Many people in recovery trace the origin of their alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD) back to events that occurred early in life. That means for a vast majority of people in treatment, understanding the relationship between those early events and their alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD) is a crucial part of healing, growing, and moving forward into a full life in recovery and sobriety.
In fact, family dynamics may be among the core issues they encounter and work through when they enter treatment. This is true for people in formal treatment programs in alcohol or drug rehabilitation or treatment centers or people managing independent recovery with peer support meetings, individual therapy, and other tools in the community available to them. Anyone who’s been in therapy or attended an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting, or a group counseling session during alcohol or drug rehab knows addressing childhood issues and early family dynamics is a common element of the work of treatment and recovery – and often the first thing that happens.
Peer Support: Compassion and Understanding
The stories shared in these therapy sessions, community meetings, and group counseling sessions unite people in recovery.
Although the details are rarely identical, the emotions and patterns of behavior people from a wide variety of backgrounds develop in response to early challenge and adversity are remarkably similar. Childhood trauma can lead to disruptive, confusing, and painful emotions in adolescence and early adulthood. When these emotions become overwhelming, people often seek relief with alcohol and substances, which is known as self-medication. This may work temporarily, but when alcohol or substance use becomes a primary coping mechanism, this approach loses efficacy. In plain language, self-medication almost always backfires. Temporary use becomes chronic, disordered use – a.k.a. addiction – and addiction adds another layer of adversity to work through, in addition to the pre-existing early challenge and/or trauma.
That’s why the holiday season can be incredibly challenging for people in recovery. In a typical year, holiday time means lots of family time. Most of us travel across the country to see relatives. Or we host holiday get-togethers at home. But people whose problems with alcohol and drugs stem from family issues know one thing: a joke, a look, or an innocuous gesture from a certain family member can release a flood of thought and emotion that’s hard to control, and may lead to relapse.
Home for the Holidays: Family Triggers
If you’re in recovery, you know exactly what we just described: a trigger.
Here’s a definition of trigger from the American Psychological Association (APA):
“A stimulus that elicits a reaction. For example, an event could be a trigger for a memory of a past experience and an accompanying state of emotional arousal.”
The emotional state elicited by the trigger can be almost anything. It may be anger, fear, embarrassment, or shame. The intensity of that emotion can lead to cravings and the desire to use alcohol or substances, which increases risk of relapse.
That’s what makes triggers so dangerous. You know at least one more thing about triggers, too: during family holiday time, it seems like triggers are everywhere.
Because the holidays are connected to family, and family members know how to push our buttons better than anyone else on earth.
Correction: we let family members push our buttons, whether we like it or not. It makes sense, because if anyone knows where our buttons are, our family members do. After all, they were around when those buttons formed – and they may have helped put them in place.
However, now that you’re in recovery, you know it’s your responsibility to manage your reaction to what your family members say and do. That’s part of your growth in recovery. You replace non-productive reactions to triggers – i.e. using alcohol or drugs – with productive reactions to triggers – i.e. the set of sober friendly coping skills you develop in collaboration with counselors, therapists, and recovery peers.
How to Prepare for the Holidays
First things first: Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
If you plan to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family, you need to be ready for how they behave.
If you have that provocative uncle who likes to espouse opinions that undermine your experience and invalidate the concept of treatment and recovery, then be ready for how you feel when he launches into one of his monologues.
Second, it’s important to realize your family memories – holiday and otherwise – live inside of you. That means that during the holidays, your memories can act as triggers, whether you’re around your family or not.
Third, the fact that memories can act as triggers means that during the holidays, anything holiday related can evoke a family memory, which can act as a trigger, which can lead to relapse.
We hope that makes sense. It needs to. It explains why the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays – like roast turkey, for instance – can evoke a broad spectrum of emotion. One simple thing can take you on a ride from joy to sadness to anger and back again, all in an instant. This can happen whether you’re alone, with friends, or with the family members that are part of the memory.
So how do you manage all that?
Five Tips for Staying In Recovery (And Sober) During the Holidays
1. Be Realistic
Understand that even if you don’t go home for the holidays and eat Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with your family this year, the period from Halloween until the New Year is likely to be rife with triggers. Being realistic means knowing ahead of time that the holidays will be tough. If you’re completely honest with yourself, you know your chance at relapse increases during this time of year. Have your coping skills ready to deploy at a moment’s notice and you’ll be ready, and significantly decrease your chance of relapse.
2. Plan Ahead
This is related to being realistic. You approach the holidays with appropriate caution, because you know there’s a real risk of relapse. You look ahead at the holiday week – whether it’s Thanksgiving week or Christmas – and anticipate the days and times you might experience a trigger. For instance, if you plan to attend a holiday dinner you know uncle will attend – the one who thinks addiction is a moral failing and treatment is a sham – then be ready for that. Get your exercise in beforehand, make sure you get enough sleep the night before, have your phone ready to text your sponsor – whatever you need to handle a challenging relative, get it ready ahead of time. That way, you won’t get ambushed by waves of emotion between courses – and you’ll be able to make it through the whole dinner with your sobriety intact.
3. Go to Meetings
If you travel, plan ahead and find meetings in the area you’re going, then schedule one on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning and/or another on Thanksgiving or Christmas evening. Your recovery peers will likely all be in a similar situation. They’ll be brainstorming ideas about how to handle holiday triggers. You can learn from them, and they can learn from you. As a recovery community, you can support one another through the challenges of this time of year.
4. Create New Traditions
There’s an elephant in the room we haven’t pointed out: for some people in recovery, family contact isn’t helpful. At all. In some cases, it can be detrimental, and undermine the recovery process. If that’s you, then you’ve probably confirmed this with your counselor, therapist, or recovery peers, and you know you need to avoid your family during Thanksgiving and the December holidays– and that’s okay.
It may be better than okay.
It may be the best thing for all involved.
Therefore, in lieu of family celebrations, we recommend that you enlist your recovery peers – including your sponsor, if you have one – and create sober holiday traditions that are all your own. Host a sober Thanksgiving, plan sober Christmas outings, and get a head start on planning a recovery-friendly way to celebrate the New Year. Trust us when we say you’ll find other people in the same boat, and they’ll be overjoyed to join you in creating treatment- and recovery-friendly holiday events.
5. Focus on Gratitude
Once you go through your practical checklist – previewing the holiday schedule, making sure you get to meetings, and preparing yourself for your relatives – you can shift your focus to one of the things the holidays are all about: gratitude. If you’re sober and in recovery, you can be grateful for your recovery, first and foremost. You can also be grateful for your family – including the ones that push your buttons – and recognize that although they may be imperfect, they’re your family. This is true for your chosen family, too, if you don’t communicate with your biological family. You can be grateful for the warm, supportive, compassionate group of recovery peers in your life – and be sure to let them know how you feel about them.
These five tips will help you maintain your sobriety and keep your recovery on track during the holidays. One thing we should also mention is that if you have a good recovery routine going that you know works for you, you should maintain that routine through the holidays. The winter holidays are a time to double-down on your regular exercise, healthy eating, and top-line recovery activities, rather than back off of them. Resist the temptation to change your routine too much. If you stick with what keeps you safe, sober, and on your program, then you increase your chances of staying safe, sober, and on your program. We know that sentence may seem redundant and obvious, but nevertheless, there it is: you dance with who brought you – especially when you know you’re about to enter a month filled with potential triggers.
A Time for Reflection, A Time for Looking Forward
We don’t want you to fear the holidays. We want you to approach them with clear eyes, so that you’re not surprised by the things you may face during the holiday season. Once you do your prep work – meaning you use the tips we list above, or some version of them – we want you to embrace the holidays with open arms.
The holidays are tricky, but they’re also a blessing.
You can view all these family memories, interactions, and experiences as opportunities to apply your coping skills and see if they’re as effective as you think they are. If they need some work, that’s good for you to know. When you look at the holidays that way, you can use them as a benchmark to gauge your progress. Maybe last year a relative got under your skin, and maybe this year that same didn’t bother you at all.
What this approach also means is that, rather than seeing the holidays as a threat your recovery, you can use them to strengthen your recovery. The holidays can confirm your resilience, reaffirm the wisdom of your choice to seek treatment and support, and remind you that you’re one hundred percent capable of living a full and vibrant life in recovery.
P.S.: Recovery Holiday Checklist
If you travel this year, remember to:
- Find a list of meetings in the cities/towns/countries you plan to travel to:
- Even the touristiest of tourtisty destinations have AA and NA meetings: look for them and you will find them
- Keep your recovery-friendly habits going:
- If exercising at the gym is your thing, look for nearby gyms, or gyms affiliated with your hometown gym
- If yoga is your thing, then do the same: find yoga classes in your destination, check the holiday schedule, and make plans to attend
- Schedule virtual counseling/therapy sessions:
- If you have a counselor or therapist, arrange to check in with them via telephone or videoconference while you’re away
- Use the phone:
- If things get tough, get out your phone and call your mentor or a recovery peer you know you can trust
One last thing: believe in yourself, because you got this, and you can do it!
We wish you the safest and happiest of holiday seasons.