It’s a well-known fact that the holidays can be depressing–even for people who don’t struggle with addiction.  I think everyone gets to feel shitty about themselves at some point during the holidays.  But it still sucks when you’re the one who feels anxious, angry, inferior, sad or lonely.  The pervasive expectation that this is the “happiest time of the year” is like a mini-slap in the face for anyone feeling less than festive.  The relentless holiday cheer forces us to look at ourselves and wonder whether we’re really as happy as we should be…  And that’s when a tasty cocktail comes in handy.  Fortunately for most folks, free alcohol is abundant during the holidays – at pretty much any office party, Thanksgiving dinner, or similar events you’ll be expected to attend.  Drinking and the holidays are a marriage made in heaven (or hell, depending on your perspective) – like hand in glove.

I used to LOVE this season because everybody gets to drink like it’s prohibition—free wine at dinners, open bars at parties, and late mornings to sleep it off.  Same goes for weddings.  But this was probably back when I broke and in college, my family was still all together, and no one had died yet.  So that version of holiday happiness was pretty situational.   But when you’re a grownup and have a track record, any perceived shortcomings can get magnified during this special time of year.  And it becomes all the more necessary to get in the holiday spirit with copious amounts wine, beer, cocktails, or whatever mood enhancements you prefer to get you in your happy place.

All this presents a special challenge for those of us who, for whatever reason, are refraining from addictive substances.  It’s not really possible to escape our special holiday feelings—no checking out for a night (or a day, or a week) of alcohol-fueled holiday cheer.   We get to sit with our special feelings and our shitty attitudes.  Then there’s the extra-fun prospect of socializing with our friends, coworkers and family members who are rapidly getting as drunk or high as possible, while we look on and fidget, nervously drinking something caffeinated.  It’s a slightly different mindset.

After spending one of my first sober Thanksgivings alone in the city, unsure how to fill four days off work, and not particularly excited to experience someone else’s family dysfunction, I was talking with a sober friend about how fun it was not.  We came up with the idea of hosting our OWN holiday gatherings and taking responsibility for making them amazing.  And that worked pretty darn well, for a long time!  I like hosting and cooking in general, so it was a natural fit.  It’s stressful, expensive and requires a lot of effort, but it was worth it when my best friend was a chef and I had a big group of sober friends who were often available at the holidays and looking for something not awful to do.  The irreverent Sober Orphans’ Thanksgiving became my specialty.

But when you’re in your 40’s, it gets harder to get people together, as friends get married, have kids (even the gays!), get back in touch with their families, and end up hosting or going to their own family holidays.  Also I got tired of herding cats, because you know recovering alcoholics and addicts can be a squirrely bunch, and I never knew exactly who would be arriving, and when, or if.  So this year I’m going to see my extended family up in Sacramento—most of whom really enjoy adult beverages—and I’m actually looking forward to it.  They’re all intelligent, fun, and happy drinkers like I used to be.  They’re my people.  And I get to see how my affinity for tequila is genetic!  So I am blessed.  However, in anticipation of a full-on family event, I find myself this Monday before Thanksgiving doing a little mental preparation so I can  increase my chances of enjoying it, no matter what happens.

The last time I visited family was this summer when I went all the way up to Alaska, to the tiny village on the edge of nowhere, where I was born and raised.  Before I left for that trip, I decided to try something new.  Instead of my usual strategy of attempting to control everything make sure I wasn’t put in any awkward situations (by planning an air-tight agenda, for instance, and then trying to enforce it), I decided to just go with the flow and show up for whatever my family wanted to do, and to just be with THEM and participate in THEIR lives.  No whining, no controlling, but instead trying to focus on my loved ones and not myself and my own insecurities.  I resolved to relax as best I could, accept whatever was happening, and set the intention of having a good attitude no matter what.  And, wow, what a difference.  It really worked!  I had more fun on that trip home than I’d had in the last 10 years, if not longer.  I remembered what I love about being in that wild and untamed state, and I got to see how I carry a lot of that with me, even now.

Without the worry, expectation and frustration I usually create for myself, I was able to have a new experience.  I got out of my own way, and I was able to be present while it was happening.  I showed up for my family in a whole new way, and it was easier for all of us.   Virtually stress-free, in fact, and I didn’t get triggered around drinking or using–not even a little bit.

But in order to pull this off, I did some serious preparation—I seriously contemplated where I was at, and what exactly I was bringing to the party.  During meditation I came around to the idea of relaxing and accepting whatever comes—and it wasn’t work to get there.  I just took a little extra time to get quiet and locate myself in my own mind, and to identify what I was really feeling before heading out.  And during my trip, I kept coming back to that little practice as events unfolded.  And, generally, I realized I wasn’t feeling all that shitty!   Anything that might have looked or felt like a challenge at the outset was no problem once I took a look inside myself- what was I really feeling?  Was it true?  Was it important?  Usually it was not.  So I was able to laugh at myself and keep going, unfettered by my knee-jerk reactions to old people, places and things.  By the time I got back to LA, I felt relaxed, happy and refreshed.  And I almost never feel like that after a vacation.  I usually feel exhausted and emotionally drained, resentful of the fact that I have to go back to work with no vacation from my vacation.  It was all pretty revolutionary for this nervous nellie.

We’ll see if I can replicate that for myself this time around.  I’m grateful I stopped to think about it this morning, and resolved to take some time to prep and work with my own crazy mind.  And better, I get to write about it because this blog is up and running!  I was starting to get all up  in my head, overwhelmed and tired in advance, just thinking about the upcoming road trip.  But I feel better now.  I have to remind myself that this is all a big adventure OF MY OWN CHOOSING, and if I go into it with trepidation about the unknown, it’s probably going to be less than amazing.

So I wish the same for you this holiday season, particularly if you’re someone who doesn’t typically enjoy the holidays.  Check out what you’re bringing to the party, and be open to having a new experience.  Like the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous says, acceptance is the answer to ALL of our problems today.  And beyond that, if you can get into the mindset of setting out on an adventure of your own choosing, things miraculously become easy and fun.  Finally, if you come across someone who appears to be plagued by their own special holiday feelings, take a moment to reach out and say hello.  You never know how much that person may benefit from not feeling invisible, and you’ll feel better too.  There is no better way to get out of your own head than to help someone who’s suffering.  Happy Thanksgiving, and I mean that!