We all know that holidays are a stressful time. The time off work doesn’t really seem like a vacation when you have family events, parties, travel, and gift-giving mayhem to manage. This time of year can be even more stressful if you’ve struggled with addiction. Even when you’re sober or clean (or whatever you feel comfortable calling it), it’s very triggering to navigate this season. Here’s why and what you can do to help yourself or someone you love.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
One of the biggest reasons holidays are so triggering is that they bring up everyone’s expectations, spoken and unspoken. Whether it’s the Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting or the Christmas movies that take over the media, or your mother’s not-so-subtle guilt trips, we all have expectations. And reality doesn’t ever really match up. So we feel: pressure, anxiety, obligation, resentment, disappointment, inadequacy, shame, remorse, anger, guilt….I could go on.
In the midst of all these cultural, familial, and social expectations, we have our normal lives that don’t stop for Saint Nick. Maybe you get a day or two for Thanksgiving and Christmas (no recognized break for our Jewish friends celebrating Hanukkah), but other than that, it’s business as usual. Oh, and it’s cold and flu season. And gift-giving or customer-appreciation season. And Black Friday season. To say that we all have a lot on our plate is an understatement. But if we’re all in the same boat, why is addiction recovery so impacted by “the most wonderful time of the year”?
Addiction During the Holidays
Addiction is about escape. It’s about getting away from either the overwhelm in our environment or our own thoughts and feelings. Addiction is, “I can’t deal with this shit and this (drugs, alcohol, sex, spending, gambling, etc) makes me feel better.” Recovery is finding new, healthier ways of dealing with life, feelings, and our environment.
But the holidays bring us back into old habits. What if you’re a recovering alcoholic and your family’s tradition is spiked eggnog? Or maybe you always dealt with your family’s chaos by sneaking off to watch porn in the bathroom. Maybe your family never knew that your extravagant gifts were all bought on maxed out credit cards. Now that you’re sober, you don’t deal with the stresses of this season in the same way. But having new coping tools doesn’t change the fact that this time of year is triggering. Here’s what to do about it.
Keep Your Sobriety, Not Your Secrets
First, you must be honest. With yourself and the people close to you. Be clear about what you need to support your sobriety. Maybe that’s requesting that there be no alcohol at a family dinner, or making time to call your sponsor, or take a walk when you’re overwhelmed.
In my work as a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, I use what we call a “Circle Plan.” Each circle represents your healthy coping, trigger & vulnerabilities, and your “bottom lines (things you’re staying sober from)” respectively. When you’re in recovery, you need to actively engage in positive, healthy coping and be aware of your vulnerabilities and triggers. The holidays are a vulnerability. And certain situations are your triggers. If you haven’t made a circle plan, do one now. I believe that everyone benefits from having a circle plan, even if you’re not an addict. It’s really about self-awareness and self-care.
Boundaries, a New Kind of Expectation
Once you’re clear on what you need, communicate with those around you. You don’t have to go into details when you share a boundary. Boundaries are not about controlling or punishing people. Boundaries are about letting others know how you want to be treated and how you’ll respond if those needs aren’t met. For example,
“I want you to know that as part of my recovery, I’m choosing not to be in environments with alcohol. I’d like to request that we not have any alcohol during our family celebration. If that’s not possible, I respect that. What I will do to take care of myself is keep my visit very short. I will have dinner with the family (or just come for presents) and then I will need to leave. I’m looking forward to spending time with everyone and I appreciate your respect for my boundaries.”
In this example, you’ve done 3 things: informed people of your limits, made a request that allows you to stay connected, and offered a solution if they choose not to meet that need. Let’s try this for someone recovering from sex/porn addiction who may not want their family to know about their recovery.
“I’m really looking forward to spending time together and I want you to know that I’ve been focusing on healthy living. One of the things I do to support this lifestyle is call a friend or take walks when I need some space. I’d appreciate you respecting that time and not asking me questions about it. If you choose to ask me questions that I don’t want to answer, I will need to head home.”
If your loved ones “lose their shit” when you set a boundary, that’s okay! Your job is to take care of YOU. It doesn’t mean you don’t love them or that you’re selfish. As Brene Brown beautifully said, “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” When people understand that their loved ones are in need (say, needing a kidney or a bone marrow transplant) they drop everything to keep that person alive and well! Recovery should be supported in the same way.
Loving Your Recovering Family Member
Supporting your addicted loved one is not the same thing as being codependent. You’re not responsible for their sobriety and you can’t keep them from relapsing. However, you can be an ally for them. Here’s how:
- Take care of yourself. This time of year is stressful for everyone; are you practicing self-care? What’s in your healthy coping “circle”? It’s very important to be aware of your own expectations and sort out how realistic they are. Don’t be too hard on yourself trying to make things “perfect.”
- Don’t engage in behaviors that are sobriety breakers for the addict (drinking, drugs, gambling, playing cards, initiating sexual contact, etc) as a sign of support and respect.
- If you’re the partner of an addict, you’re going to be triggered too. Who is your support person? What boundaries do you need from your addicted loved one as well as others? Have a plan for yourself and WITH your partner about how you’re going to take care of yourselves and your relationship during this time. Maybe that means taking walks together to get a break, maybe that means helping them hold a boundary, maybe it means not talking about their struggles with family members who aren’t safe.
- Don’t get discouraged. With all these triggers, it might look like your addicted loved one is “slipping.” But they may just be in survival mode. Both of you need to make sure you’re accessing your support system and helping each other maintain boundaries with extended family.
Holidays in Recovery, a New Tradition
The wonderful thing about recovery is that it challenges us to become more mindful about what’s really important to us. We have the opportunity to reevaluate what we’re doing and why it’s meaningful. And if it’s no longer helpful, we can create new traditions. As you and your loved ones work to create a supportive environment for recovery, I encourage you to think about fun, new rituals to incorporate into your lives. This way, recovery opens a door for a new way to celebrate the things we all hold so dear!
Happy Holidays from Clear Choice Counseling!
If you want more support during this holiday season, please reach out to me or a therapist near you. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 909-307-4212