How to Have a Safe and Sober New Year’s Eve

Woman celebrates New Years Eve in Times Square

New Year’s Eve comes with special pressures for people in recovery. Here are some tips on how to navigate—and celebrate—the holiday

By Patrick McElwaine, Psy.D., LPC

When I was active in my addiction, I always looked forward to New Year’s Eve and other holiday parties. Yes, it was a time for celebration—but if I’m honest with myself, it was an excuse to get wasted. Everyone gets wasted on New Year’s Eve, right? Surely my loved ones could not give me a hard time for drinking on New Year’s Eve when everyone does. During my active addiction, New Year’s Day was usually filled with shame, guilt and regret, even though I refused to believe that drinking was a problem.

I truly believed that if you took alcohol and drugs away from me, all the fun in my life would end. I thought New Year’s Eve and many other holidays and celebrations would be awful and boring in sobriety. I thought everything would be dull, and I consistently reminded myself why I should still use alcohol and drugs, even if it was killing me.

What I found helpful for New Year’s Eve was to surround myself with supportive individuals and loved ones … and spending quality time with them.”

I want to emphasize something to everyone reading this column who may struggle with addiction and have these same thoughts. The fun, happiness and excitement do not end! Life does feel different, and it may take some time to feel comfortable being sober.

New Year’s Eve Isn’t Just for Parties

One important aspect to my recovery was feeling OK with saying no to those who wanted me to attend parties and celebrations during my early recovery. During the years when I consistently relapsed, I found myself attending parties and celebrations. Even if I didn’t drink or use drugs at these events, they would exacerbate my struggles with treatment, leading to resentments and relapses. Individuals in recovery are often told to be careful of people, places and things that may contribute to relapse or recovery difficulties.

What I found helpful for New Year’s Eve was to surround myself with supportive individuals and loved ones. I would attend a support meeting during the day and then spend time with my wife and children that included ordering out, watching a movie (my movie suggestions always get vetoed!) and spending quality time with them.

Early on in my recovery, I felt I was missing out. I definitely had FOMO! As I spent more time sober, however, I grew to realize I actually had many new experiences and life events that I would have missed out on had I kept using. Now I’ve been sober and clean since Feb. 12, 2009. I started my recovery journey in June 2005 and have had numerous teachable moments and learning experiences—otherwise known as lapses and relapses. Although my early recovery since 2009 was tough, especially on New Year’s Eve, I started to see that fun, excitement, good times and peace occur in sobriety. You will too.

New Year’s Eve Alternatives

Here are some tips that I hope help with any parties and celebrations, and especially with New Year’s Eve:

  • Have a plan for the night. This will help reduce the chances of getting bored and deciding to go drink or use drugs
  • Host a sober party at your house with friends and family
  • Order out. (Burgers, wings and fries make me happy. My wife thinks I order too much!)
  • Make it a movie night with the loved ones
  • Go to a 12-step meeting. You will find support and understanding at these meetings
  • Find a sober event in your community
  • Find a fireworks show where you and your loved ones can have sober fun
  • Practice saying no to attending events and parties that will be difficult for you. If people don’t understand, that’s OK—you know the importance of maintaining sobriety
  • If you have a family event or something that you need to attend, check to see if you can bring a sober friend. Also consider attending for a brief time and then leaving early
  • Contact sober friends and family who love you and want to support you. Try not to isolate and avoid others on New Year’s Eve. It’s important to remember to be around supportive people who will promote your recovery and not hurt the chances of your continued sobriety during this challenging evening

In the end, I understand how tough nights like these are. I often thought I would never achieve long-term sobriety, never have fun while not drinking and using drugs, and never feel comfortable in my own skin. Being in recovery can feel like a roller-coaster ride, but if you keep working your recovery, seeing a therapist, going to 12-step meetings and surrounding yourself with positive supports, it is possible! It is beautiful!

Whether you have had one day sober or months or years, please remember you are resilient, strong and empowered!

I wish everyone a Happy New Year!

Patrick McElwaine, Psy.D., LPC, is known as “Dr. Mac” to his clients, students and colleagues. He has his own counseling practice, teaches counseling psychology at Holy Family University in Pennsylvania, is a faculty member at the Beck Institute, and serves on the Bucks County National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) board of trustees. His column “Dear Recovery” publishes regularly on