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Why I'm Spending This Christmas Sober

The holidays are built for drinking—but if you want to take it easy this Christmas perhaps this advice will help.

by Tom Usher
Dec 18 2018, 4:13pm

The author (left) when he still drank. Photo: VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

I once got so drunk on straight vodka at my best friend's family Christmas party that I threw up in front of his mom, threw up next to my mom's car, threw up on my doorstep, and, finally, painted my own bed with vomit and slept in it all night. Point being: I'm trying to give up drinking this year.

At the time of writing, I've managed about four months—and it's been OK so far, if not a little alienating at times. The feeling of loneliness sobriety can cause is no more acutely felt than at the tail end of any earthly cycle around the sun. As soon as it gets dark before the day is over, all anyone wants to do is drink. In pubs, at home, at work Christmas parties, and family get-togethers —almost every other day there's a social situation laced with the rosy-cheeked brilliance of booze. And even though I know I'm doing better this way, I miss it.

I'm not the only one having a booze-free Christmas. According to research conducted by Populus in 2017, a third (37 percent) of Brits stayed sober at Christmas parties, while 16 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds didn't drink at all throughout December and 57 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds consciously chose to avoid alcohol at parties. The story is much the same this year, with over 25 percent of young people identifying as "non drinkers" in a report by the science journal BMC Public Health. Motivations vary, of course, but the fact that one in four (26 percent) have regretted something we've done at a work Christmas party after getting too drunk might explain the December drop-off.

Given my opening anecdote, it is perhaps unsurprising that I can relate. One winter work party, I ended up ripping my pants completely off, berating the CEO, throwing up in a lift in front of my manager, and ultimately being found crawling along a hotel hallway half naked. So, as someone who inherently relates alcohol to winter time, I wondered: What is a sober Christmas going to be like?

"My first sober Christmas was peaceful, but I definitely felt like I was missing out," says Racheal Williams, who's been sober for three years. "I'd only been in recovery for a couple of months, so I wasn't very well-equipped to deal with social situations with that much booze flowing, so I avoided a lot of gatherings. Now, I've got the tools I need to get me through and I'm much more relaxed about my sobriety. I think once you gain confidence in yourself and your decision to quit drinking things become easier."

"My first sober Christmas was probably more challenging than most, as it was my brother's wedding on December 27—right between Christmas and New Year—so I had two days staying at an amazingly posh hotel, surrounded by wonderful family and friends, everyone except for me was getting drunk and merry around the fireplace," says Jon Turner, who's been sober for over three years and runs a sobriety blog called SoberPunks. "I learned an invaluable lesson from that experience: Tell people you're on antibiotics. Yep. Lie your way through that shit. If they're as drunk as my family were, they won't even remember your ridiculous fabrications."

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Photo by Charlie Cottrell

Even if you're prepped and ready to lie, temptation is always there during the Christmas period.

"It's ingrained in us that celebrating equals alcohol," says Racheal. "I think there's also a lot of pressure on people to be having 'the best time ever' at Christmas, to match up to the fake families on advertisements."

"The whole country is in the habit of getting plastered around Christmas time—and the retailers know this, so they take advantage by ensuring the advertisements in between The Snowman and Merry Christmas, Mr. Bean are crammed full of store deals on Smirnoff, and money off of Baileys," adds Jon.

The Advertising Standards Authority is well aware of this issue, warning advertisers to "avoid exaggerating alcohol's importance" during the festive period. Mind you, in 2015 they judged that an ad which read, "It's not Christmas without you, Baileys" didn't break any rules, as the drink is "traditionally associated with the Christmas season," so how stringently these guidelines are applied could well be up for debate.

Last year, I drank through the entire run-up to Christmas, reaching a crescendo on the big day itself. Because what else is there to do?

"Be the sober, alert, and interactive adult if there are kids around: they'll remember you as the fun one," advises Duncan Hutchinson, who's been sober for 22 months. "Or take up a hobby that you can do in the house, or learn a new skill with your hands."

"I still go to the pub to meet my school friends, but I'd probably spend the day with my favorites and then leave the pub at a reasonable time, when I get cold, bored or fed up, rather than canning it until 1 AM," adds Racheal. "Pubs with open fires still very much feature in my Christmas—I'm just not filled with dread and anxiety the next day."

That's all well and good, but what to do about the friends who take offense at your decision not to drink? Those people who need you to sink eight pints on Christmas Eve to legitimize their sinking of eight pints on Christmas Eve?

"Tell those you'll be spending time with—ahead of time—of your decision; give them time to adjust their thinking to that," advises Duncan. "Find out alcohol-free alternative drinks for particular times such as Christmas Dinner and the like, and provide your own, instead of relying on others to do so for you, just in case."

"Further to my previous guidance of lying to everyone, I have one nugget of solid-gold advice I call 'playing the tape forward,'" adds Jon. "When it gets near Christmas party season, and you start telling yourself that 'a couple won't hurt,' or 'fuck it—I'll have a night on the pop and then go back to sobriety tomorrow,' all you need to do is picture how you'll feel when you wake up tomorrow—the empty wallet, the carpet mouth, the thirstiness, and the headaches."

Racheal says it's a matter of perspective: "What you've usually missed out on is bullshit, repetitive conversations, lost hours, belongings, and hangovers. You'll gain tons more time, more energy, and better tolerance for the challenging family times."

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