Healthy Beginnings

For addicts, the holiday season can be tough to navigate

Holiday gatherings often include plenty of alcohol. It is important to enjoy yourself, but not overdo it.

The holiday season is once again upon us, that time of year most of us relish. What’s not to like?

Family gatherings, holiday festivities, office parties, special holiday menus and meals abound. Plus, we get to enjoy all those new Hollywood movies, college football virtually non-stop; gala get-togethers; and intimate moments with family and friends. What’s more, holiday vacations both near and far offer us a special time to recreate, relax and party down.

It’s a season of gaiety, laughter, fond recollections of time gone by, and a toast (or more) to the good times — or so the absolute genius of modern marketing and advertising would have us believe.

But pausing, looking back, reflecting and looking at today’s realities, there is also illness, loss, death, defeat, deceit and cowardly retreat. In real life, we all bring a complex world to the holiday season.

During the holidays, we celebrate our good fortune, and if we are fortunate, draw closer to those we care about most. But the holidays also pose risk, particularly when there’s a history of emotional difficulty, family turmoil or disruption, or substance abuse.

It’s not surprising to know that alcohol and drug consumption increase during the holiday season. According to reports, alcohol beverage companies make over one-quarter of a full year’s profit during this singular, celebratory season.

Meanwhile, alcohol-related fatalities increase 30 percent during the Christmas period, and rise to a scandalous 50 percent over New Year’s. Further, 40 percent of all traffic-related fatalities during the holidays involve drunk drivers.

What to do? After all, during the holidays you’re supposed to have fun, which is good news if you’re in a celebratory mood — but not so much if you’re isolated, depressed or otherwise troubled.

If you’re already feeling sad, lonely or down, other people’s rejoicing leaves you feeling even worse, cut off from the merriment experienced by the rest of us. Rates of depression escalate over the holidays, and suicides peak right afterward, both indicators of holiday stress.

The holidays offer both rewards and risks. With that in mind, here are my annual Top Tips for a successful holiday season:

  1. Celebrate sobriety. How? If you live in the recovery community of former substance abusers, sobriety means abstinence. Relish it. Take pride in staying sober. If indicated, attend AA or NA meetings. If you’re like most of us, you’re not part of the recovery world; that should mean moderate use, not being intoxicated or impaired. In other words, enjoy yourself, but don’t overdo it.
  2. If you’re part of the recovery community demanding abstinence, make sure you have a clearly defined strategy before that dinner party and that social gathering. Rehearse how you will handle offers, temptations and social discomfort.
  3. If a “little bit” of alcohol or drug use is your personal program, make sure you tally up your limit before the party. Too many of us drive off into a ditch because we leave the door ajar.
  4. Enjoy opportunities to renew or enrich relationships or mend fences. Know that everyone has something to offer; cultivate it.
  5. There is “no place like home for the holidays,” which is why you should contemplate your visit ahead of time. Home can be where your substance abuse was first nurtured, or where old, painful memories trigger childish behavior.
  6. If you’re socially isolated and don’t mind it, then do not fret over the flood of paid advertisements showing partying people drinking single malt scotch, fine wine or beer and seemingly living it up.
  7. If you’re socially isolated and don’t like it, get out and about. Go to public places and people watch. Don’t mope. No self-pity. Hit the gym. Go for an invigorating walk. Engage the world around you.
  8. If you’re near the edge, the precipice, the falling-down point, the risks of substance abuse and disaster escalate. So, if you’re coping with job loss or demotion, financial or legal problems, relationship issues, and/or newfound sobriety, the likelihood of a big mistake accelerates. Know that and take appropriate precautions.
  9. If you use drugs, be particularly careful. The holidays are high risk for you. Know what you put in your body. Drug dealers are not your friend; don’t become another fentanyl-laced heroin overdose statistic. And have Naloxone nearby to combat an opioid overdose. Then attend a support group.
  10. Make sure you know that drunk driving and drugged driving are equally dangerous and equally likely to land you in jail.
  11. Last, make the holidays work for you. We can all find something to celebrate.

Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at