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December 21, 2012

High or dry? Staying sober for New Year’s Eve

NEW YORK — Jennifer Perry isn’t much of a drinker.

 Never has been, yet she’s ready every New Year’s Eve for the inevitable attention when she’s out trying to have a good time.

“I don’t care if everyone at the table orders a drink but me. That’s fine,” said Perry, 46, a singer in Atlanta. “What I do resent is being pressured, and then being asked is it a ‘religious thing’ or if I have a ‘problem.”’

Sometimes, she relies on: “Oh, thank you, but I’m still on methadone.” While not true, a quick apology usually ensues and the pesky prober moves along.

Whether in recovery or not interested for other reasons, the holidays often mean an excess of booze and drugs. Occasional drinkers fail to moderate and addiction programs around the country note upticks in patient loads soon after the new year, high season for relapsers and those seeking treatment for the first time.

“Alcohol is often center stage at holiday parties,” said Amara Durham, a spokeswoman for Caron Texas, a treatment facility in Princeton, Texas. “Many people think they need alcohol to enjoy social occasions such as holiday celebrations.”

Chapman Sledge, chief medical officer at Cumberland Heights, a center in the Nashville, Tenn., area, said loved ones hosting holiday dinners and parties should be sensitive to the difficulties of recovering guests.

“Stray comments like, ‘Just a sip of wine at dinner won’t hurt,’ or ‘It’s a party, have a little fun,’ even if they’re unintentional, can slow or destroy an addict’s recovery,” he said.

Gina Bestenlehner, who is 12 years sober and program director for the Pur Detox center in Dana Point, Calif., suggests bringing along a sobriety buddy to help stay focused. She also recommends volunteering as a designated driver, which “gives a person new purpose and a reason to be there sober. It also saves lives.”

Like other support groups around the country, the North Central Vermont Recovery Center in Morrisville hosts a sober New Year’s Eve.

“Along with Thanksgiving and Christmas, New Year’s Eve is one of those holidays that we try to create community events for because of their association with drinking and the stress of being in recovery and alone on them,” said Nasreen Stump, a fundraiser for the center. “In three years our attendance at these events has almost quadrupled.”

In Jersey Shore, Pa., Mary Baier is a non-drinker who will likely stay home with her husband this year for New Year’s Eve. In the past, they’ve left parties right after midnight. “It’s kind of hard to have a good time once people get drunk,” she said.

Cathy Griffin, 54, of Los Angeles has been sober for five years. “I’m a free woman now and go about my business and personal life wherever there is alcohol and barely give it any thought,” she said, “but in the early days of my recovery, it was hell!”

Instead of salivating while watching the wine meet the lips of the guy across the room, offer to help cut fruit and veggies or rinse some glasses, “anything to get your mind off the fact that you can’t drink,” she said.

“Look for people who are not drinking to start up a conversation. Believe it or not, there are more people who are not sloshed than you might think,” Griffin added. “Make a game or a challenge out of finding the folks who are not drinking.”

And perhaps most important of all, she said, “Prepare before the battle.” Think about what you’re going to drink before you get there. Stay away from caffeine-laden energy drinks and go straight to the bar and ask for a non-alcoholic beverage with a smile.

“I found for me, I didn’t have to stay all night,” Griffin said. “If I felt uncomfortable, even if it wasn’t already midnight, I gave myself permission to leave or go outside and call a sober buddy, and most importantly, breathe — the moment will pass.”

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