CITYWIDE — “Merry Christmas, what can I get you to drink?”

It’s a seemingly harmless phrase that’s been spoken countless times this month at gatherings and company holiday parties.

While many people think of the holiday season as a time to indulge a little, for those who are recovering from alcohol or other substance abuse addictions it’s a time that requires special vigilance and extra effort to stay on the wagon.

“This is the part of the year that I call the Bermuda Triangle,” said Richard Cortez, who entered recovery 10 years ago and today is a counselor at the CLARE Foundation in Santa Monica, a non-profit that runs a live-in treatment program that serves mainly homeless addicts.

“You have to be careful, because if you’re not, you’ll get lost in it and you may not make it back,” he said.

Cortez said he grew up in West Los Angeles in the 1960s and for 35 years “lived a lifestyle that most people would consider a movie.”

When he first became sober he said he couldn’t bring himself to visit family during the holidays for fear of relapsing. Today, he makes sure to take special precautions when seeing relatives.

“When I go to some place that I think may be a trigger … I take somebody with me, I don’t go alone,” he said. “I have family members that can take a drink and then that’s it — they’re good for the rest of the day. I can’t do that and I can’t be around them too long because that stuff might look good to me.”

For many recovering addicts, the holidays are dangerous because they “hit you in all of your vulnerable areas,” said Nicholas Vrataric, the CLARE Foundation’s executive director.

Loneliness is also an issue during the holidays. Others may find themselves back among old friends and old situations that led them to substance abuse in the first place. And others may make the mistake of thinking they can break their own rules, just this once.

For all of these reasons, Vrataric said many addiction recovery programs offer special services this time of year, hosting marathon holiday gatherings where support can be found any hour of the day.

For some addicts, though, the holidays can be difficult because they simply bring back memories of past behaviors.

“I’ve always thought of the holidays as a time when I would have enough money to buy [the drugs or alcohol] I needed. It was more of a come up than anything else,” said Jae Kim, also a recovering addict who works as a counselor. “I always pushed to get presents that I could re-sell for a lot so that I could get what I needed.”

Recovery experts agree on several strategies for avoiding relapse during the holidays. Some helpful tips:

• Plan ahead. Make sure you always know how to reach a friend or sponsor, and let somebody know where you’ll be.

• Take somebody with you. If you’ll be around people drinking, bring a sober friend along.

• If you have to attend a holiday gathering with alcohol, make sure to have a Plan B.

“If you are with a friend or spouse, then tell them before you go that you may feel uncomfortable around alcohol and that you need to be able to leave the party on a moment’s notice without having to explain why,” suggests Hamish White, an addiction recovery counselor.

• Go late, leave early. That way you’ll minimize temptation.

• If someone asks you what you want to drink and you don’t want to explain that you’re in recovery, instead take control of the situation: “I’d love a drink. How about a soda water with lime?”

• Remember that addiction support groups still meet, and there’s always somewhere to go to be in a sober environment.

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