Alcohol and the Holidays: What Makes it Hard to Stay Sober?

Alcohol and the Holidays
December 7, 2014
|   Updated:
November 11, 2021

As the days get shorter, alcohol consumption also goes up, as does binge drinking and drinking and driving. You can blame the crappy weather, but the holidays are the real culprit. While the media portrays them as the “most wonderful time of the year,” the winter season leads many people to feel anxious and alone. This can be especially true for the dependent drinker who is working on recovery.

Social Custom

The combination of alcohol and the holidays is almost unavoidable this time of year.

I know I’ve been to parties in the past where most of the holiday “gifts” are bottles of alcohol. It’s no coincidence that liquor stores become stocked with gift sets as December rolls around. And it’s considered funny to get sloshed at the office party to make for entertaining stories to tell next year. People are encouraged to drink to fit in, and many who don’t even normally drink have trouble staying sober during the holidays.

The dependent drinker faces tough choices when attending events with friends and/or coworkers: (a) go to the holiday parties and try to stay sober when everyone else is drinking; (b) go and drink, but try to maintain while risking loss of control; (c) let loose and then regret it later; (d) don’t go to anything where alcohol is served.

Those who drink often end up in a vicious cycle. They feel shame about how they acted at the last party, so they drink to forget, then they go to the next party drunk, feel shame about that one, and so on. People who choose to just skip the parties sometimes end up drinking alone because they feel bad that they can’t “just drink like a normal person.”

Family Pressure

Relatives who don’t see one another much are often brought together during the holidays. This can be a happy occasion, but also an incredibly stressful one. It’s tough for anyone to deal with family dysfunction. It’s really tough for the alcoholic if his family is not supporting him in his sobriety.

Family members may have abandoned him due to his drinking, or vise versa, creating awkward and stressful moments. Or, the family members may be alcoholics themselves and be active (and triggering) with their drinking. The options here are bear the judgment of the family sober, drink to cope and risk further humiliation, or stay away from the family.


Avoiding parties and family events may seem like the easy option for staying sober, but it is a really tough choice to make. When you don’t have love and support, its absence can be glaring during this time of togetherness. The short days and long nights don’t help either. Dependent drinkers, especially, tend to isolate themselves when they are experiencing pain, so further isolation can make things worse for them psychologically.

Tips for Staying Sober

This loneliness can be a killer. It can drive people to go to drinking events against their better judgment and can easily trigger relapse. It doesn’t have to, though. There are coping strategies for staying sober during the holidays.

  • Go to 12-step meetings if that fits into your recovery plan. Some groups off 24-hour marathon meetings during the holidays so that you can show up at any time, day or night.
  • Do service work. Lots of organizations need holiday-time volunteers. Anything that gets you out of your own head and into the community not only staves off depression, but also distracts you from negative thoughts and habits.
  • Pick up the phone and call others in recovery. Stay at someone’s house so you don’t have to be alone.
  • Work extra hours at your job or start a project you’ve been meaning to do for a while at home.

Find positive things to do, no matter what form they take. Remember, when you drop something out of your life you have to replace it with something else. Staying in the void is when there’s a problem.

About the Author

Kathleen Esposito is a certified addictions counselor in the Pacific Northwest. She helps individuals recover from drug, alcohol and gambling dependencies through group and individual therapy and regularly speaks at treatment centers.

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