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Maintaining Recovery while Celebrating the New Year

January 04, 2021

In 1975, a group of people in Boston was looking for a way to celebrate New Year’s without the heavy use of alcohol that normally accompanied the festivities. The result of their efforts was the initial First Night, a celebration of the arts and creativity that was appropriate for people of all ages. In the coming decades, the idea spread around the globe, with more than 250 such sober celebrations taking place in some years.

For people in recovery, the events are a chance to participate in the annual festivities without having to worry about the temptation of drugs and alcohol. It allows them to be a part of community celebrations instead of staying home and missing out because they don’t want to risk relapse. In recent years, however, First Night celebrations around the country have been waning. During the Great Recession that started about ten years ago, funding for the events began to decrease. Eventually, many of the First Nights were canceled altogether. Even the original event in Boston almost stopped in 2013. It continued as a scaled-down operation only after the city itself agreed to take over the organization of the event.

One celebration that has gone the way of many other First Nights is the local observance in Williamsburg, Virginia. After 24 years of festivities, thegroup announced that it was canceling the event this year. Like many others, it faced a drop in donations, corporate sponsorships, and volunteers that made it impossible to continue. This can make things difficult for those in recovery who want to celebrate the new year. While some cities near Williamsburg—such as Richmond—are still offering First Night celebrations, these may be too far afield for some people. For those who want to celebrate New Year’s closer to home while maintaining their recovery, here are some recommendations for how to prepare.

Know your Triggers

Different people react differently to the same stimuli. For some, the smell of alcohol can trigger cravings. Other people in recovery have no problem with that but find particular locations or activities can stimulate their desire to use. Being aware of and subsequently avoiding your triggers makes maintaining recovery easier.

Make a plan

Decide ahead of time how you are going to react if someone offers you a drink. Are you comfortable telling people that you are in recovery? If not, know how you will respond. Most hosts are aware that not everyone drinks alcohol, so they will usually have other options. It’s also preferable toavoid celebrating with people with whom you used to do drugs or with old drinking buddies.

Have the contact information of someone who can help

This advice is applicable year-round, but it’s worth repeating. Have the phone number of your sponsor, your therapist, a pastor or rabbi, or someone else who knows what you are going through and can be help if problems arise. Talk with them beforehand to let them know where you are going and that you may need to call.

Be prepared to leave

If all else fails, leave the party. As much as you might want to celebrate the new year, no celebration is worth more than your recovery. If the pressure to use begins to become overwhelming, get out. If you are going to the party with other people, let them know that you may need to leave early. Most friends will be supportive of your decision, and many will be willing to leave with you if they know you need help. If not, have an alternative escape plan, such as driving yourself or calling a taxi or ride-sharing service.

The decline in sober First Night celebrations makes it more difficult to celebrate New Year’s in an alcohol-free and drug-free environment. But it doesn’t mean you have to sit at home. Taking the proper precautions and knowing when to leave can help you continue your recovery into the new year.

1.Nik DeCosta-Klipa, “#TBT: How Boston started a New Year’s Eve tradition that would span the world” (Dec 31, 2015), https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2015/12/31/tbt-how-boston-started-a-new-years-eve-tradition-that-would-span-the-world/.

2.Press release, July 31, 2017, http://www.firstnightwilliamsburg.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/10/2017/07/FNW-Press-Release.pdf.

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