SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The holiday season is on often filled with joy, excitement and love as people gather with friends and family to celebrate. But these times can also be difficult. The days are short, cold and dark. Isolation is also a challenge for many who may not have loved ones near, and for others, the presence of family can be an increased stress.
All of this can make it more challenging for an active or recovering alcoholic to remain sober.
Jon Sommervold is the Executive Director of Tallgrass, a treatment center and sober living facility. He is also a recovering alcoholic, 24 years sober as of today. He spoke with KELOLAND News today about the challenges the holiday season can present.
“If there’s dysfunction going on around you and you accept that dysfunction as your own — you’re just going to make yourself miserable,” said Sommervold, who went on to discuss boundaries.
“The thing is, you don’t have to accept someone else’s dysfunction as your own,” he said “and when you don’t — there’s a great sense of peace.”
Sommervold says that not taking on others dysfunction can make the holiday season better. “The holidays are way easier when you stay in your own lane,” he said. “Do the things that you know you need to do, like go to a meeting — talk to people who are supportive of your recovery — don’t put yourself in situations where you know you’re going to ramp up your anxiety.”
One thing Sommervold was quick to point out about the holidays and life in general is that triggers cannot be avoided. “What we have to do is have a process in place to help ourselves manage that trigger.”
“There are going to be triggering events,” said Sommervold. “Triggers happen. The question is, what are the responses?”
Sommervold says that response should involve engaging with those who support you and your recovery.
“Whether that’s just telling your spouse or your partner that you love them, and they’ll tell you that they love you right back — or going to a meeting or recognizing that you’re just not ready yet to put yourself in a situation that you find hair-raising,” he said.
For someone who may be struggling, or who may just be looking to avoid drinking during the holidays, Sommervold says to be honest, open and direct.
“If you believe you shouldn’t or don’t want to drink during the holidays, just tell people,” he said. “People are astonishingly receptive to ‘this is how it would be easier for me’ or ‘this is how you can help me in this thing I’m trying to do,’ so say so.”
Twenty four years ago today, I had my last drink. It was a work Christmas party, and of course it was 11-days before Christmas and the holidays — we went to all the Christmas parties; we had all the family things. We did all the things, and at each of them, I held fast to my Diet Coke. I told people ‘no, I’m trying to stop drinking now,’ and no one isolated me, no one was unkind to me. People were very supportive and then were able to move on, because I don’t want that to be the only topic. Let’s not make the holidays about oh Jon’s trying not to drink. I was forthright about it. I need to not drink, and, you know, there’s a lot of Diet Coke in the world.Jon Sommervold
When it comes to being supportive for someone who may be trying not to drink, Sommervold also had suggestions. “I think the first thing would be have something else to serve,” he said. “If you have people coming over that may not want to drink, or people coming over who need to be the sober ride home, have something else to serve.”
While it’s important to be supportive, Sommervold says not to make it the center of attention. “There’s enough of a stigma about it — there’s no reason to draw unnecessary attention to someone’s effort.”
However, Sommervold says there is a benefit to acknowledging the effort that’s being made. “Hey, good for you,” he said.
If you have concerns about someone’s drinking, or think they’ve had too much, Sommervold says to be honest. “When someone walks in the door and they haven’t had a drink yet, offer water. Offer a soda — if someone’s had too much, just say I think you’ve had too much — it doesn’t have to be super confrontational. The truth just is,” he explained.
This type of approach may not always go over well, Sommervold explains, but he says there’s no reason to hide from it. “If someone’s had too much to drink, they’ve had too much to drink.”
In terms of holding people accountable, Sommervold again went to the subject of boundaries. “Their dysfunction is not your dysfunction. [If] your alcoholic friend says they’re not going to drink, it’s not your job to keep them sober.”
This doesn’t mean that you need to not care. “If they have one, ask if they meant to,” he said. “About 15-years ago, I walked around with what I thought was an N/A beer for about five minutes at a party. A guy came running up and said ‘Jon what happened’ and I said what are you talking about? He said ‘that’s not an N/A beer,’ and I looked at the label. I went back to the bartender and said hey I thought this was a N/A beer and she started crying figuring that she’d blown up my whole world.”
She hadn’t. Jon hadn’t yet drank any of the beer, and never did, thanks to the question asked by his friend. “I was approached and asked if it was on purpose. I think that counts — just walk up and ask if it’s intentional.”
Asked what the public should know about those dealing with alcoholism during the holidays, Sommervold had this to say:
“There is great joy in sobriety. This is not just a struggle. The other side of the mountain exists, and on the other side of the mountain are promises that none of us understood would be ours — to have honest and complete relationships with people — to be part of the recovery community.”