How to get through Christmas when you're not drinking

For lots of us, Christmas means indulgence.

We’ll pile up the pigs in blankets, polish off a box of Celebrations, stock our plates with heaps of roast potatoes, and still have room for a mince pie or too.

Then there’s the booze. Sure, we’ll start the day with a Buck’s Fizz. Then how about some mulled wine? More wine with our festive feast, then Baileys for pudding, then let’s go ahead and add some alcohol to our evening hot cocoa, too.

If you’re not drinking, – whether as a temporary break from alcohol, for the sake of your wellbeing, as a personal choice, or you’re in recovery from alcoholism – resisting all the temptation over the festive period is tough.

We spoke to Rachel Britton, the director of pharmacy, and Gerry Flanagan, recovery worker, both from Addaction, for their tips on how to get through the day.

Be honest

People can be a bit flippant when it comes to someone choosing not to drink.

Refusing a tipple is all too often met with an ‘oh, go on’, a cup of punch thrust into your hand, or accusations of being ‘boring’ and spoiling the fun.

It’s worth honestly explaining to your loved ones why you’re not drinking, and being clear that you need them to not push drinks your way or cry ‘it’s Christmas!’ when you turn down a round.

Once people understand your reasons for not drinking and the journey you’ve been on, they will often be far more accepting and respectful of your decision.

We’d recommend having this chat at the start of the day, before people are tipsy, and explaining that while you’re not drinking, you’re not sitting there judging your friends and family for their festive cocktails.

Ride out the cravings

Rachel and Gerry say that a strong alcohol craving – that intense ‘I really need a drink’ feeling – ‘tends to only last for 10-15 minutes’.

Yes, those 10-15 minutes will be tough. Be prepared for them to hit and have a plan of action.

Distraction can work wonders – crack out a board game or suggest it’s time for the crackers. It can help to have a sobriety buddy who’s ready to help you through those cravings when they hit, whether that’s being there for a chat or having a delicious soft drink handy.

Have an exit plan

Christmas Day can be stressful for everyone, let alone when you’re also dealing with recovery.

You’re stuck in a small space with relatives and friends who are likely to be boozed up and stressed out from constantly checking the turkey is sufficiently moist. Arguments are likely, as is simmering tension and a general feeling of overwhelm.

It’s okay to retreat for a bit.

Just let the host of festivities know that you might need to nip out for a bit and that you don’t mean any offence. It can help to have a secret signal with a friend to let them know you need some space.

Have a plan ready for if it all gets a bit much. That might mean taking a walk outside, reading a book in the garden, or being able to shut yourself in a room to go through a mindfulness exercise.

Be strategic

Rachel and Gerry recommend timing your socialising with non-drinking hours.

They say: ‘If you are meeting up with family who enjoy a tipple, arrange to go for breakfast rather than doing something in the evening. That way you can keep temptation to a minimum.’

Options are everything

Whether you’re hosting or a guest, ensuring there are tasty booze-free options is a must. Nothing sends cravings flaring like only having tap water while everyone else is enjoying sparkling cocktails.

Try booze-free cocktails, those fancy Schloer options, a nice cordial, or a mulled cranberry juice.

‘But be careful about pushing alcohol-free beer or wine, especially to people in the early days of recovery,’ say Addaction. ‘The familiar taste can have a psychological impact, and may make them crave an alcoholic drink.

‘Also, remember that alcohol isn’t the only way to have fun. Throwing a dry party can be a great way of letting someone in recovery know you care and respect their choice.’

Go easy on yourself

Recovery is tough, especially at Christmas.

If you do drink or find your mental wellbeing taking a nosedive, don’t panic. Treat yourself with understanding, recognising that Christmas can be difficult to get through unscathed.

‘Remember that recovery is never a straight line, there will always be blips along the way,’ say Rachel and Gerry.

‘Liken it to being on a diet, if you’ve had one bad day where you’ve gorged on crisps or cake, that doesn’t discount the months or years of amazing work you’ve put in beforehand.

‘It’s easier to recover from short blips if you’re honest about what happened. Keeping a drink diary and documenting what you’ve consumed helps keep things in perspective.

‘It may be you had two glasses of wine when in the past you would have drank three bottles.

‘Shame is a big factor in problematic drinking, so understanding how far you’ve come and not blaming yourself can prevent a blip from becoming something bigger.’

Remember you’re not alone

If you feel yourself struggling, talking to someone can make all the difference. Reach out to a loved one who knows your situation, your GP, or, if you’re still in treatment, contact your key worker.

Addaction also runs an online webchat service where you can talk anonymously to a trained advisor.

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