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Addiction Recovery During the Holidays: How to Cope, Grieve, and Heal

Written on June 24, 2021
Addiction Recovery During the Holidays: How to Cope, Grieve, and Heal

As we descend into the darkest month of the year, we may notice ourselves bracing with closed fists and gritted teeth. For many, especially for those recovering from addiction, the holidays bring a blizzard of emotional turmoil that is hard to understand. We are supposed to be joyous and celebratory; it can feel confusing and isolating to feel differently. It can feel embarrassing, even shameful, to dislike the holidays, especially when we don’t have a clear understanding of why we are distressed. If the holidays are hard for you, you are certainly not alone. The holidays are a difficult time to maintain sobriety for those in recovery from addiction, and according to the CDC, drug and alcohol related deaths spike dramatically in December and January.

Financial stress, difficult family dynamics, short days, loneliness, unhealthy eating, and the persistent presence of alcohol-laden festivities are some of the many reasons those in early addiction recovery are at greater risk for relapse during the holiday season. You may also be traveling away from your sober community or in the presence of family members with active addictions, putting a strain on your recovery. Family is complicated and personal; it can be painful to have the spotlight shown on their dynamics. Old family dysfunctions that we may generally avoid suddenly take center stage as we reunite with one another. The holidays can also remind us our losses, whether an empty chair at dinner or a missing part of ourselves. Here are some tips to both surviving the holidays and also using them as part of your healing journey:

  1. Have a Firm Self-Care Plan in PlaceEven if you have been great about self-care throughout the year, our routine always gets thrown off by the holidays, especially if we travel. Take the time to write down your plan so you have it ready in case you are triggered. Make sure to include:
    • People to call (yes, list them out). Connect with these people beforehand. If you are attending festivities, find a sober buddy to go with you.
    • Crisis lines or other resources, if your contacts aren’t available
    • Times/places for 12-step meetings or other group support in your area, especially on days where you may be attending a triggering event. Consider planning to attend a meeting before and after an event where you may be at risk of relapse, such as a family dinner or a party with alcohol.
    • Ways in which you can exercise wherever you are (yoga classes, gyms, running trails, etc).
    • A list of things that help calm your nervous system and things you enjoy doing (for ideas, check out our Self-Care Plan article)
  2. Incorporate Self-Care into your day BEFORE you are triggeredTake extra time to do the things that nourish and calm you. Plan to exercise daily and eat healthy when you are able. Carve out time for meditation, walks, or hanging out with people with who help to recharge your energy rather than drain it. Get enough sleep by sticking to a schedule for going to bed and waking up. If you aren’t in your regular routine, have a plan for how you are going to be spending your day, especially early on. It can also be nice to treat yourself to special self-care items during this time of year to remind you to slow down, relax, and take care of yourself. Some ideas may include: delicious non-alcoholic beverages that you can bring with you to gatherings, essential oils for aromatherapy, good books, a nice new journal and/or art supplies, games you can play with with family and friends, your favorite music (make a new playlist!), etc.
  3. Give Yourself Permission to Say NoDo some work before the holidays with your therapist, sponsor, or on your own defining your boundaries, especially with family members. If there is someone you want to avoid all together, that’s ok! Have someone to call who understands addiction and mental health if you find yourself pressured to be part of things you are just not comfortable with. You never have to put your sobriety or your mental health at risk for the sake of someone else. Read that again.If your boundaries end up upsetting someone, give yourself permission to NOT worry about it. Dysfunctional family systems, especially ones with addiction in them, are often time held together by their dysfunction in a sort of homeostasis. When you disrupt that by breaking out of your old, negative habits, there is a good chance your family could feel threatened by your boundaries. You may be shedding an uncomfortable light on other people’s shadows that they work hard not to see. It’s ok to let these people feel uncomfortable. In fact, it is probably good for them.

    Part of defining your boundaries is making sure you have an escape plan for anything you do decide to partake in. When things become too much, give yourself permission to leave. Leave the party, leave the dinner, leave the family vacation if you have to. Plan out these scenarios so that you don’t feel trapped.

  4. Using the Holidays to Grieve.The holidays highlight innumerable losses: lost relationships, lost childhoods due to abuse or neglect, lost time we wished we had spent differently. Deaths in the family, estrangement from family, lack of family, family who seem stable on the outside but ignore who we are in those subtle ways that hurt so unbearably. We cannot change the ways in which the holidays bring these wounds up. However, we can use these experiences to allow ourselves to grieve—to allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling without trying to change it: sadness, anger, resentment, fear, loss. We can choose to give these wounds a voice by letting them be, just as they are. This is a complicated journey, and one that can require professional guidance as to prevent overwhelm or retraumitization, but is worth pursuing as part of the healing process.
  5. Keeping Your Heart Open to Joy. In the midst of the struggle, it can be helpful to pause and take in some of the joy of the season, even if it is not what you normally do. While this may seem obvious, if we are in pain during the holidays, enjoying any part of them may feel invalidating to our experience; we may feel like we are ignoring our feelings or are being untrue to ourselves. It is important to realize that nothing is black and white; if the holidays bring us mixed and complicated feelings, which they so often do, we can invite in the entire spectrum of our experience. We can make a seat at our dinner table for both pain and joy, understanding that not only is there room for both, but also that both need to be invited in, fed, and listened to.A lighthearted conversation with a coworker at the holiday party can be a much needed reset from the deadening routines and can bring levity back into our working relationships (especially if done in ugly sweaters). The way the city lights up, trees and lampposts and houses glowing and twinkling against the snow, always reminds me of the resiliency and optimism of humans when they loose the light of the sun. Allowing ourselves to put on ice skates, or to eat special once-a-year things, or to decorate our homes with treasures from our grandparents, can help to balance out the difficult feelings. Consider joining in the spirit of giving and spend some time volunteering to help those in need. It’s ok to have sadness around the holidays and to also enjoy parts of them. Giving ourselves permission to indulge in these joys can be hugely nourishing. In doing so, we are likely to connect with our inner child, who either remembers some of these rituals fondly, or else wishes that she/he had.