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Getting Through The Holiday Season As A Recovering Addict

The holiday season can be stressful for pretty much anyone.  There is always too much to do and not enough time.  For those dealing with substance abuse issues, the holiday season can be doubly difficult as parties start to show up on everybody’s calendar.  A lot of holiday parties have a lot of alcohol at the centre of them, and if you are trying to stay sober this can be very triggering.  There are also a lot of family obligations when the holidays come around, and for those who might have a strained relationship with their family members, it can be very difficult to avoid cravings in order to deal with the unwanted feelings.  There are ways in which people can get through this season without relapsing, and it is important for addicts to plan out their strategies before the season begins.

Lean Into Your Recovery Program

When dealing with the stressors of the holiday season, it is important for addicts to stay very close to whichever program they are working as part of their recovery.  When in recovery, it can be very helpful to create relationships within the recovery community.  If you are part of a twelve-step program, the holiday season is the time to start going to more meetings.  Being proactive about your recovery can help make difficult times easier, and hitting a few more meetings a week can be extremely beneficial.  One of the ideas behind twelve-step programs is that it allows people to feel connected to others so that they no longer feel that they are suffering alone.  This can be even more important when the holiday season comes around, as recovering addicts will find that a lot of people in recovery have similar issues with this time of year, and hearing stories about other people’s suffering can make your own suffering feel a bit less severe.  Also, for people who are earlier on in their recovery journey, there may be some great advice given by “old timers” who have gone through the holiday season many times and survived.

Some twelve-step programs may also have specific events that will help addicts get through certain days that are particularly triggering.  The Alcoholics Anonymous program will often have a full day meeting on Christmas Day, which anyone is welcome to attend.  This means they will have an open meeting every hour for the entire day of Christmas, and they will often even provide food and refreshments.  Since a lot of people in recovery have difficulty during the holidays, AA has provided a way in which they can get help on possibly one of the most difficult days.  This also allows for those who may not have a place to go on this day to feel as though they can celebrate Christmas with friends rather than family. This type of support is often also given around New Year’s Eve, as that is a celebration that is always centred around drinking.  A lot of meetings will be open on this evening, and AA encourages members to attend if they are unsure as to how to celebrate the ringing in of a new year.  Having places to go during the holidays is very helpful for people in recovery, as this time of year can easily trigger a relapse even in people who have already spent a good amount of time in sobriety.

Create Boundaries

In general, it is very important for all of us to create boundaries with the people in our lives.  By establishing and maintaining boundaries, we are able to respect our own needs while having healthy relationships with friends, family members and other people in our lives.  This can be especially true when in recovery, as addicts are not used to behaving in a way that is respectful to themselves or anyone else.  A simple way of doing this is to not over-extend yourself during the holiday season.  There are a lot of social events that happen during the holidays, and it can be easy to feel as though you have to attend each and every one.  It is absolutely okay to skip an event or two – this might make the holiday season a little bit less stressful.  This can also be helpful when you are trying to avoid temptation: since almost all holiday parties feature booze, only sticking to the parties you enjoy can be very good for your recovery.  The holiday season is an easy time of year to decline a party invite, as there is an assumption that everyone has multiple events to go to, so the questions about you not attending will probably be limited.

Another aspect of this is knowing when to leave a party.  At the beginning of a holiday event, most people are simply settling in, chatting with other guests and working on their first drink.  As the party progresses, however, more drinks are poured and some guests might get a bit tipsy.  An odd thing happens around the holidays: people stop following the rules, and they indulge in both food and alcohol a bit more than they do during other times of the year.  This can create a very uncomfortable environment for the addict, as not only are people drinking around them, they are often drinking to excess.  To avoid too many encounters with your tipsy friends and family, make a plan before going to the event as to when you will leave and what to say when you are leaving.  There is no shame in leaving a party first, especially if it means you will be more likely to leave with your sobriety intact.  Having a plan in your head before you get to the party will allow your exit to be smooth, as you will have an answer ready if asked about why you are leaving early.  If it turns out that you do not feel the need to use your exit strategy, then you don’t have to use it.  By already thinking about these issues before going to a holiday event, there will be a lot less stress during the event, and you will be more likely to enjoy yourself.

Volunteer

During the holiday season, there are numerous charities that need extra help.  Whether it be helping collect charitable donations or working in a soup kitchen, the holidays are a great time of year to give back.  This can be a great way for an addict to stay away from their drug of choice, as they become busy helping others and may not have time to attend all the special events on their calendar.  Going back to the idea of choosing which events to attend and which to skip, a volunteering commitment can provide an easy excuse as to why you cannot attend that booze-fest of an office holiday party.  Not only does volunteering fill up your calendar with things other than parties, it is a great way to feel good about yourself.  The holiday season can be difficult for people for many reasons, and if the emotions run high, relapse can easily happen.  Doing things for others can create those “feel good” emotions we are all craving, especially during the later part of the year.  Volunteering your time to a charity can cause a great abundance of gratitude, which in turn can make you appreciate your own life just a bit more.

Volunteering can also happen by way of doing service at your local twelve-step group.  Service refers to volunteering for different positions in a twelve-step group that are needed in order for a meeting to be held.  Set- up, tear-down, kitchen duty and greeting are a few of the common jobs that need to be done by the group, and there is always something that can be done to help make sure the meeting runs smoothly.  When looking at the original twelve-step group Alcoholics Anonymous, we see that one of the pillars to recovery is service work.  The reason for this is that it helps build community within the twelve-step group.  People come together to help make sure the meeting runs smoothly, and as they perform their tasks, they chat and perhaps find friends within the recovery community.  This is helpful for the addict, as it is important to remember that they no longer have to suffer alone.  The recovery community is full of people who have similar ways of looking at the world and who inevitably have the same way of dealing with stress: using their drug of choice.  By creating a sense of community within the twelve-step group, the addict is able to get through life stressors more easily, because they have people they can talk to.  This is also especially true during the holidays, as the triggers one addict might be feeling are probably similar to those being experienced by other addicts. By giving your time to serve the twelve-step community, the connections become stronger and getting through the Holiday season without relapse becomes easier.

Some Practical Advice

In order to get through all the different social engagements of the holiday season, we now turn to some practical advice from people in the recovery community.

  • When you get to a party, immediately get a soda water with lemon in your hand.  This will stop people from constantly asking if you would like a drink.
  • Mingle as much as possible.  This may seem difficult without alcohol, but it is worth the struggle.  If you are constantly moving from one group to another, people will not notice that you are not drinking.  Also, if you do decide to leave early, people wont notice, as you’ve already spoken to everyone you know.
  • Bring a sober friend.  If you are dreading that office party and you happen to be single, bring a sober friend to the party.  This will deflect some of the attention off you and you can lean on each other when the party starts to get rowdy.
  • Take a break.  Use the washroom or go outside for some air.  Allow yourself to take time in the middle of an event if you need it.  Say the serenity prayer, call your sponsor, do whatever you think might help you in that moment.
  • Help out the hostess.  If you are at a family party or a friend’s house for a get together, offer to do the dishes or clean up some of the food.  It will help distract you from cravings, but it will also make you look busy, so people will be less likely to offer you a drink.

One of the best things to remember when going into the holiday season as a recovering addict is that you are not the only one who has difficulty at this time of year.  A lot of people find the holidays very difficult, and it can be very important to think of how you might approach this season before it actually comes.

One of the best things to do is to talk to friends you may have who are also sober.  It is very likely that they will also have some issues with the holiday season, and together you might be able to come up with a plan that can help get both of you through the season sober.

Also, ask for help.  People who have been in the recovery community for a long time will have a lot of great advice if this is one of your first holiday seasons as a sober person.

Try to avoid thinking you can tackle the stressors of the season alone.  Being proactive in recovery can allow the holiday season to be less triggering, and the addict may be able to get through it more easily than they originally thought.  Having a strategy as to how to deal with the holiday season is the best way to get through it sober, so think ahead of what triggers might be around and decide how you will deal with them before they come up.  With a bit of planning, the holiday season may not be as difficult to get through as you feared, and you will be successful at maintaining your sobriety.

Photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.