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Sober for the Holidays: How It Changed My New Year's -- And My Life

My first sober Christmas, I was 24, and I navigated every holiday party and family gathering with high anxiety, blurting out "Ginger ale!" in answer to any and all questions.
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My first sober Christmas, I was 24, and I navigated every holiday party and family gathering with high anxiety, blurting out "Ginger ale!" in answer to any and all questions. It was only a few weeks earlier that I'd sat in my therapist's office, examining the wreckage of a few relationships, family visits, social gatherings and other moments sullied by my own drinking. I was pretty sure this was the worst possible time of year to quit. What would I do at end-of-year work parties, or on the Friday after Thanksgiving when hometown friends got smashed together, or on that booziest holiday of all, New Year's Eve? Questions like these haunted me as I nervously dodged alcohol left and right, avoiding spiked eggnog and re-gifting bottles of wine like I was playing some Sonoma Valley version of hot potato.

Slowly, though, through a lot of practice over the years, not drinking during the holidays began to feel just like not drinking the rest of the year: normal. My anxiety about it lessened, my self-pity abated, and I found that I didn't need a proverbial lampshade on my head to enjoy myself. I'm still struck by occasional pangs of envy (whipped cream flavored Smirnoff? How did I miss out on this?), but I know from experience that it's absolutely possible to enjoy the holidays sober.

A night without drinking for me means a day without a hangover, humiliating gossip, futilely hunting a for a lost iPhone, or dealing with the aftermath of poor romantic choices. (For the record, you can still make poor romantic choices sans alcohol, but you'll be painfully conscious during every moment of your mistakes -- and you'll remember it all.)

Once I'd stopped drinking and then stopped feeling like I was missing out by not drinking, I was thrilled to find that I felt more attractive and had gobs more cash to spend. This is especially helpful during the holidays -- it's always nice to show up at a gathering of folks you haven't seen in months feeling like a million dollars and knowing your tab after two seltzers won't be more than six. True, seltzer gets a little old, as does soda, the most common sober drink of choice. One time I was so nervous about being out with a group of people I'd just met that I drank eight cherry cokes and immediately felt like I was going to die a sugary death. But I developed a bag of sober tricks, like always having a glass of something non-alcoholic in hand (people can't shove a mug of holiday cheer at you if you're already drinking), bringing a non-drinking buddy along when possible, and reminding myself throughout the evening how good it will feel to wake up tomorrow sure of how I got home. For me, no cocktail can beat that.

Those strategies worked very well for me for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but by far the most challenging day of the holiday calendar triple threat is New Year's Eve, an occasion whose universal symbol is a champagne flute and drunk people making out. This was the annual event that I knew would be the hardest for me to get through sober, despite the face that I always found it to be a big, expensive let down. Even though my New Year's Eves all seemed to conclude with me sitting drunkenly in my party dress at around 12:07am, whining that I didn't have anyone to kiss and wondering if someone would please buy me another beer, even though I'd usually shuffle home with "Is That All There Is?" playing in my head, hoping that I hadn't used the last of the Ibuprofen and that some sort of Gatorade had miraculously materialized in my refrigerator, I couldn't imagine that the evening wouldn't be even more disappointing sober.

I've spent midnight in several places in sobriety: a dingy bar, a friend's living room, a sober dance party (where the adult-to-glow-stick ratio made me wide-eyed in horror), the G-train, and running down the street banging pots and pans (note: never use a can opener when a wooden spoon will do -- that's the quickest way to owe your friends a new sauce pan). Then finally I managed to create some new traditions for New Year's Eve that I actually enjoy. These include a long, indulgent dinner with friends (where I don't feel as envious of those enjoying their wine as I do standing awkwardly at a cocktail party), and later drawing up lists of what sucked about the previous year and burning them together on the fire escape. I'm usually curled up in bed by one a.m., and miraculously, I don't feel like I missed out on a single thing.

In fact, I've learned that for me, the crowning moment of the holidays isn't December 31st but rather New Year's Day. There's never a line for brunch if you arrive right when they open at noon, and I've made it a tradition to attend an all day poetry reading at Saint Mark's Church in the East Village, sitting among an eclectic mix of friends and downtown New Yorkers, with some knitting and a notebook to write down the really good lines.

All of which for me points to the idea that the holidays, while ripe for merriment with alcohol and parties, are also transformable. You can shape them so they reflect what is - and isn't - meaningful to you. Whether you celebrate with a glass of wine or a cup of fine coffee, the point is to celebrate.

Courtney Gillette is a writer whose short stories and essays have appeared in various literary magazines and anthologies, including the recent YA collection "Truth And Dare: 20 Tales of Heartbreak and Happiness." She is a contributor to MTV & Logo's and the Lambda Literary Review, and is currently pursing her MFA at Lesley University. Her most favorite thing in the world is Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls. She lives in Brooklyn.