Overcoming Addiction During the Holidays – Stay Strong in Recovery this Christmas Season
Yesterday we looked at how to get and maintain momentum in addiction recovery. Today we want to take a look at how to prepare yourself in recovery for the coming holiday.
The holidays can certainly be a tricky time for recovering addicts and alcoholics. You have all sorts of potential recovery issues, but the two main ones are probably:
* Added stress from the holiday seasons in general.
* Surrounded by peers who may be imbibing for the holiday (peer pressure, triggers).
If both of these combine in your situation then it can lead to a very dangerous situation. People relapse over the holidays. It happens.
Therefore we want to be prepared for this possibility and take specific action in order to prevent it.
Get yourself a plan
There are two ways to work your recovery (during any time of the year, holidays or not): you can do it with a plan, or you can do it without a plan.
Guess which one is generally the strongest path?
That’s right…..having some sort of plan in place.
If you are worried about the upcoming holiday season and how it might affect your sobriety then that is a good thing. Your awareness of this potential problem is a step in the right direction. Just imagine how many people are going to stumble into the pitfalls and traps of added stress over the holidays without even giving it a second thought. We want to be prepared for it and that requires having an awareness. If you have read this far then you are one step ahead of the game, so good for you.
The idea is that we want to be cautious and defensive when it comes to our recovery over the holidays. Our primary goal should always be to protect our sobriety at all costs. If we lose that then everything will unravel and things will quickly tumble downhill. So it is important to keep your priorities straight: sobriety is always number one in your life, right?
The second part of your plan should be to make sure you have a sound strategy in place that can deal with the extra stress and potential triggers of the holiday season. In order to do this you may have to pause and take a look at your current recovery strategy and see if it may need some extra work. The two most relevant questions you can ask yourself might be:
1) What actions do I currently take in order to deal with stress in my recovery, and are they effective?
2) How do I respond to triggers, urges, and peer pressure?
If you sense a weakness in your defenses while asking yourself either of those questions then you probably have some additional work to do in order to be well prepared for the holiday season.
Basically you have determined that you might be vulnerable to relapse over the holidays, and we want to take immediate action to help correct this. Therefore we need a plan and we need to take action. Just having an awareness of this potential problem is not enough. We need to take preventative action in order to protect ourselves from potential relapse.
Refining your plan for the holidays
In my early recovery I did a number of things in order to refine my plan for the holidays:
* Avoided certain parties that I knew might be a problem.
* Found alternative things to do and sober parties to attend (local AA meeting clubs often have parties like this).
* Made sure to avoid certain people from my life that I knew might be a trigger (including family members that might still abuse drugs or alcohol).
* Found ways to reward myself in recovery and be happy about my sobriety during the holiday.
* Made extra connections with sober peers for added support during the holidays.
* Arranged an extra meeting with a sponsor over the holiday to get together and talk (and also to celebrate the holiday).
In addition to all of this, you can go to your peers in recovery or to your sponsor (if you have one) and simple say:
“I am worried about my recovery due to the upcoming holiday season. There are temptations and extra triggers for me. What can I do to help prepare myself?”
Then listen to their feedback and take the suggestions that make sense to you and run with them. Try to actually implement the advice and if your sober support group offers to get together over the holidays then you might just take them up on that as well.
How to implement a new recovery strategy
The best way to implement this “defensive” strategy for the holidays is to start doing it right now, before the holidays have really hit us. Don’t wait until the last second and then realize that you are suddenly going to be overly stressed due to a total lack of support, or because you are going to be forced to go to a party that will cause triggers or urges. The best way to prepare for something like this is to start taking action well in advance.
If you happen to go to 12 step meetings then you might find extra meetings on the days that you feel that you will be most stressed. If you are worried about being at a particular party then find a sober party in advance that you can go to instead.
You may be “forced” to attend a party that will have temptations for you. For example, a company party or a work party that you just can’t come up with an excuse for. If this is the case then you still have some options:
1) Call in sick to work that day.
2) Attend the party but duck out early due to an unforeseen emergency. Don’t feel bad about not explaining yourself to others, they will be too busy partying to really care about your sudden disappearance.
These ideas might seem dishonest in some way but I am not going to give you advice that I would not live up to myself. For example, someone might say “why lie to people like this, tell your boss or your coworkers the truth!” Maybe that works for you in your recovery but it never worked like that for me. I had to protect my anonymity in some cases and that meant being discreet at times. This example is one of those times. You can’t always be 100 percent brutally honest in every situation like this and maintain good relations in the workplace (at least I could not do it, perhaps you are stronger/smarter than I am!).
Therefore if you find yourself in a high-pressure situation like this then you need to have the strength and the guts to simply duck out. Get the heck out of their and let them wonder or just explain it later when you can talk to your supervisor one on one (for example).
In other words, if your recovery strategy for the holidays is to avoid peer pressure and the triggers and urges that might come from these sorts of social situations, then you must do whatever you have to do in order to implement that strategy. That might mean that you skip a party or two. Big deal! There are other parties and the people who “miss you” will get over it. Your sobriety is more important than that. Nothing can justify a relapse so if there are tricky situations (like a workplace party with alcohol involved) then you simply do whatever you have to do in order to avoid the situation and get through it with minimal damage.
What you do not want to do is to force yourself to comply just because you think it is “socially” necessary of you. It’s not.
Never feel obligated to put yourself into what you feel is a risky situation in terms of relapse. Never feel bad about giving someone an excuse about why you are not going to a particular party. Your number one priority is to protect your sobriety.
Escape into your strength
Whatever keeps you strong in recovery should become a source of inspiration for you over the holidays. If you need to escape from the stress and the triggers of the season then this should be done by moving closer to your source of strength.
If you go to meetings then obviously you should find more meetings to attend. If you benefit from exercise then maybe you could do a 30 or 90 day gym membership over the holiday season. Focus on what makes you stronger in your recovery and be sure to take full advantage of your strength during this time.
The holidays are not an excuse to slack off in your recovery
Some people get tripped up in their recovery because they feel like the holidays are a good time to take it easy, to take a break, to kick their feet up and relax a bit. This can quickly escalate into an attitude of “just one can’t hurt” and obviously that is a very dangerous place to be at.
Therefore you want to stay extra vigilante during this time to make sure that you are not using it as an excuse that might give your addiction a new foothold against you. There are a lot of “little” temptations over the holidays but you need to treat every single one of them like they are a huge half gallon of strong liquor. Don’t be fooled by the idea that “it’s the holidays and you can have just one to help you relax” or any nonsense like that.
Stay vigilant and remember that even a tiny slip will quickly snowball into a total disaster.
The proactive approach to relapse prevention
So much of our success in recovery depends on whether or not we are in a “good space” to begin with or not.
Our attitude about life and about recovery determines this. If we have a good attitude then our external circumstances tend to not bother us as much, and we can easily shrug off any adversity without being dragged down into a relapse because of it. On the other hand if we have a bad attitude then our external circumstances in life will turn into a list of excuses about why our life is so terrible. Relapse is easily justified if you have a bad enough attitude.
Our attitude towards life and towards our recovery is what really matters, but we often blame our external circumstances for the outcomes (what happened to us).
My theory about recovery is that we need to take an active interest in these external circumstances. Even if you have a good attitude and a strong spirit it can be very difficult to NOT let yourself be affected by the events in your life. Things happen. Sometimes they are good things and sometimes they are bad things. We cannot help but react to random events and assign judgment to them (that wedding party was good, the work party where my coworkers got drunk was bad, etc.).
Basically, stuff matters. Stuff that happens matters. We can try to pretend that it does not, and that our attitude and our faith is all that matters and should be able to carry us through anything, but this does not match up with what I see and experience in reality.
In reality, the stuff that we experience matters a lot, and going to the wrong party over the holidays can mean the difference between being totally serene for the day or being totally stressed out or even tempted to relapse.
Stuff matters. Circumstances matter.
Your attitude (and your faith, if you will) is one thing, but your daily reality is another. You have some control over your attitude and you also have some control over your external circumstances. This is especially true if you consider a long term recovery strategy.
In other words, you may argue that your options are limited and you do not have a lot of choices regarding your external circumstances this holiday season. That may be true, but it is definitely not true for next year, or the year after that, or the year after that. Why not? Because you can change so much in a year! You can probably change your entire life circumstances in the course of a year or two even if you are “stuck” for the rest of the day/week/month that you are currently in. Small changes add up over time, this is the entire premise of a proactive recovery strategy!
Tactics are what you do day-to-day. But your overall recovery strategy is the long term vision for where your life is headed and where you end up. If you want to change your circumstances and you feel trapped then you are simply not looking at a long enough time line. Think about what you can change in a year or in five years and let that vision dictate your daily actions. This is how to be successful in long term recovery.
If you are particularly vulnerable over the holidays then you should change your recovery strategy. Not only will this lead to a stronger recovery in the future, but it will also help to dictate more positive actions on a regular basis right now.
Get excited to experience the holidays while sober
If you are worried about the possibility of relapse over the holidays, my advice is to you is simple: start taking action in order to strengthen your recovery and at the same time get excited to be experiencing the holidays while sober!
It may be a stressful time of the year but can also be a very rewarding time of the year, especially if you are not used to being clean and sober and in recovery. Remember it is all about your attitude (and your circumstances that help dictate your attitude!) so don’t set yourself up to be disappointed with the holidays before you have even experienced them. In other words, give the season a chance and don’t prevent yourself from enjoyment that you might otherwise shut yourself off from.
In other words, try to have a positive attitude about the season. You can be defensive and cautious while also being open to the possibility that you will be delighted and have a good time too.
Reward yourself in sobriety
Maybe this is “selfish” of me but I somehow doubt it, but I like to reward myself in recovery.
This is about your attitude. Now obviously when I say “reward” I am not talking about drugs or alcohol or relapse. When I “treat myself” I only do so in ways that are safe to my recovery. Sobriety is always priority number one.
That said, if you are typically stressed during the holidays then you might go out of your way to give yourself a few breaks here and there. I am talking about things like:
* Paying for a professional massage during a particularly hectic week.
* Scheduling a long slow dinner with close friends in order to slow down and relax.
* Eating cake for no good reason at all. (I have actually done this and it helped me a lot!)
* Scheduling a short vacation or getaway with friends who are clean and sober.
If you have something like this to look forward to and be excited about then it can make the stress of the holidays much easier to take.
I also like to plan ahead for New Year’s and have a good “sober plan” in place so that I don’t feel like I am going to be sitting home alone while everyone is out partying. There are usually all sorts of alcohol-free parties that are available on New Year’s if you just look around (not to mention the sober parties and alka-thons that AA groups usually put together). Find a sober party and lock into it so that you have a plan in place!
Throw a sober party during your time of greatest temptation
If you know that you are going to be stressed at a particular time this season and there are no existing “sober parties” for you to escape to, then create your own! Not only will this give you a sober refuge during your time of greatest temptation, but organizing and throwing a party will probably give you a much needed distraction as well. Just be sure to invite several of your peers in recovery so that you are not sitting there all alone and wondering what you are missing out on.
What is your recovery plan for this holiday season?
If you do not have a plan then you can be sure that stress and peer pressure will try to steamroll you over the holidays. It is an intense time and it can be a very happy time but it can also be very dangerous.
Over the years in my recovery I have had to approach the season differently depending on where I was at in my recovery journey. There were times when I needed to plan out every sober event and be sure that I had a strong plan in place, and as the years went on this became less and less crucial for me. Why? Because living in long term recovery for over a decade has rearranged my life in such a way that all of the negative temptations have been pushed to the outskirts…..I no longer associate with people who abuse drugs and alcohol. My job, my socializing, my environment–all of it has changed over the years to become more supportive of my recovery.
That said, the earlier you are in your recovery, the more you need a plan for the holidays. Anyone who is completely unprepared might run the risk of becoming stressed out and tempted to relapse. Make sure you keep your priorities straight: Sobriety is always number one. Find the support that you need to make it through the holiday season while being safe.
If you can’t find that support then ask for help. Reach out and you will find others in recovery who seek to band together during times of temptation.