For someone in recovery from addiction, especially that of alcohol, the holiday season can bring them to the brink of relapse. The festivities, family connections and aggregate stress all add up to the potential for feeling overwhelmed. Paying attention to relapse triggers during the holiday season is of utmost importance for someone in any stage of recovery.
What makes the holiday season so dangerous for someone in recovery? We can break this down into a few of the most common areas of risk, including navigating parties, dealing with strong emotions and family situations.
The presence of alcohol at holiday parties is so commonplace. This may include wine served at dinners, workplace year-end events, or friend gatherings. Many of these parties celebrate friendship or help co-workers unwind. There are themes of letting loose and many can become excessive with binge drinking. For someone in early recovery, these parties can signify a great deal of loss as the person likely would partake in drinking the year before – now they have to approach things differently.
It is important to remember that you don’t need to attend a party, especially if you feel anxious, resentful or upset about the need to abstain from drinking. Your health and stability are infinitely more valuable than one night of holiday celebration. In the example of a workplace party, the vast majority, if not all of your co-workers, will completely forget if you didn’t make it this year.
You also can enjoy the dinner or early parts of a holiday party and then leave prematurely before things get out of hand. In this way, you are able to say ‘hello’ to everyone and meet some people’s loved ones in a positive fashion. You are enjoying the most social parts of a holiday event before everything gets out of hand!
Bringing a guest to the holiday party who understands your sobriety can also be of great help. This might be a significant-other or a ‘sober wingman.’ This might help you feel a little safer and held accountable for the night. It also gives you someone to validate if the event is stressful and can make it easier to head out the door when you choose.
The holiday season carries a great deal of beauty and joy for many people, but also can bring about intense emotions of loneliness, grief and depression. This is especially true for someone dealing with a significant loss or death of a loved one. The memories of previous holidays can carry nostalgia, often to the point of feeling overwhelmed or in a state of panic.
If you are working with a therapist over this time, see if you can schedule an additional appointment to process these seasonal emotions. This additional support can be useful to help someone check in and monitor for quality coping. It can help problem-solve difficult triggers for relapse, or even help if you slip up and drink or use during this season.
The holidays are also a common period for people to become profoundly depressed. Suicidal risk can increase during the holiday season, especially connected to feelings of grief and loss mentioned above. For people of high risk, it is incredibly important to stay consistent taking antidepressant medications and to stay connected with others. Isolation creates a dark cycle of greater loneliness and allows people to be more at risk for suicide or a deep valley of depression. Connection is the best barrier to each of these perils.
So much of the emotional charge during the holiday season is connected to family issues. This includes reconnecting with loved ones you seldom see or are regularly in your life. It is common for people to want to catch up with you, including asking what you’ve been up to this year. If this year included dedicated recovery treatment, it can make for an awkward conversation.
For family gatherings, it can be useful to plan ahead which people seem to elicit the strongest emotional responses from you. Does your brother from across the country always stir up drama when he visits? Do you have a tense relationship with your father’s new wife? Are you going to have to share the house with your ex-husband for the sake of showing the kids a good holiday? Each of these examples is exceedingly common.
Just as with our ideas for navigating the holiday parties, it is possible to have some good sober support during family gatherings. This might include having a friend come over for dinner with you. You might want to schedule a small check-in or text with your sponsor during the holiday dinner. Just having these contacts can be meaningful and help you feel supported and safe.
Ultimately, you have the right to sit out a family gathering if it’s too provocative for you. This is especially true if you are in early recovery from alcoholism and there are multiple current alcoholic drinkers at the event. Your emotional health and recovery are more valuable than any party! This can be tricky, though, especially within family systems with a fair amount of denial. Families are really savvy at using guilt as a manipulative tool when it comes to the holidays, so your boundaries and assertiveness will be put to the test. Remember that firm boundaries build respect and trust, so we need to stick with them regardless of any grief you might receive from your family.
Finally, be on the lookout for very positive connections and kindness around your recovery during the holiday season. You may notice very small moments in time in which you felt validated or supported by someone you weren’t expecting. Just as families can stir up drama and tension, they can have the capacity to shine through and let you know how valuable you are.
Each of these examples for coping with the holiday season involves being mindful of stress, especially where it pertains to relationships. It is important to be able to assess for yourself how secure you feel in recovery and what your most difficult triggers tend to be. Working with a therapist or sponsor can help you flush these ideas out so you feel better prepared.
Remember that all people feel heightened stress during the holiday season. Many cope via alcohol or other substance use and they risk losing out on some of the emotional beauty of this season. With a position of gratitude, you have the potential to be more mindful and observant of everything around you. This increased awareness is one of the greatest gifts of your recovery.