It’s considered the kickoff to summer, but for those trying to stay sober, Memorial Day weekend can seem like the ultimate test. Everywhere you turn are parties and celebrations, and alcohol often feels as central to the traditions as the barbecue.
If you are in recovery from a substance use disorder and working hard to stay there, keep these tips in mind as you navigate the holiday.
Prepare for cues.
With continued use of an addictive substance, your brain learns to associate all sorts of cues — sights, smells, sounds, certain places and people — with your alcohol use. These act as triggers, prompting you to anticipate the reward and begin craving it whenever these cues reappear.
If you’re planning to be around people or things that you know will trigger reminders of your drinking days, think through how you’ll feel. Just being aware that you are likely to react with an urge to use if you see a cold bottle of beer on ice or an old drinking buddy is half the battle. It allows you to stop, to recognize that you are having the feeling, and see it for what it is: an echo from the past.
Create your own tradition.
If you don’t feel grounded enough in your recovery to risk subjecting yourself to such cues yet, by all means, don’t risk it. Find a fresh approach to celebrating the day and having sober fun.
You might host a party for others in recovery, plan a day in nature, take a drive somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit, tackle a home project, or visit family, for example.
Or consider getting back to the meaning of the holiday, honoring those who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces. You could help decorate veterans’ graves, attend a local Memorial Day event, or volunteer at a veteran’s center. Cultivating gratitude can be a powerful way to help you keep things in perspective and stay on track in your recovery, and research shows that prosocial behavior not only helps others, it can make us physically and mentally healthier.
Remind yourself of the risks.
If you’re looking for some extra incentive to say no to alcohol, keep these realities in mind: Memorial Day weekend is one of the nation’s most popular drinking days, making it one of the most dangerous times on the road. You don’t want to increase your chances of becoming a statistic — or making someone else a statistic — by getting behind the wheel impaired. And don’t forget that law enforcement is usually out in full force on such holidays, making a DUI a real possibility for those who do drink.
Alcohol and water also don’t mix, meaning it’s imperative to remain sober if taking part in the ocean or lake activities that are such a popular part of Memorial Day. The sun heightens the effects of alcohol, and boosts its ability to mess with judgment, balance and coordination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that one in five boating deaths, about a fourth of emergency room visits for drowning, and about 70% of water recreation deaths involve alcohol use.
Get a sobriety booster.
Before embarking on your weekend of Memorial Day activities, whatever they may be, spend some time doing whatever helps you most in maintaining your sobriety, whether it’s attending an AA meeting, connecting with your sponsor or sober coach, exercising, meditation, or spending time with friends or family. It can put you in the right frame of mind, one in which you see your sobriety as adding to your joys rather than being a drag on them.
Have an exit plan.
Wherever you end up, have a way to extricate yourself if necessary. You may arrive at a gathering confident in your ability to handle anything that comes your way, only to feel yourself becoming increasingly stressed. No need for big explanations. Just thank the host, say you have to be heading out and give yourself needed breathing and thinking room.
If you find yourself around others who seem to be happily drinking their way through the day, it’s easy to start down the path of What will it hurt? Who really cares if I drink? It’s just one.
Remember to think past the moment and imagine yourself the next day, perhaps waking up hung over, embarrassed and distressed that you have jeopardized all your hard work so far. It can be hard to connect the you in that moment with the you who will be looking back on all this tomorrow, but doing so can be a powerful way to remind yourself of all that’s at stake and increase the chances of a successful summer in sobriety.