Holidays can put recovery at risk for alcoholics

The holiday season between Christmas and News Year's Day can be a testing time for recovering alcoholics trying to stay sober.

If alcohol has a season, it is right now.

Alcoholics feel particularly vulnerable during holidays by pointing out to them the shortfalls in their lives. It's self-delusional, of course, but many alcoholics believe that because life has failed them, it's a reason to drink.

As if alcoholics needed a reason to drink.

Some drinkers believe New Year's is coming up so it's OK to drink. But, after the holidays, they are filled with guilt and remorse.

Other heavy drinkers say the holidays mean nothing -- that when you drink, it's just another "drinking day," as they call it.

At open-to-the-public Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in Lewisburg and Sunbury on Friday, members were eager to share their experiences and talk about temptations to drink during the holiday season.

Because AA members prefer anonymity, the names of those interviewed might or might not be fictious.

Shawn, of Lewisburg, said, "At this time of year, I tend to stay away from parties where I know alcohol is being served, but if I do go I just remember that I shouldn't be drinking because I am an alcoholic. I refuse any kind of alcohol. I have to keep on my toes and pour my own drinks if I can because somebody might spike it, or someone might pass you something and say it's just Coca Cola' or juice. I'll watch the drinks being poured or pour it myself. Those are some of the precautions I personally have to take."

Shawn recalls being at a New Year's party one year where there was much toasting going on. "I was with another AA recovering person and everyone was raising their wine up or champagne at midnight... we raised the soda up, and a woman looked at us quite derisively, and said, Oh look, AA has got the soda,' and laughed at me. I remember that."

Shawn has been sober eight years.

Steve, a recovering alcoholic (sober for almost five years) from Lewisburg, said, "The holiday season isn't really a difficult time for me. I've been in the AA program for quite a few years and I think that particularly at this time of year, you should go to meetings on a regular basis. If I start to feel a little uncomfortable, I try to hit more meetings. If I have to go to parties or other social events, it's always good for me to bring along another member of AA. If I can't, I always have a way out. I drive myself, so that if I am not feeling right about a party, I can just get up and leave. I don't have to stay until the end of the party, like I used to, when I was drinking.

"At this time of year, no doubt about it, I've had thoughts about drinking," he said. "I've driven by a liquor store and thought, ah, look at the price on that bottle. It's really cheap.'

"I always thought that if I went to a party and someone offered me a drink and I asked for a Coke, they would say, What's wrong with you?' But what I've learned through the years is, people don't really care one way or the other."

A woman who chose to call herself anonymous (she also refused to say where she is from), said, "This is a difficult time of year. Particularly because there are more memories associated with the holidays than any other time. I don't remember what I did on March 7 or April 20. They are not prime numbers in my mind. But Christmas and New Year's have family memories, memories of people who are gone and people who are here. So it's more nostalgic. There's more emotional booby traps than we'd have at other times of year.

"My advice for alcoholics is to do the same things they do every day. Use a sponsor, go to meetings, read the literature, stay connected. I don't go around alcohol a lot. I don't have it in my house, I don't hang out with people who drink it, I don't go to places where it's served. I'll occasionally go out to dinner, but if I'm uncomfortable I don't go. Or I leave. It's important to have a way to get away if you need to.

"Alcoholism is sneaky," said anonymous. "You're never over it. It's always there. It can be arrested, but never gotten over completely and it doesn't matter how many years you've been sober. If you are an alcoholic, you think about drinking in ways that are different from other people. There is always that illusion that it's been a while or I could do this or I could have that. All the excuses. If I drink here, it wouldn't be a problem. And there are stories of people who have relapsed after really long terms and they end up dead.

"I've probably gone to 8,000 hours of AA meetings in a 25-year period since I became sober," she added, sadly. "And many people aren't here anymore. They would disappear. There is a lot of loss. A lot of recovery too, but more loss than you'd imagine."

Bob, from the Mifflinburg area is 60 days sober. He said, "this holiday season has been a difficult time of year for me. I come from a family of party people and now that I don't drink, it was a little rough at first to be with them. They did, however, support me and took away the alcohol at Christmas parties.

"This time of year, I felt more alone than I have in a long time Even being with my family, I felt alone, because when you give yourself to AA, give up the bottle after drinking for two-thirds of your life, you also give up your friends you've known all your life. Your drinking buddies."

Bob is able to deal with the season by knowing he has a sponsor to turn to. "If I have that urge, I can call him if everything went wrong at work. I would come with all kinds of excuses to stop and have that beer. One won't hurt,' I'd say to myself. But it will. So you need a support group. The sponsor will come get to you, talk to you... and the urge will usually pass."

Ben, sober for five and a half years is originally from Pittsburgh, and lives in the Lewisburg area. "In the beginning, I had a very rough time. I was a terrible person. My holidays were tougher on my family than they were on me. I was drinking, blind drunk. I wouldn't remember anything the next day. If I did remember something from the night before, it meant I didn't drink enough. My family would cry all night while I was away. It's a family illness, and if you're married with a couple of kids the emotional damage for them is 10 times worse. It should be a capital offense. I really believe that.

"Active alcoholics hurt a lot of people, mostly their families. I didn't want to, but I did. And during the holidays? Wow."

All of Ben's drinking days were tough, he said, not just Christmas and New Year's eve. "Those particular days were just an excuse to do more stupid things. I even once committed a robbery during the holidays. Crazy right? But, at least I was able to do something successfully. Even if it was criminal. By that time, I was in really terrible shape. I nearly died from alcoholism. I was as close to dying as anyone could be. I came out here to die. And I started going to meetings, got some hope...and little by little, I started getting better. Things didn't get better, but I got better.

"I was divorced. My family wouldn't have anything to do with me except my sister, who lived in this area. My three kids wouldn't talk to me. My wife divorced me. I was literally alone. I had to lose everything. I had no job. No money. But once I got here, I fell in love, got married and I'm living a good life.

John, of New Columbia, sober for less than three weeks, shared his thoughts with the Lewisburg AA group and confessed that this year provided a "new experience at Christmas. It was the first time in a long time without drinking. I didn't knock over the Christmas tree. So that was nice."

At the Sunbury AA meeting, Gene, from Coal Township, who has been sober for 30 years, said, "I'm OK now. I can deal with the amateurs out there on New Year's eve, out to prove how good a drinker they are. This is a tough time of year for newcomers. They have a difficult time with the un-wise men passing off gifts of alcohol. It's that time of year. Booze is flying around pretty loosely. We advise our newer members to stay close to the fellowship, attend plenty of meetings and keep close to your sponsors, stay away from parties, events that serve alcohol if you think you might be uncomfortable there, don't stay around people drinking alcohol."

Talking about the holidays, Gene said, "for most of us alcoholics, we'd drink every day anyhow. The holidays are just a cover up to do what we do naturally. It's the time of the year when people see us in all our natural behavior and they make allowances for us, because it is the holidays and everybody's doing it. Not knowing that we do it every day."

Gene said that on New Year's eve there would be "60 of us at someone's home celebrating in our own, non-alcoholic way. And we do this every Dec. 31. We provide a safe place for people who don't want to drink that night.

"We have a feast. It's become a tradition for this group."

But there are other ways to avoid those drinks.

Consider these New Year's eve tips courtesy of the recovering alcoholics at the Sunbury and Lewisburg area AA fellowships:

Keep a non-alcohol drink in your hand at all times.

Be prepared with what you are going to do when someone opens a beer or mixes a drink, and sticks it in your hand. Be very firm.

Remember the people you know that don't drink much or any, and seek out their company.

Keep a phone list (of sponsors if you're in AA) with you. If you have problems and you feel like you might need some help, call someone.

If you're starting to feel a little thirsty, like maybe one drink might take the edge off the nervousness, leave.

Expect questions about why you are not drinking. One suggestion: Say "doctor's orders," and leave it at that.

The AA groups we talked to for this article meet regularly in St. Matthews Church on Front Street in Sunbury and in First Baptist Church on Third Street in Lewisburg.