoff in the end, and you’re making great progress. Just don’t think the fight is over because Bing Crosby stopped singing on the radio. Stay connected. Find the people who love you. They’re still on your side.
And I’m on your side, too. If you would like some help swimming the treacherous waters of early recovery, consider enrolling in SHOUT Sobriety. We’ll help you with connection and curriculum and accountability. We are a donation-based program, and we request a $25 per month recurring donation so we can get future troubled drinkers started on the path to sobriety. For more information, to enroll or to make a donation, please click the button below. Remember, we are all in this together.