Dealing with Holiday Parties in a Bar Setting

Contributor: Brie Morzov, MSW, LCSW, and contributor for Addiction Hope

Santa Claus & ChristmasThe holiday season can be a very triggering time for the recovering addict. The party atmosphere, increase in family and social obligations, interruptions of daily routines, and the sheer amplified presence of holiday substance use all represent risk factors for sobriety during this season.

However, the recovering person shall not fear, many addicts have successfully navigated the holiday season without falling into relapse. With continuous commitment to one’s program and mindful effort toward recovery goals, one can join the ranks of those who have stayed sober during this high risk season.

Staying sober both during the holidays and during the rest of the year require much of the same work. Perhaps the only difference is with increased exposure to possible triggers, one must bolster their program up, making sure to the best of one’s ability that there are no “holes” or “cracks” in their recovery program. If one becomes lackadaisical, surely risk of relapse ensues.

In Bars

One of the most high risk settings for the recovering person can be a bar or establishment where substance use is intensified. This environment also may be attractive to the recovering person, especially if they see it as a familiar place to socialize. Nevertheless, this environment often is very triggering with its strong associations to substance use and one’s “past life”.

If holiday parties solicit the recovering person into such a substance saturated environment, it’s important for the recovering person to recognize before agreeing to attend such a function, how that environment will effect recovery. It’s tempting and very common for the recovering person to not want to “miss out” or “feel different” and thus respond with a denial of how triggering events or situations might be.

Triggers, after all, are rooted below consciousness. Thus, unless one is extremely mindful and self-aware, the tendency will be to participate, despite the evident dangers.

As seen in Gorski’s Pathway to Relapse, this denial, or lack in mindfulness practice can be a huge set up for relapse. The most important exercise the recovering person can do before attending holiday parties, is tune in to self, letting go of the expectations and perception of others.

Lake in FallThe most common trip-all for the recovering person is to return to co-dependent thoughts and behaviors such as “what will others think if…” The work is to focus on one’s own needs and recovery rather than what others may think or feel. If the recovering person makes decisions based on others instead of what’s best for recovery, again Gorski would caution relapse is imminent.

Gorski and Miller are famous for their work on identifying the road a recovering person takes to relapse. Gorski broke down the road to relapse into 10 Phases. He said the pathway always starts with an internal change either positive or negative which induces stress.

This stress can be mild, seemingly non-existent, however, all change induces stress, thus leading to the first phase toward relapse. In the subsequent phases, there is a cognitive behavioral change that occurs often without much awareness of the recovering person, until the final stages prior to use.

Phase 1 – 3 highlight the internal and mental shift, with a resurgence in denial and defensive attitude and behavior. Self-awareness decreases and an over-active focus on the external world ensues. Phase 4 – 6 focus on a disintegration of behavior and habits, which increases stress and neurologically activates the craving cycle in the brain.

An increase in old behaviors and methods of coping include self-pity, depression, isolation and lack of effort toward recovery. Phases 7 – 10 are marked by a loss of control over self and interruption in healthy decision making. It’s likely the addict becomes more self-aware of their stressful state at this point.

man sitting on edge of cliffWith this sudden awareness comes feelings of being out of control. The brain then naturally attempts to gain control in a familiar way, using. (1) Reviewing Gorski’s Path can help bring awareness to the process of relapse. Understanding that relapse is a process, not just an event, is critical when entering into triggering environments.

The relapse cycle is not likely to occur within one evening, but it can, and understanding that stress and change are the number one proponent to relapse. This knowledge empowers the recovering addict to take control before control is lost. (2)

Staying sober takes work

There are some simple but very important steps one can take prior to entering the holiday party scene. Staying sober during this season will take work and focused attention. The most important thing the recovering person can do is assess areas of vulnerability in their program.

All recovering people have areas of vulnerability, but those new to recovery likely have increased vulnerabilities. Unless a person has at least a year of sobriety, it is best to not enter any establishment which is predominantly focused on the use of substances.

However, even with some time sober, unless one’s program and recovery are very stable, one may not be ready to be engaged in a trigger saturated environment. Being in a bar, sober, can be very stressful, especially if it’s the first time. (3)

If one’s recovery is stable enough for attending a substance saturated event, then the next step is to strengthen their program through three areas of self-awareness.

First, identify and become familiar with areas of vulnerability, specifically past and present triggers. This assessment of self is best done with another person, like a sponsor or counselor. Bringing another person’s viewpoint will ensure that denial isn’t intact and active.

This type of self-assessment can be as simple as making a specific trigger list for the holiday season. Triggers can be anything. Sometimes we are very aware that “something” is triggering, and other times we react, later saying “what happened there? Why did that affect me so much?”

couple sitting on wall in romeIt’s best to look for times in the past, especially holiday moments, where one has felt strong emotions or had a strong reaction. The event or trigger may or may not have anything to with substance use. Triggers are more about one’s emotional or mental associations to something rather than how one coped with the trigger.

Focusing on one’s own thoughts and feelings rather than the actions of others in a triggering event can often lead to some insights about how one can better control their response to the trigger in the future. Triggers are individual to each person and are usually based on the wounds of the past.

Triggers don’t always make sense, as with most things emotionally based. Gaining a deeper understanding of one’s triggers and working toward healing those wounds is more important then what activated the wound.

Secondly, the addict needs to have a solid, well thought out, all-encompassing plan of action and reaction. Based on knowledge of relapse warning signs, personal triggers, and the events one is choosing to attend, the recovering person then makes a written plan with a sponsor or counselor.

This plan should address all courses of action including how to proactively and reactively address the identified areas of concern. Talking this plan over with a support group can also help bring ideas of how others may have successfully navigated similar situations in the past.

Finally, the third step is to tie down mooring lines. Sailing ships, when attempting not to drift out to sea, tie down on multiple lines, in addition, the anchor to stabilize and secure the ship. Having multiple people aware and in place to support the recovering person’s plan can bring security and stability.

Holidays can bring stress and baggage, however remembering the most important part of the holiday season is to celebrate the new life one has found in recovery. This is a precious gift that if not treasured and protected can be squandered. The holidays are a time when the recovering person can begin to celebrate with family and friends in a new, perhaps more meaningful way.

Community Discussion – Share your thoughts here!

Have you been in a bar during your recovery? What plan did you put in place in order to maintain your recovery?


  1. Gorski, Terry, The Phases and Warning Signs of Relapse., retrieved November 5, 2015.
  2. McCauley, M.D, Kevin. Pleasure Unwoven: An Explanation of the Brain Disease of Addiction. 2009.
  3. Tips for staying sober during the holidays. Retrieved November 5, 2015.

Brie MorzovAbout the author: Brie Morzov, is a Licensed Clinical Social Work in Oregon. She has worked in the field of addiction treatment and prevention for the past decade and continues to work as a therapist and author. She has a passion for helping hurting people heal and find their highest self.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Addiction Hope understand that addictions result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an addiction, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on November 10, 2015
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