Why “sober living” may not be the best New Year’s resolution for you

Brynna Lennox
Brynna Lemmex, a social worker in The Royals’ Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program (SUCD)

No matter the date on the calendar, the subject of making change is something Brynna Lemmex, a social worker in The Royals’ Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program (SUCD), discusses with her clients on a daily basis, not just on January 1.

“Here at The Royal we don't just talk about change around the holidays, we talk about change every day, at every opportunity,” she says.  

Her number one advice to anyone who wants to set goals regarding their substance use consumption is to make resolutions that are smaller and more specific

The following resolutions – recommended by Lemmex and her colleagues in SUCD – may help those goals turn into lasting change.

Resolve to make a SMART goal

Research shows that cutting back on alcohol consumption has many benefits. It lowers the risk of a number of health issues, decreases feelings of stress and anxiety, and supports a better night’s sleep.

For people who are looking to cut back, Lemmex recommends making SMART goals. SMART, which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound, is a way to plan and set goals in order to make them more achievable. 

Specific: For a goal to be effective, it needs to be specific. A specific goal could be: “I want to reduce my drinking to one drink per weeknight at dinner and two drinks on the weekend” as opposed to: “2023 is going to be a year of sober living.” 

Lemmex suggests considering the five Ws – Who, What, Where, When, Why – to help define a goal in the clearest way possible.  

Measurable: Tracking progress will provide a benchmark to help achieve your goal. Something as simple as drawing a star in your calendar every time you meet your goal that day can help visualize that achievement and give you something to build on.  

Achievable: Goals should be realistic. It might be helpful to ask a friend or a loved one if you’re not sure the goal you set for yourself is a reasonable one. “I like to say goals should be 80 per cent achievable but 20 per cent of a challenge,” says Lemmex. “You want to allow yourself to have as much success as possible, but still give yourself a little bit of a challenge.”  

Relevant: This is big picture thinking. Ask yourself if the goal is relevant to your life. Lemmex says it’s important to consider how your goal will meet your needs. Is it consistent with your overall goals and lifestyle?

Time-Bound: Giving yourself a deadline or setting a specific time frame will help you hold yourself accountable and stay focused. Lemmex suggests giving yourself two weeks to see how things are going, and re-evaluating your goals if needed. 

Resolve to remember what worked for you in the past

Remember what worked really well but also what didn’t work, and why. This will help guide your actions. 

Resolve to be more mindful of your consumption 

Month-long “Dry January” challenges are a popular way to cut out or cut down on alcohol consumption. While going cold turkey might work for some people, Lemmex prefers the idea of a “Mindful January.” Mindfulness can be practiced with any activity, such as cooking, eating, and playing. Being in the present moment is key. 

During Mindful January (and it can be any length of time, any time of year) promise yourself to really pay attention to the substances you are consuming, and how much . (When consuming alcohol, here’s where it’s important to understand what a serving of alcohol looks like. SUCD staff refer to the low-risk alcohol guidelines published by the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction.) Measure out a serving of alcohol; observe the colour and the smell. Take the time to consume it without distraction while focusing on all of your senses. Part of this process is also to think about the purpose of that drink. Ask yourself: What is leading me to want or need a drink right now?  

Resolve to practice self-compassion 

Lemmex says the holidays – and the weeks afterwards – can be really hard for anyone who struggles with substance use. 

Self-compassion can boost feelings of self-worth, resilience, well-being, and decrease feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, Dr. Melissa Bolton, a psychologist at The Royal, calls self-compassion “a powerful agent in recovery and wellness.” Click here to read more about fostering self-compassion

Resolve to develop a support network and reach out when needed

Lemmex hopes people remember that making a big change is easier when we’re not alone. To that end, she strongly recommends letting friends and family know about any substance-related goals so you can lean on them if needed. 

“Allow yourself to be open and vulnerable with your loved ones,” says Lemmex. “True loved ones are the people who care about you and are going to be on board with whatever you want to do.”

If friends and family aren’t available to you, consider connecting with other like-minded people through a support group. Talking to someone with lived experience, such as a peer support worker for example, can be a real help. 

If you don’t know where to turn to for help for alcohol or opioid use, reach out to The Royal’s Rapid Access Addiction Medicine (RAAM) Clinic. A referral is not needed. Services at the clinic include assessment, substance use and mental health treatment, and withdrawal management. 

Clinic staff also make sure clients are connected with community resources. 

“When you fall – and it’s ok to fall – you have your community here to help you back up,” says Lemmex. “It's important to have a network to support you because we can't do this alone – we need each other.”

For more information about The Royal’s Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders Program, click here.