Recovery Corner with Jamie Smolen, MD

Celebrating Sober –

Sobriety is an achievement that addicts and alcoholics describe, with humble gratitude, as the most difficult and most rewarding accomplishment of their lives. To them, sobriety is an unmerited gift. Some even consider sobriety a miracle when they believe that a power greater than themselves has made it possible. For many, addiction has been the ultimate adversary, taunting and relentless, creating a desire for more drugs or alcohol. In the pursuit of pleasure, there is no such thing as ‘enough’ for an addict. That’s why someone in a healthy stage of recovery knows very well that their addiction is always present.

Therefore, sober celebrating can be tricky. For an addict, it is not as simple as showing up at the special event like a wedding, graduation or family holiday gathering where most will enjoy carefree, good ol’ American partying. The addict in recovery must approach any such occasion with caution and preparation, and they should always remember they are attending the celebration with their addiction in tow.

The disorder of addiction, being anatomically located in the reward circuits of the brain, will be there at the party, watching and paying attention to all the activities. The addicted brain is always monitoring what’s going on, especially when people are celebrating with alcohol. And where there is alcohol, every addict knows that, usually, drugs are not far away.

So, how does an addict in recovery get to celebrate in safety? First of all, the person should be actively participating in a sober lifestyle, regularly attending 12-step meetings and engaging with a supportive sponsor or recovery coach. Here are some reliable, sobriety-tested tips that can also help:

  • Attend only the events that are important and necessary.
  • Choose events that are good for recovery.
  • Discuss a sober/recovery plan in advance with a sponsor.
  • Know what safety network of people will be there.
  • Attend with someone who is in recovery or someone who is drug and alcohol free.
  • Discuss when to arrive and when to leave.
  • Enjoy the delicious food and wholesome, fun-filled festivities.
  • Discuss how to respond to anyone who offers a drink, marijuana, a pill or any addictive substance.

People in recovery should be vigilant and careful at any celebration. The addicted brain is programmed and conditioned to seek pleasure. The addict has been accustomed to thinking and believing that fun can only exist in the presence of alcohol or some drug that will provide a euphoric feeling. Neuroscience explains this phenomenon with the biology of dopamine receptors in specific areas of the brain that become activated or “triggered” by sensory signals or “cues” that surround the addict at a party. What the addict sees, smells, feels, tastes and hears can instantly and unexpectedly put him/her in danger of a relapse.

Here’s a brief science summary of what happens inside the brain when an addict is put into a compromising situation. The dopamine brain receptor functions to create anticipation, a strong predictable feeling of how much pleasure to expect after giving in to an initial urge. Temptation can be persistent, and once the dopamine receptor is turned, it is responsible for pleasurable and obsessive thoughts of former drinking or drug use. This mechanism can easily block out any recollection of problems connected to intoxication. Then, addicted circuits of the brain kick into a higher gear called compulsion, when taking a drink or a drug becomes irresistible and unstoppable. Inside the brain, interconnected neurons are using electrical impulses and chemistry. The addict is literally helpless, powerless and under the brain’s influence. At the start of the party, there was no intention to have a drink or go looking for a drug to get high. But once the reward for pleasure seeking has been turned on for drugs or alcohol, the addict has been taken hostage by their own brain.

All addicts in recovery are taught that they can’t trust themselves to be their own chaperones. They know that extra measures need to be taken to safeguard themselves every day, not just at parties. A party is one of the biggest triggers because people often remember celebrations as pleasurable times. Perhaps being intoxicated enabled the person to feel more social, or maybe he/she became the life of the party. The person experienced laughter, music and dancing or perhaps a heightened self-esteem, flirtation or even romance as never before.

Attending celebrations can bring back memories, and a weak moment may follow when the addict believes that being sober will never compare and deliver the same level of fun as the “good ol’ days.” Although alcohol or drugs may have granted some hours of intense pleasure, the price paid afterward was not worth it. The answer to all temptation, urges and cravings must be a loud and firm “no.”

To help stay firm, the person in recovery should go to any celebration armed with the serenity prayer and other prayers and affirmations to recite as many times as needed until the craving stops and sanity is restored. Of course, that would also be the perfect time to call a sponsor, leave the scene and get to a 12-step meeting, which is usually possible since they are typically plentiful and occur throughout the day in many locations.

Here are few more useful tips:

  • Ask your friends and family not to drink in front of you.
  • If your old drinking buddies are there, say hello but spend more time with sober people.
  • Avoid reminiscing about previous times of intoxication.
  • Do not socialize where the alcohol is being displayed and served.
  • If being around certain individuals is a stressor for you, set limits on how much time you will spend with them.
  • Avoid getting involved in or continuing conversations that are leading to disagreements and arguments.
  • Recite the serenity prayer or other prayers or affirmations to help take the focus off of compulsive thoughts.
  • Rely on a sponsor to help you through times of temptation.
  • Leave the scene of the party if urges become too strong and find a 12-step meeting to attend.
  • Watch out for mood changes. Feelings of anxiety, depression and self-pity; or being restless, discontent and irritable are strong warnings that can lead to excuses and lead you to fall back into old habits.
  • Being hungry, angry, lonely and tired are additional relapse triggers, which must be dealt with promptly.

Celebrating is important for everyone. The joy of living is particularly essential for people in recovery. Those who are diligent in their sober living skills should reap the benefits of a healthy and happy life, including being able to enjoy sober celebrating as something natural, safe and rewarding. Anyone armed with the tools of recovery can be more confident and at ease. It’s important to be prepared, mentally and spiritually, to plan carefully and to practice these tactics regularly. Someone who has embraced sobriety whole-heartedly should be able to experience fun, which is pure and as rewarding as love itself. That’s the true essence of recovery — to be able to love oneself in sobriety and to realize that sobriety is the greatest gift worth celebrating.



Jamie Smolen, MDJamie Smolen, MD, is an associate professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Florida College of Medicine. He practices psychiatry and addiction medicine at the UF Health Florida Recovery Center.  Dr. Smolen is an evaluator for the Florida Professionals Resource Network, Intervention Project for Nurses and the Florida Department of Health. Dr. Smolen’s consulting expertise has also been sought by several Major League Baseball teams and the National Football League. He has fulfilled an important role in the successful treatment of many impaired health care providers and professional athletes.