When Greg Williams,26,went to holiday parties early in his sobriety,he took steps so he could remain that way.
He invited a sober or recovering friend who would agree to take him home if he was not comfortable,brought his own transportation so he could leave on his own or called a friend.
“It is definitely difficult to be at a holiday party where everybody is consuming,and there is a lot of alcohol available,” said Williams,who grew up in Newtown,Conn.,and now lives in Danbury. He started drinking at age 12,taking swigs from his parents' liquor supply because he didn't feel accepted.
He was addicted to marijuana and prescription drugs by the time he was 15. He decided to get sober after he was in a car accident at age 17.
Experts agree that the holidays bring about new stresses that might lead recovering addicts to relapse.
While recovery organizations have been working with families for years,the Office of National Drug Control Policy recently introduced an awareness campaign to reach families helping loved ones cope with recovery during the holidays.
“The campaign is really designed to let Americans know that the holidays are not always joyful and happy for everyone,” said Gil Kerlikowske,ONDCP director,also known as the drug czar. “Families and friends can encourage people to attend parties in which,either there is no alcohol present,or there is a wide array of other things to drink that are clearly not alcohol based.”
Williams has been sober for eight years. He is the co-director of Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families,which helps young people and families through recovery. He is one of more than 10 million Americans in recovery from addiction,according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Keith Humphreys,a treatment expert at ONDCP,said the time between Thanksgiving and New Years is the heaviest drinking period of the year.
A former psychiatry professor at Stanford University,Humphreys said the holidays are a great time to make resolutions to get or stay sober. “Instead of rising a glass of champagne,people can raise a glass of sparkling water and celebrate a year of being sober,” he said.
Pat Taylor,executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery,a national recovery organization,said there are a variety of ways for people in recovery to enjoy the holidays.
“Sober social activities sound so dry and boring,but it's just like any other activity that any other American engages in – it just happens not to have the alcohol and drug component,” Taylor said.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration,an estimated 23.1 million people age 12 and older needed treatment for a drug or alcohol problem in 2008,and 2.3 million received treatment.
David Rosenbloom,president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University,called the disparity “a national disgrace.”
“Treatment hasn't been as available,as attractive or engaging as it should be,” Rosenbloom said.
According to CASA,substance abuse and addiction cost federal,state and local governments at least $468 billion in 2005. Of $373.9 billion in federal and state spending,95.6 percent paid for the consequences of substance abuse and addiction,including crime,homelessness and health problems.
Less than 2 percent went to prevention and treatment,and less than 1 percent to research.
A. Thomas McLellan,ONDCP deputy director,called addiction a “pediatric disease” because it overwhelmingly affects young people. His younger son died of an overdose at age 30.
Williams said that young addicts tend to ignore the negative effects of their actions.
“I never connected consumption with the things that were happening in my life,” Williams said. “That's pretty epidemic for youth who use drugs and alcohol. It really comes down to denial and not acknowledging the consequences.”
The challenges for young people in recovery are different from those for adults,said Laura Swann,director of the Center for Students in Recovery at the University of Texas at Austin.
Swann admitted that it is difficult to stay sober in a college town like Austin,but she said her 53 students are committed to their pledges. The stress of finals and going home for the holidays can contribute to a relapse,Swann said.
Marcelo Fallick,25,of Houston,has had support from his parents in maintaining his sobriety. Although he and his parents feel confident enough to include alcohol at their holiday gatherings,”parties at my house don't revolve around the eggnog or beer,” Fallick said.
In January he will have two years of sobriety from alcohol,marijuana and Adderall,used to treat narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He recently graduated from UT Austin – after flunking out as a senior – with a degree in Latin American studies and runs a clothing business.
“I wouldn't have been able to do it if I was still using,” Fallick said.
“Eventually I didn't want to use ever again. The phenomenon of craving is gone.”
Staying sober at a party:
John Shinholser,founder and president of the McShin Foundation,a recovery community organization based in Richmond,Va.,throws two sober holiday parties a year.
He and Greg Williams provided tips for those in recovery attending holiday parties:
- Don't be afraid to let people know about your problem.
- Have a list of numbers to call if you need help.
- “Don't drink the eggnog – you never know what it might be spiked with,” Shinholser said.
- If tempted to use,talk it out with yourself or a friend.
- Plan an escape route.
- Have fun.
Accompanying a person in recovery to a holiday party:
- Make sure the person in recovery is comfortable.
- Do not drink,to ensure that there is at least one other sober person in the room.
- Remind the person in recovery of the consequences of that one drink
- Be supportive – leave the party if the person in recovery wants to.
Throwing a holiday party:
- Have an array of non-alcoholic beverages available for guests.
- Be supportive. Don't judge.
- Do not encourage guests to drink if they don't want to.
- Make your guests feel comfortable.