How Two Women With Alcohol Use Disorder Get Through the Holidays
People with alcohol use disorder often struggle during the holidays because of stress — a common trigger for drinking, according to one expert.
Lucy Rocca, 46, began binge drinking when she was 13.
“I was a party animal and grew up in the ’90s. I was into the party scene,” she says.
Rocca, a native of Sheffield, England, was married by age 23. She had a daughter within the same year and about five years later was divorced.
Being a single mother wasn’t easy for Rocca. She began to drink more heavily whenever her daughter visited her father.
One weekend in 2011, Rocca says, she went on a “big, scary binge” and drank three bottles of wine instead of her usual one. She blacked out. A passerby found her and brought her to the hospital. Hours later, when she awoke, she didn’t remember what had happened.
“It was very scary and the worst thing that ever happened to me during drinking. It was a massive wake-up call,” she says.
Once Rocca made the decision to stop drinking, the only option for help at the time was Alcoholics Anonymous, which didn't appeal to her, she says.
“I did it on my own,” says Rocca, who relied on meditation and running instead of wine to calm her nerves. She also saw a counselor to work through historical issues that contributed to her drinking.
“The fear of what happened that night kept me from touching [alcohol] again. It gave me quite a shock,” says Rocca.
Dangerous Drinking: A Worsening Health Problem Among Americans
Alcohol use disorder (AUD), a medical condition in which a person cannot control their alcohol use, is a serious problem facing many people in the United States. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that nearly 15 million people age 12 or older had AUD in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
Findings from the same survey showed that 25.8 percent of people age 18 or older reported engaging in binge drinking — a risk factor for developing AUD — within the past month.
And amid the height of the pandemic in 2020, alcohol use worsened among U.S. adults, according to a December 2020 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. While restaurants and bars were closed, brick-and-mortar alcohol dollar sales increased by 21 percent, while online sales of alcohol rose 234 percent compared with one year prior, according to survey findings published in May 2020 by NielsenIQ, a retail and consumer data platform.
The consequences of alcohol misuse are serious. Heavy drinkers are 70 to 93 times more likely to have an alcohol-related emergency room trip like Rocca’s compared with people who do not binge drink, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
But even if you don’t have a drinking problem, alcohol use is not without health risks. In a July 2021 study published in The Lancet Oncology, researchers found that alcohol consumption was linked to more than 4 percent of all new cases of cancer around the world in 2020, especially esophagus, liver, and breast cancers.
Their findings also showed that the more people drank, the higher their risk of developing an alcohol-related cancer.
Women who drink tend to have a higher risk of alcohol-related health issues than men, including problems with memory, attention, and decision-making, report the authors of a review article published in September 2020 in Alcohol Research.
Why the Holidays Are So Difficult if You Have Alcohol Use Disorder
The stress that accompanies the holiday season can often drive people to drink excessively. “Stress is the major stimulus for relapse in all addictions,” says George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Why is alcohol a common coping mechanism of choice during this time of year? “Drinking dulls negative feelings, and it can start with [just] one drink,” says Dr. Koob.
This can quickly become a slippery slope, Koob explains. The more you drink, the more it dulls stress and other negative emotions — but over time, it will take more and more alcohol to do so because you will build up an acute tolerance to alcohol along the way, says Koob.
Barb, 59, from Toronto, says that stress was a big trigger for her to drink. Since recovering from AUD in May 2015, Barb has now found ways to enjoy the holidays without getting so stressed she wants to reach for a drink.
“I had to learn to step back and say, If I didn’t get things done, it’s okay. That was hard, but it really doesn’t matter,” Barb says.
She learned to reframe her worries about not finishing all her holiday plans. “‘Stay in the day’ is my motto. Keep yourself rooted in just today. Don’t get overwhelmed,” she adds.
Barb says she’s now comfortable being at a party with a ginger ale in her hand while she tells jokes to others around her. “It doesn’t matter whether I’m drinking. [I realized] no one actually cares what’s in your glass. That was a big revelation for me,” she says.
Things weren’t always this easy for Barb. During the first year or two while she got sober, Barb says, she avoided holiday parties.
“I thought they could be a problem. I also didn’t want to be with the people I used to drink with,” she says.
How to Stay Sober During the Holidays
Experts say there are many ways to stay sober both during the holiday season and year-round — one size doesn’t fit all. The most important thing you can do to get and stay sober is to seek professional help. Counseling, support groups, rehabilitation programs, and medication prescribed by a doctor can all help you recover from AUD.
If you’re early on in your recovery from AUD, Mark Willenbring, MD, an addiction psychiatrist and CEO of Alltyr, an addiction and mental health clinic in St. Paul, Minnesota, recommends being “hypervigilant” about activities you participate in and places you go.
Koob says the best way to get through the holidays without drinking is to “make a plan and stick to it.”
If you plan to go to a party where alcohol will be served, Koob recommends pouring some Perrier into a champagne glass from the outset — he adds that people will likely not notice it’s not champagne. Don’t reach for the real thing and pretend to take a sip, warns Koob.
Alcohol-related cues can trigger cravings and potential relapse, adds Koob. He recommends asking the host if any holiday-related desserts have alcohol in them. If so, don’t eat them — the smell of the alcohol in your nostrils can elicit memories that will cause you to crave it, says Koob.
“Even people 40 years sober out of the blue can have a relapse,” Koob says.
Another strategy you can use while attending holiday parties is to bring a friend who is going to stay with you the whole time and help you stay accountable. Give them permission to move your hand from an alcoholic drink to a nonalcoholic drink, advises Koob.
And don’t forget to prepare an exit strategy if you feel too vulnerable to drinking at a party. Leave with a friend or have the number for a car service on hand to call and take you home. “You want to leave before anything happens,” says Dr. Willenbring.
Weddings can be another high-risk situation for people in recovery. “You want to go before [food] is served and the party really starts,” says Willenbring. But if you stay for the reception, Willenbring suggests bringing a creative, alcohol-free drink as a hostess gift so you have something safe to drink.
Barb likes to bring fun, nonalcoholic beverages, such as Seedlip nonalcoholic spirits, to holiday parties. She also likes to bring fizzy drinks that look like champagne.
“This might be a trigger for some people, but it helped me feel like I didn’t have a big ‘alcoholic’ sticker on my forehead at parties,” says Barb.
Drinking vinegars called shrubs, made with a combination of fruit, sugar, and acid, are another non-alcohol option gaining in popularity.
If you do slip up at a holiday party, don’t beat yourself up, says Willenbring. “Almost everyone has one or more recurrences during the first year they stop drinking. They’re typically fairly brief,” he says. “If you have a recurrence, make it short and shallow and not deep. You want to get right back on track.”
Beyond the Holidays: Staying Sober Once the Party’s Over
Even if these strategies make getting through the holiday season a bit easier for you, you may want to find other ways to help you stay the course in recovery once the festivities end.
After Barb received professional help to get sober, she turned to an online global chat room called Soberistas, which was founded by Rocca.
“That’s where I found a cohort of women like me,” Barb says, adding that she found the exercise of writing about how she was feeling about her sobriety much more helpful than talking about it.
“As I blogged on Soberistas (and through receiving feedback), I was able to process what I was going through. Also, I was able to read other people’s stories and get perspectives from people thousands of miles away that were in the early stages of sobriety as well,” says Barb.
“I meet up and travel with these women and men,” Barb adds. “It’s a fantastic group of people who I would never have met otherwise.”
If you think you have a drinking problem and need help finding treatment, visit the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s Alcohol Treatment Navigator or the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator.