Recovering alcoholics learn to be merry while sober

The holidays are ‘a time when you have permission to be excessive, from Thanksgiving forward,’ says Sharon Killian, clinical services director for the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. That complicates sobriety.

He used to see it as the most wonderful time of the year. But these days, James Bryant dreads Christmas.

“It used to be noise, food, people and now it’s going to be dead silence,” he said.

Bryant worries about spending the holidays without family and—for the first time in 44 years—without alcohol.

He stopped drinking in March, so he’s entering one of the toughest seasons in sobriety: the first holidays.

“It’s such a festive season,” said Sharon Killian, clinical services director for the Rappahannock Area Community Services Board. “It’s a time when you have permission to be excessive, from Thanksgiving forward, you have permission to live big.”

And it’s especially hard for people who are recovering after years of alcohol abuse.

Bryant took his first drink of alcohol—Hop ’n Gator, a combination of beer and Gatorade—when he was 13.

“It felt good, so I kept drinking,” he said.

At first, his drinking wasn’t a problem. He held a job, got married, started a family—all while drinking nearly every day.

But then his marriage ended. Bryant turned to vodka for comfort.

Within a year, he lost his job and his home. He ended up in Snowden at Fredericksburg Behavioral Health Center.

When he left, he had nowhere to go. Bryant spent a few months in the Thurman Brisben Center. At that regional homeless shelter, sobriety is mandatory.

“I wanted to drink, but I decided to sleep inside,” he said.

When he left a few months later, Bryant returned to drinking. For nearly two years, he slept in the train station, in stairwells and in the cold weather shelter. He also cycled in and out of jail and hospital.

“I quit drinking probably 50 times, with the best of intentions,” Bryant said.

Most mornings, he ate breakfast at Micah Ecumenical Ministries’ Hospitality House, which serves the chronically homeless.

“When he stopped drinking, we’d see glimpses of the person in there,” said Meghann Cotter, Micah’s director. “And we really liked that person. The hardest thing was convincing him to like that person.”

But Bryant kept drinking. He pulled a knife during a drunken fight, and ended up in jail for 7 months. When Cotter visited, Bryant said, “I guess you’ve given up on me now.”

“We don’t give up on people,” Cotter replied.

Micah staff helped Bryant get into an apartment. But when he was drunk, Bryant admitted, he was far from an ideal tenant. The eviction notice came while he was in the hospital.

Bryant called Cotter in a panic. She set up a meeting with the landlord, who agreed to give Bryant another chance.

“I never drank again after that day,” Bryant said.

But recovery hasn’t been easy. He damaged many relationships while he was drinking, and now he’s trying to repair them.

He reconciled with a friend from church, who connected him with a Bible-based recovery program called Reformers Unanimous.

Bryant fretted about the first Thanksgiving of his sobriety.

“Holidays used to be filled with family, food, fellowship, and I loved it,” he said.

Instead, he planned a lonely Thanksgiving dinner at a buffet restaurant. Then his church friend invited him to dinner.

Finding an understanding friend or relative is key to staying sober during the holidays, Killian said.

Many people struggling with substance abuse relapse during Christmas or New Year’s Eve, she said.

Holiday parties often involve alcohol—so it’s plentiful and often free.

“It’s the perfect mixture for the perfect storm,” Killian said.

Some recovering alcoholics try to get through the holidays by avoiding parties and people. But isolation carries its own dangers.

“Use the people around you who understand and don’t isolate,” Killian said.

That’s exactly what 57-year-old Randy plans to do. He didn’t want to use his last name, to protect his employment options. But he wanted to share his story of recovery.

Randy went through detox at the Sunshine Lady House for Mental Health Wellness and Recovery in Fredericksburg.

He had been drinking since he was 12 years old. He ended up in jail, where he served five years for malicious wounding.

When he got out in January, Randy tried to remain sober. But he never lasted more than a few days. Finally, a friend took him to the house, which is run by the RACSB.

Randy left the recovery home just before Thanksgiving, and worried about staying sober. But he planned to surround himself with people who have been in recovery for years.

“I’m going to trust other people to make decisions for me at first,” Randy said. “Because I’ll probably make the wrong decision by myself.”

He also signed up for support groups—another key to staying sober during the holidays, according to Killian.

She often recommends that people attend extra sessions of support groups during the holiday season.

Two recovery support groups—Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous—hold marathon sessions and a sober party on New Year’s Eve.

Killian also counsels people to remind themselves of the costs of giving into temptation.

That’s one way Randy plans to stay sober.

“Alcohol, if you’re an alcoholic like I am, always has a bad ending. I need to learn to remember the bad stuff and not glorify the fun I had,” he said. “It was more rain than sunshine. I was heading down a path that would end up in darkness—or a return to jail.”

Amy Flowers Umble: 540.735-1973

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