Thanksgiving is over, which means that retail outlets and movie stations are hard at work reminding us that the holidays have arrived. And whether your family celebrates Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule or otherwise, you likely feel rather strongly about it. You might feel that the holidays are, as the crooners would like us to believe, the most wonderful time of the year. Or, depending on your situation, you might already find yourself trying desperately to white-knuckle your way through the season. But whether you feel joyous or jittery, one truism remains—dealing with addiction during the holidays takes some effort.
Most of us who struggle with substance abuse disorders find that we create this problem ourselves. Perhaps we cancelled on our families during previous holiday seasons. Many of us drank a bit too much at a New Year’s party, or decided to huddle up in our apartment with a needle when we should have been at our parents’ house exchanging Christmas gifts. Even if previous holiday seasons went off without a hitch, things might get tense this time around. Fearful of this tension, we might seek an escape. But turning to drugs or alcohol right now will only make things worse. We must work through the fears and tension, or else we may never regain the trust of those we love.
Fortunately, we already possess the tools needed to make this happen. You may not realize it, but you actually know everything you need to know in order to survive the holidays. Simply look inside your toolbox, undergo a bit of an attitude adjustment, and things should work out okay. We’ll discuss the best ways of adjusting your mindset below, but it generally boils down to three things—knowing your triggers, expressing gratitude, and remembering that patience is a virtue.
Anticipate Your Primary Triggers
No matter what your situation, this probably isn’t your first time dealing with addiction during the holidays. It may, however, be your first time navigating the holidays in recovery. This can cause a lot of stress, especially for those without much sobriety under their belts. The good thing is that, having lived through the holidays before, you should be able to assess which triggers are most likely to affect you. With this in mind, you can formulate a relapse prevention plan specifically tailored to the holiday season.
For many, spending extended time with family constitutes the biggest source of stress during the holidays. Others might find themselves down because their family doesn’t trust them enough to invite them around this year. Still others simply harbor a general distaste for the holidays in general. No matter what the source of your troubles, you need to face them. If you fear being around family because they have a tendency to harangue you about your past, find a few close family members who understand you and will make the holidays more bearable. And if you’re spending the holidays alone, find something healthy to do. Go to a meeting, or invite an AA friend over to watch Charlie Brown specials. No matter what your plans, your first relapse prevention method should involve tapping into your support network.
And when we say “support network,” we mean it. You might know a lot of friends who still use drugs and alcohol. These same friends might invite you over for Christmas or New Year’s. It’s easy to tell ourselves that we’re ready for these sorts of things, that we’ll be safe at a party with our former partners in crime because they’ll respect us enough to help us stay sober. We must realize, however, that we lack any viable reason to insert ourselves into such situations right now. Yes, many addicts and alcoholics can go to parties with impunity. But we cannot simply assume ourselves to be among them. If we go to a party where debauchery reigns supreme, then we may very well end the year on a relapse.
Of course, some people will read this and continue to assume that they can trust themselves at any holiday party, regardless of the presence of drugs or alcohol. This is why we need a backup plan. Even family parties may involve drinking, and we might find ourselves in a tight spot. We must therefore plan ahead. If you’re traveling for the holidays, make a list of meetings in your area. Also contact a few recovery friends—especially your sponsor—prior to the holidays. Let them know that you’re worried, and ask if you can call them if the going starts to get rough. Just make sure you pick up the phone before you start using. Otherwise, you might not find a lot of sympathy on the other end of the line.
Give Thanks for the Holidays
Despite coming right off of Thanksgiving, not all of us feel too thankful at this time of year. In fact, the rush to buy presents might actually stir up some resentments. We might feel that our friends and family abandoned us during our addiction, even though we technically abandoned them. And despite doing our best to overcome those resentments, some anger may still linger in our hearts. Now, our culture dictates that we must buy gifts for the same people we’ve long blamed for our problems. This is not rational thinking—but it’s not particularly uncommon thinking, either.
Nonetheless, life itself gives us reasons to express gratitude every single day. Addiction could have killed us at any time, yet here we stand. Life may sometimes treat us unfairly. We may not get to spend the holidays how we wanted. Perhaps we wish to buy gifts that express our love for people, yet currently find ourselves financially unable to do so. But if they truly love us, our families will understand. And after watching us slowly kill ourselves for so long, they’ll likely view our sheer existence as a gift in and of itself. Sobriety gives us a second chance at living. As long as we continue to take that chance, gratitude should come easy.
Also remember to exhibit some gratitude for the holidays themselves. Every year, our culture demands that we gather together to love one another. The promise of Christmas ham and weekly airings of classic movies only sweetens the deal. Depending on your situation, you might take in some simple pleasures such as snowball fights and gingerbread houses. Then, while you’re huddled by the fire, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas with those you love, you can take a minute to tell them how much their support means to you. Because feeling gratitude helps us stay sober. But actually expressing gratitude makes that sobriety worth something.
Don’t forget to turn some of that gratitude inward as well. The holidays mark such a prominent time of year that we often judge ourselves a bit more harshly than usual. We remember where we were last year in relation to where we are now, and we beat ourselves up if we don’t like the progress we’ve made. But this type of self-recrimination serves virtually no benefit. Besides, you’re likely making more progress than you realize. You can’t rush it. Recovery is a journey, not a race. And at this time of year, you don’t need to be racing anywhere. Simply do what you need to do in order to stay sober, and enjoy the gift of life. Do that, and the holidays actually might turn out to be the most wonderful time of the year. But only if you let yourself enjoy the merriment of the world around you.
Learn the Virtue of Patience
Up to this point, some readers might find themselves struggling with an ounce or two of incredulity. Some of us have fewer reasons to feel grateful than others. Advising such people to express their gratitude, while still good advice, might strike them as borderline offensive. We understand—we’ve been there ourselves. Such is the nature of addiction. So if you find yourself struggling with gratitude, we’ll give you at least one thing for which you might feel some appreciation—the holidays won’t last forever. After New Year’s draws to a close, you can take a breath and return to your normal life. At least until Valentine’s Day.
Not that we wish to make light of things. Feeling alone during the holidays creates something of a paradox. On one hand, we might know intuitively that countless others feel the same way. But on the other hand, this knowledge does little to ameliorate our sense of isolation. When we feel this way, relapse seems like a rather forgivable peccadillo. We know that, even if we go off the deep end, people all around the world will be picking up 24-hour chips on January 1st. Why shouldn’t we count ourselves among them? The answer is simple—because there’s simply no need to hurt ourselves that way.
Once the holidays end, we’ll find ourselves at the start of a new year. And if we know that we struggle with addiction, we can choose to start this year on a positive note. Many consider New Year’s a symbol of rebirth. In that spirit, we make it easy for ourselves to slip because we feel as if we can just start over. Instead, we should look at New Year’s as a time of continued growth. We don’t make resolutions in order to become new people, but rather to grow and improve upon the people we already are. And if you’re reading this article, then you already know on some level that you are a good person. Otherwise, you wouldn’t care so much about staying sober and protecting those you love from the harm of seeing you relapse.
If you can demonstrate patience and take things one day at a time, then in time you will learn to see your true strength. And even though our mental obsession may peak around the holidays, it too will pass. So don’t lose hope. If you’re truly worried about your progress, and growing impatient at the thought that progress may never come, do yourself a favor—start your New Year’s resolutions now. Write down ways in which you’d like to see yourself grow over the next year. And instead of waiting for January to arrive, start working on those resolutions now. Because while the holidays will end in time, the disease stays with us. If we don’t address this, our families may wind up associating the holidays with the loss of a loved one. We must do everything we can to avoid resigning those we love to such a fate.
What tools do you use to make it through the holidays? Tell us about them in the comments below. Because together, we just might make it through this holiday season stronger than ever.