A woman is hanging ornaments on a tree

Staying Focused on Substance Abuse Recovery During the Holidays

By Leah Young, LCPC

The holidays: In a “normal” year they can be challenging enough, let alone during a pandemic. Some folks may be breathing a sigh of relief that festivities will be small, virtual or maybe even non-existent; while others will find the current state of things only contribute to feelings of isolation and loneliness. Either way you slice it, holidays are not easy.

They can be a special challenge for those who struggle with use of substances or are trying to establish or maintain sobriety. Alcohol and other substances have long been an aspect of celebration across many cultures and, boy, is it prevalent during this season. I’m not sure why it’s become common for people to assume that you must have an alcoholic beverage in your hand in order to properly celebrate or mourn. Aren’t my feelings of joy or grief real enough on their own without the addition of intoxication?

For all these reasons, support is essential for us. There are lots of ways we can establish support, and they don’t all have to be in the form of people. Creating structure for ourselves when often there is less of it can be crucial. Making certain we’re creating time for self-care can be a lifesaver. Having a plan when we attend an event is a must.

I’m a big fan of concrete coping skills; those things I can see, touch, hear. I love a good mindfulness skill but, let’s face it, they’re not always accessible to our overwhelmed brain.

If you find yourself amidst family and friends this holiday season it can be helpful to plan ahead by:

  • Establishing an ally...someone who will not drink/use with you. Someone who will discreetly run interference for you by engaging Aunt Judy in conversation about her new bedazzled sweater when they notice you trying to fend off her offers of homemade wine.
  • Planning to help out with setup or tear down so that you’re too busy to get stuck declining someone’s offers to “just have a hit."
  • Being the fun relative who plays with the kids.
  • Arriving late and leaving early (or arriving early and leaving early). Let the host know you have another obligation later in the evening or, if they are supportive of your efforts to not drink or use, let them know your plan to leave ahead of time.

If, however, you’re nursing feelings of being left out or missing family and friends, or you just don’t like the holidays, you can:

  • Connect with others in a non-holiday manner – play games, chat with them or watch a movie together.
  • Take some time to engage in self-care or a hobby you enjoy.
  • Volunteer. It releases endorphins, and it helps you and the people you’re volunteering for.

Above all, try to connect with someone. Whatever you’re feeling or experiencing this holiday season, you are not alone! The details might be different, but someone out there gets it. Stay safe out there. 


No matter where you are spending the holidays this year, find a list of helpful resources for mental health here. 

leah young
substance abuse
substance use disorder

Leah Young, LCPC, is the Clinical Manager of the Addiction Recovery Track at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center. Leah has been with ERC and Pathlight for over 4 years, introducing substance use treatment and education into the Mood, Anxiety and Trauma, Binge Eating Treatment and Recovery and Eating Disorder Programs at all levels of care. Leah earned her Master’s from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology in 2007. Upon graduation, Leah was hired at Resurrection Behavioral Health as a clinician, running evening IOP groups for patients with substance use disorders. She was promoted to the position of Program Manager at the re-named Presence Behavioral Health which she ran for several years before coming to ERC Insight in order to reconnect with clinical work. She lives in Chicago with her exuberant 7 year old daughter, her hilarious husband and her two annoying cats all of who enjoy some good punk rock music. Maybe with the exception of the cats.