A Sober Holiday?

March 16, 2017

Prior to the celebration of St. Patrick's Day, J. Todd Barlow, MS, CAADC and Director of Addiction Services for New Vitae The Mitchell Clinic, interviewed a person in recovery regarding the stressors associated with maintaining sobriety during holiday celebrations:

Americans love to drink and Saint Patrick’s Day ranks as one of the most popular drinking days -- so says a recent survey conducted by Yahoo:
The top five most popular drinking days are:

1. New Year's Eve
2. Christmas
3. Fourth of July
4. St. Patrick's Day
5. Thanksgiving

Recently I discussed St. Patrick’s Day with a friend in sobriety.   I asked questions like, “What is March 17th like for an individual recovering from addiction?  Is being sober on Saint Patrick ’s Day more difficult than other days?   What insights can be gained about addiction recovery through this holiday?”  It led us to discuss some common themes that are often confusing for the general population.

Alcoholic drinking isn’t fun:
St. Patrick’s Day is meant to be a day of celebration.  Each year millions of Americans join in the celebration and many see drinking excessively as a part of the “fun.”  For the active alcoholic, looks can be deceiving. 

As the disease of alcoholism progresses, the pleasure of alcohol is lost.  Alcoholics drink simply to feel normal.  An alcoholic may appear to enjoy drinking; they may even appear to celebrate like everyone else.  However, the full picture of the compulsion to drink may tell a different story.   Having the alcoholic urge to drink is not fun.

Consider holding your breath for one minute.  There is a growing urge to breathe, right?  To say the urge to breathe is pleasurable is silly.  There is a drive to restore breathing.  When we take our next breath, we don’t experience pleasure, we only experience relief.  This is similar to the alcoholic’s struggle with the compulsion to drink.  Drinking is more a way to relieve an intense urge than it is to feel pleasure.   

Alcoholic drinking is unpredictable:
Most Americans who drink too much on Saint Patrick ’s Day have some sort of plan.  For example, they may not have to work the next day, they may have a designated driver, or they may slow down their drinking hours before they need to act more responsibly.  Once an alcoholic takes the first drink, there is no telling what will happen next.  The active alcoholic may have three drinks or end up on a binge lasting days.   This makes the experience of drinking alcohol  confounding for the alcoholic.  Having the first drink is like rolling dice to determine the number of drinks that will follow the first.  It could be just that one, or it could be twelve or more.  Unpredictability makes drinking a frightening experience for the alcoholic.  

Is it difficult to remain sober on Saint Patrick’s Day?
One may think that a heavy drinking day like March 17th is especially difficult for an alcoholic in recovery.    My friend suggested a different way of thinking about this day.   She shared: “Saint Patrick’s Day is not a very difficult day for me because I have my guard up.   The most difficult days for me are 'normal' days and 'normal' situations because on those days I may have my guard down a bit."

It is often the 'normal' days that are most challenging.  Relapse more often occurs gradually as a person in recovery begins to slowly fall away from the disciplines that got them sober in the first place.  Disciplines such as attending 12 step recovery meetings, being cautious of spending time with people who drink, catching misconceptions (e.g., maybe, just maybe, social drinking is possible) and surrounding oneself with people in recovery are crucial to sobriety.  When these behaviors decrease, the process of relapse may have already begun. One can not predict how long the process will take before a person is once again actively using alcohol or drugs. 

A meal with an old acquaintance who offers a glass of wine.  Just “one” beer on a hot Saturday when no one is around.  Or thinking that one drink might be the solution to a difficult time in life.  These are the challenges of the person in recovery just as much, if not more, than a day like Saint Patrick ’s Day.  

One would think that a heavy drinking day like Saint Patrick’s Day is difficult for an alcoholic in recovery.  For some it is.  However, for many in sobriety it is a day no more or less difficult than the another.

J. Todd Barlow, MS, CAADC
Director, Addiction Services
New Vitae The Mitchell Clinic



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