It’s the season for parties, family dinners, holiday open houses, and 24/7 socializing. It’s also the season — from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day — of special challenges for those in recovery from alcohol or drug addiction.

“The holidays are periods of time where we consolidate our past, present, and future lives,” says Richard Soper, MD, JD, an addiction medicine specialist and chief medical officer of the Center for Behavioral Wellness in Nashville, Tennessee. Typically, the holidays involve seeing old friends and family (not all of whom you get along with), and rituals that may have involved drinking or using drugs in the past.

It all adds up to potential holiday triggers to go back to old ways, Dr. Soper says. 

Every holiday season can bring challenges, whether this is your first sober year or your 40th, but the first few years in recovery are often the roughest, experts agree. Here are tips and wisdom on how to get through the holidays feeling cheerful and staying sober, from those who know — Soper and three people in recovery.

1. Rewrite Your Recovery Vocabulary

People in recovery often say things like “I have to stay strong,” says Soper. But that implies that if you aren’t strong, you’re weak, he notes, so he tries not to use words that stigmatize or imply value judgments.

Instead of vowing to stay strong, he recommends, vow to stay in the present, focused on today, or in touch with the goal of your recovery.

He also suggests using ”recurrence” versus ”relapse” in case you have a drink or use a drug while you’re in recovery. When you use recurrence, he says, ”It’s a health issue, not a character issue.”

2. Stay Connected With People Who Support Your Recovery

This can be your best friend, your neighbor, your coworker, or a family member, says Matt Canuteson, 37, a behavioral health field consultant in upstate New York in recovery from alcohol, cocaine, and heroin addiction who has been sober for 13 years. “Around the holidays there are a number of different reasons that it’s a dangerous time,” he says. “One is that there are a whole bunch of holiday parties.”

At these events, you’ll expect to see people drinking and having a good time. Having a friend with you for support is especially crucial now, Canuteson says.

“Whatever support system is working for you during the non-holiday time is important to stay connected to during holiday time,” says Julie Dostal, PhD, executive director of LEAF Council on Alcoholism and Addiction in Oneanta, New York, who got sober at age 30 and is now 53.

3. Make a List of Holiday Joys That Have Nothing to Do With Drugs or Alcohol

Early in her recovery, Ruth Bowles went to holiday parties and began to focus on non-drinking activities. Now 64, she’s been free of alcohol and drugs for 27 years.

“I was able to participate in things like baking and decorating the tree,” she says. She learned to put herself more in the spirit. “I started focusing in on the joy of a holiday instead of drinking in excess to the point where it would turn out to be a catastrophe.”

These days, says Bowles, of Nanuet, New York, her holiday joy list includes baking, trimming the tree, making decorations, enjoying the snow, and ”hanging with like-minded people.”

4. Rethink Your Holiday Obligations

Do you have to go to the office party? Do you have to endure a family dinner with the aunt who triggers your wish to drink or use drugs?

“Too many times, people feel obligated to put themselves in situations that may not be good for them,” says Canuteson. “The reality is, you are not obligated to do any of those things.”

You may even feel better about it if you gently explain to your boss or the dinner host why you’re skipping this year.

5. Pick Your Events Wisely — and Plan Your Exit

When Dostal goes to a holiday function, she goes with someone who supports her sobriety. For her, this means someone ”who would be willing to give me a nudge if I was behaving in a way that was of concern or had the opportunity to become a trigger.”

She invites a friend who will say to her, ”Hey, want to go out and stand on the deck?” when things are turning bad.

You may want to follow Dostal’s example, or go solo to parties. At least have your own car available so you can leave anytime, Bowles suggests.

6. Rehearse Your Script to Manage Pushy People

You are bound to be offered a drink or a drug at some point. And when you politely decline, people can push and prod.

“You can say, ‘I don’t drink for health reasons,”’ Bowles says. If they still push (“Oh, one won’t hurt!”) just repeat the sentence, she says. If they persist? “If they continue, I just walk away,” she says. You owe no explanation.

7. ‘Bookend’ Your Support System

Suppose you’re headed to your family holiday dinner where everyone but you will drink too much, but no one is in recovery. “If you attend a support meeting, such as a 12-step, bookend them,” Dostal advises. Go to a meeting ahead of the event, tell people there where you’re headed and that you’ll be back to report in right after the event.

If two meetings are logistically impossible, she says, build in the same kind of bookend support with planned telephone calls to a supportive friend.

8. Have an Exit Strategy for Events That May Turn Stressful

“It doesn’t hurt to make plans for after the major part of the family activity” if you anticipate that it’s going to be stressful, Dostal says. You can tell the host, “I will be there, but I have something else I have to do later.”

You could also ask a friend to call you at a specific time, Dostal says. Depending on how the event is going, you can tell your dinner companions that a friend needs help and you need to go, or just excuse yourself for a short talk, then rejoin the dinner if it’s going well.

9. Address Your Potential Recurrence Triggers Ahead of Time

Holidays have many other triggers that can lead to excess. Perhaps you lost a loved one over the holidays, and you don’t feel the same about the season since. Or you may have broken off a relationship close to the holidays, and you’re feeling that loss.

Talk about that with a trusted loved one, Soper says. “Being able to share with them” can help, he says. Simply saying, “I lost my mom over Christmas week” may help you cope.