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Sean K. is looking forward to marching in Friday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. The 43-year-old sales representative has attended nearly every parade since he was seven.

Active in the Irish-American community, the Savannah native has been busy the past month attending the Grand Marshal’s election, Tara Feis, the Celtic cross ceremony, and the Irish Festival.

But instead of a Guinness or an Irish whiskey, Sean’s drink of choice for the past 18 St. Patrick’s Days has been water, ginger ale or Sprite. Sean quit drinking alcohol at age 25 and has been sober ever since.

Drinking beer and whiskey is part of the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day legend, with River Street serving as ground zero for partiers. For recovering alcoholics, whether newly sober or with years “on-the-wagon,” the annual festivities can present challenges beyond the usual dilemmas of where to park, the best spot for parade watching, and where to find a bathroom.

These days Sean anticipates the festivities as a fun time for being with family and celebrating his ancestry, but March 17 wasn’t always a good day for him.

“I never had any run-ins with the law, but I had some ridiculous public intoxication,” he says. “Lots of crazy things happened like walking around without my shoes on, being drunk by ten o’clock in the morning.”

“St. Patrick’s Day is more of a celebratory thing, more of a ‘let’s party, let’s get together with friends’ thing,” says Mike Cunningham, program and clinical director of Recovery Place, Inc., a private substance abuse and mental health treatment provider.

“You definitely see an expectation of excessive use of substances. Since it’s such a widely accepted, culturally promoted activity, it’s very difficult for people who’ve been involved in it in the past to avoid that allure,” he says.

Before Tony P. quit drinking in 1996, St. Patrick’s Day was his favorite holiday.

“Being an alcoholic in denial of my alcoholism, I had the wonderful opportunity for drinking first thing in the morning,” says the 52-year-old medical sales rep. “I couldn’t do it otherwise. The holiday would give me the opportunity to do that.”

Two years ago, Maggie S. spent the entire St. Patrick’s Day week on a binge. Now six months sober, the 21-year-old college student recalls that in 2004, “I pretty much didn’t eat for seven days in a row. I was drunk for seven days in a row. I threw up a lot,” she says.

“When I would wake up in the morning my whole body would hurt. It was like I’d gotten beat up or something. I maintained this balance of getting sick and drinking and being cool.”

Crisis? What crisis?

Although Cunningham predicts that 5-10 percent of Recovery Place clients will not make it through the holiday sober, he also notes that “many people start treatment after the St. Patrick’s Day celebration, based on the ‘bottoms’ or crises that will develop” during the holiday, such as DUI’s, arrests, and episodes of public intoxication.

“From a cockeyed view, we see St. Patrick’s Day as being sort of a positive event,. Many people will get into trouble and decide they want to change their lives,” says Cunningham.

“We will see a significant increase in people who will enroll in treatment in April. We aren’t praying for trouble, but no one gets well if they have this problem unless they get into trouble with it. No one decides they just want to be a better human being and get into recovery.”

Be the Man (or Woman) With the Plan

So what should the newly sober do on the big day? Says Tony, “For someone recently sober, my suggestion would be to watch the parade on TV and come to a couple of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that day.”

Tony is one of several people in Savannah who holds “what we in AA call service positions, which are voluntary positions in Alcoholics Anonymous that do the functions needed to keep AA going.”

According to Tony, several AA groups around Savannah meet on a daily basis, and will hold their regular meetings on March 17. “The only meeting that I have heard that may not happen on that day is one that meets downtown at 1 p.m. in the midst of the parade route,” he says.

In past years, Tony noted that groups of sober alcoholics have sponsored round-the-clock AA meetings, called “Alka-Thons” and also sober St. Patrick’s Day events like dances and barbecues.

“Have a plan for the day” is a common suggestion for sober folks who want to stay that way on March 17. Says Cunningham, “Most treatment programs don’t have to do the kind of preparation we have to for St. Patrick’s Day. We will do our groups that day. We expect [clients] to come, we will have them develop an action plan, and we will strongly encourage the patients in primary treatment, the early phase, to avoid going downtown.”

“It’s not really difficult to stay sober on St. Patrick’s Day if you stick with a few basic suggestions,” says Tony. “Spend time with other AA members and be selective in where you go.”

He plans to watch the parade near the Cathedral with his 76-year-old mother and some friends, and then perhaps go hear a band on River Street later that night.

“If the band is good enough I will wade through the sea of drunken humanity to enjoy some live music.”

Kris J., a native New Yorker now sober 7 years, fondly remembers her first non-drinking St. Patrick’s Day.

“I have gone to the parade drunk and not drunk. It was great the first [sober] year. I remember the colors were more vibrant, I remember seeing more people I knew, I remember laughing a whole lot. I remember being surprised that not as many people as I thought were drunk at the parade. When I finally went without drinking, I found there were families and children involved.”

The 35-year-old has lived in Savannah since 1996. She has relatives in Six Mile Cross in Northern Ireland. “My Irish cousins all say that I suffer from ‘the failing.’ That’s what they call alcoholism.”

This Friday, her plan is to “get up early, go to one of the fine local establishments that serve green grits” and then carpool to a party near the parade route.

At some point during the day, Kris will “probably go to an AA meeting. I don’t have a specific plan for that but I go to meetings every day.”

To go or not to go?

For any sober person, self awareness is important in making the decision of how to spend the day.

“Honestly last year, for the first time, I didn’t go [downtown] because I thought I would be uncomfortable,” says Kris. “The weather was horrible but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. I thought it would be best not to rock the boat.”

Maggie had been sober only three weeks when St. Patrick’s Day 2005 arrived.

“I spent all 24 hours of the holiday attending round the clock Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I didn’t feel so much like I was missing the fun. I felt relief because I had a safe place to be for that day, away from temptation.”

This year, with six months of sobriety following a relapse late last summer, Maggie is still unsure of her plans.

“If I do go to the parade I’ll go with my family, but personally I have no desire for that, because for me it’s like an alcoholic holiday.”

She suggests that newly sober alcoholics “hang out with other like-minded people, other young people that are in AA. Definitely not being around any old playmates or playgrounds.”

Sean, who attends two AA meetings a week, “would like to try to get to a meeting but I don’t know if it will happen because of the way the schedule is.”

He will spend the day with people that are drinking as well as people that are sober, including several recovering alcoholic family members.

“It will be a social atmosphere; it won’t be a drunken fest. I attended St. Patrick’s Day the first year I was sober, I had been sober eleven months. It was challenging and it was a little nerve-wracking, but it was interesting seeing the parade through clear eyes.”

Here comes the fun

Says Kris, “It is possible to go to the parade and not drink and have a wonderful time. It’s festive and fun, a great atmosphere.

“I’m Irish, so I always thought that the Irish are famous for storytelling, dancing, laughing, having a good time, and drinking. And just because I don’t drink anymore doesn’t mean I can’t dance, laugh, and have a good time.

“My cousins in Ireland said to me once, ‘God bless the little tee totaler.’ Better a tee totaler than a drunkard.”

To contact AA in Savannah, call 354-0993.
To contact Recovery Place, Inc. call 355-1440.