For recovering addicts, the holidays are a dangerous time of year. At the very least, we must deal with holiday expectations for love and connection and merry making. Often, we think our holidays should look like a Normal Rockwell painting, and when that doesn’t happen we feel disappointed, pressured, anxious, not good enough, and maybe even a little depressed. In the midst of all this stress, it’s easy to become a little crazed and to lose sight of what’s most important in our lives: our sobriety.
Sadly, even addicts who are firmly grounded in recovery can revert to old patterns during this supposedly joyful season. When this happens, we need to pause and remind ourselves that without sobriety, there is zero chance of connecting with our loved ones and enjoying the holidays the way we’d like.
If you’re worried about staying sober through the holiday season, it is useful to perform regular self-checks on your state of mind. Ask yourself:
Am I feeling isolated, lonely, sad, or angry?
Am I keeping any secrets or telling any lies?
Do I have idealized (and likely unrealistic) expectations for family and holiday gatherings?
Am I feeling impulsive or obsessive?
If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you need to engage in contrary actions that support your sanity and sobriety. A few things you may want to consider are:
Meetings/Therapy/Fellowship: Yes, I know you’re busy, but now is not the time to cut back on meetings, therapy, and hanging out with your friends in recovery. In fact, the holiday season is a time to double-down on these basics of sobriety. If you’re feeling stressed and disappointed and overwhelmed and ready to pick up, it is smart to reach out to the people who understand you and can talk you off the ledge.
Engage in Self-Care: Again, I know you’re busy with all the shopping and decorating and cooking and socializing, but you still need to get enough sleep, eat healthy, exercise, and generally take good physical and emotional care of yourself. Failing to do this adds to your stress, increasing the odds of depression, anxiety, and relapse. Sometimes during the holidays, it helps to schedule some quiet time with your significant other or a close friend, so the two of you can escape the holiday hoopla for a few hours and just relax.
Plan for Triggers: The holidays are full of addiction triggers, many of which can be seen well in advance. For instance, attending parties with booze and other temptations is sometimes unavoidable. If so, you can “bookend” these events with phone calls to your sponsor or another friend in recovery. During the “before” call, you commit to sobriety and discuss your plans to avoid relapse. During the “after” call, you discuss what happened, what feelings came up, and what you might want or need to do differently next time.
Get Grateful: My colleague Brené Brown has spent nearly 20 years researching happiness. After all that time she has reached one very significant conclusion: Happy people are grateful people. So, when you feel down during the holidays, pausing and creating a ten-item gratitude list is an incredibly effective way to shift your mood. You can be grateful you have a job, a family, money to pay for Christmas (even if it’s not as much money as you’d like), that your kids are healthy, that it’s sunny out, etc. As you practice gratitude in this way, you’ll see that it’s impossible to be grateful and unhappy at the same time.
Accept Others: People are people, and there is nothing you can do to change that. What you can change is your attitude about their flaws and behaviors. Tell yourself: “So what if my dad puts half a stick of butter on every dinner roll? Who cares if my mother-in-law follows me (or my spouse) around the kitchen making not-so-subtle suggestions about how a proper ham should be cooked?” If you can take a step back and accept that the people around you are going to behave however they behave because that’s who they are, it’s much easier to abide (and maybe even embrace) their various quirks. Or, on a higher plane, you can view “acceptance of others and their horrible behaviors” as your holiday gift to the world.
Whatever you do during this holiday season, I urge you to stay sober. The best holiday gift you can give to yourself and your loved ones is maintaining your sobriety by staying grounded in a process of self-care, gratitude, acceptance, recovery, and healing.