The holidays can be a stressful time for everyone for a variety of reasons. However, those who are recovering addicts (as well as their families, and those who are still actively addicted) can have a particularly intense struggle during this time of year. This blog series will address some of the reasons why things can be more difficult for those affected by addiction in an attempt to increase awareness and help prevent issues from developing into something worse, such as relapse or overdose. Each blog will come from a different perspective, starting with the recovering addict.
Why are holidays so stressful for those recovering?
Many of the typical holiday stressors, such as finances and family disagreements, are amplified because they can sometimes be the root of the beginning of the addiction and how it began in the first place. If these things have not been addressed, walking into a family gathering can be like a ticking time bomb. Just because someone has decided to become sober, does not mean that the issues that sparked the addiction in the first place have disappeared. If there was past abuse, violence, or family secrecy, and a reminder of this happens to come up, these things can trigger the craving to use, drink, or engage in any addictive behavior.
Is there anything family and friends can do to support their recovering loved one?
Yes! There are probably many things that can be supportive, though I will share the five I commonly hear among those recovering.
1. Be understanding. If I decide not to attend a family holiday function, it isn't because I don't love you. It is because it is too overwhelming and I don't trust myself to be clean and/or safe in a crowded situation with the potential to use/drink/engage.
2. Be silent. If I am able to attend these celebrations, please don't share my struggles with everyone out loud at the party. It's already difficult and uncomfortable. Now is not the time for me to be talking about it with everyone, and I might not be ready to share with everyone.
3. Offer alternatives. If my drug of choice is alcohol, please make sure there are non alcoholic drinks, and I know where to get them.
4. Offer support. I would appreciate if you took me aside and let me know that you are there if things get hard. Offer to take me to a meeting, or give me a quiet place to go to so that I can disengage. Let me know you understand if I need to leave because things are getting too overwhelming.
5. Don't push. I'll talk when I am ready. Please don't use this time to bring up things you are upset about or things you want to know about my addiction. That's a conversation for a different time, away from the celebration.
What can you do as the recovering addict to get through the holidays?
If you are going to go to events, it is important to plan ahead. Think of it as a "Plan B" in case things go wrong or are too much to handle. Do you have a sponsor you can call? Is there a friend or a meeting you can go to? If you are going with another person, can they be your go to person if things get difficult? If you are seeing a therapist, can you plan with them how you might handle situations that may come up?
Make sure to set boundaries. If you don't want to talk about something, it's okay to say "no". If something makes you upset, it's okay to leave or change the topic. This will help avoid intense arguments.
If things are too difficult, and you just can't bring yourself to go to these events, give yourself permission to not go. It is okay to plan something that may be a little more manageable. If you are going to be alone, make sure that you keep yourself busy so that there are no temptations. Set yourself up for success. Structure your unstructured time.
Something else to keep in mind: if you do end up falling and you drink/use/engage, this doesn't mean it has to be a full relapse. If you get a flat tire, you repair it. You don't make the other 3 tires flat. You do have the ability to prevent it from going further. Utilize your resources - ask for help.
Next blog in the series: Struggling With Addiction During the Holiday Season: Part 2
1-800-821-HELP (Recovery support line. Available 24/7)
1-800-662-HELP (SAMHSA’s National Helpline. Treatment referral and information service. Available 24/7)