How to navigate the booziest time of the year when you don’t drink

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There’s no shortage of drinking opportunities throughout the holiday season.

From office parties to Christmas dinners to New Year’s Eve, alcohol seems to be, well, everywhere.

It’s also more socially acceptable to drink this time of year, says Jenepher Lennox Terrion, a professor and chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Ottawa who specializes in recovery programs.

READ MORE: Why these Canadians said goodbye to booze

“We go out for lunch during the holiday season, and people will have a glass of beer or wine that they wouldn’t normally have during a workday,” she says.

“In December, it seems people loosen up with their drinking.”

But for those in recovery or who simply do not want to drink for health or personal reasons, navigating this season can be tough. To avoid drinking, Lennox Terrion says planning is key.

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Have a plan

Heading into any party or social setting, it’s important to ask yourself: how risky a situation are you putting yourself in? If you’ve recently become sober, a bar crawl may not be the best environment for you.

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At a holiday dinner where only a few people will be drinking, on the other hand, you may feel more confident. Everyone is different, and knowing your comfort level at any given gathering is key, Lennox Terrion says.

When you’re at the holiday event, have a sobriety plan.

This can include bringing your own beverages, like sparkling water or your favourite soda, and having someone to call if you feel uncomfortable.

Lennox Terrion also suggests bringing along a friend with you so you have an instant support network.

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If you simply don’t want to drink at a party, driving is also an option. Bringing a car also affords you an escape should you want to leave if people start to get rowdy.

(It’s important to note that it’s never safe to drink and drive.)

Know how to navigate conversations

One of the challenges around not drinking during the holidays is the probing questions from others.

While it is not anyone’s business why you are not drinking, Lennox Terrion says it’s helpful to have an idea of how you want to respond.

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“Sometimes, it’s helpful not to draw too much attention [to yourself],” Lennox Terrion says. “If you’re making a big deal of [not drinking]… it might open up conversation that you actually didn’t want to have.”
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When you get to a party, pour yourself a non-alcoholic drink or ask the bartender right away for a soda. That way, you are putting something in your hand before others have the chance to do so.

If someone offers you an alcoholic drink, you can simply say: “No thanks, I don’t drink” or “I’m not drinking.”

“You can hear the difference between those two answers,” Lennox Terrion says.

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“One is really an ongoing permanent state — ‘I don’t drink’ — versus ‘I’m not drinking,’ which has a sense of impermanence.”

If you aren’t drinking for the evening or are reducing your intake in general, you can follow it up with an explanation, like you’re cutting back on sugar or are driving — but only if you want to. Again, you don’t owe anyone an explanation for your sobriety, Lennox Terrion says.

Lastly, if you’re offered a drink, you might just say: “Yeah, I’ll have a fizzy water” and leave it at that, she adds.

At any point, however, leave a social situation if you are uncomfortable or feel tempted to drink and you don’t want to, Lennox Terrion says.

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“You don’t need to make a big production or find people to say goodbye,” she says. “Quietly get your coat, walk out, go get in your car and go home.”

Reward yourself

It can be challenging not drinking in alcohol-fuelled environments, so rewarding yourself for staying sober is important.

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Once you leave a party, you can treat yourself with something tasty like ice cream or cozying up with a mug of tea and a movie.

“This is a time for some good self-talk and congratulating yourself on how great you did,” Lennox Terrion says.

If you’re in a 12-step program or are part of another recovery group, you may want to connect with those peers. Being around other sober people can help maintain sobriety and offer support.

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No matter your reasons for not drinking, Lennox Terrion stresses it’s important you celebrate the holidays in way that’s right for you.

“For drinkers or non-drinkers… reviewing and thinking about your substance use before events is super helpful for everybody.”