Here we are again, staring down that That Most Wonderful Time of the Year! Of course, from the perspective of an addict and trauma survivor like me, the holiday season can sometimes seem, shall we say, difficult at best. Perhaps my negative view of the Halloween through New Year’s holidays is merely a reflection of my usual pessimism and negativity combined with so many less than joyous past holiday events (hello trauma). Whatever the reason, sometime around Halloween, deep inside, I begin to quietly wish, wish, wish that I could just click my heels together three times, open my eyes, and find that it’s January 10th.
OK, so now you know: Bah humbug, I hate the holidays! There, I’ve said it. The simple truth is that this is the time of year when I lean more into stress than joy and more into anxiety than peace – especially when I’m supposed to being spending meaningful time with family, regardless of unmet expectations all around. Oh, joy of joys.
For many addicts, myself included, December is a month spent mostly managing interactions with people that we choose to not see very much during the other eleven months of the year. And, unsurprisingly, this is also the time of year when we tend to slip and relapse (regardless of our specific program). Which makes perfect sense, given all of the extra shopping, cooking, gifting, working, eating, drinking, and forced merry making that’s expected of us.
So, to recap, I view this not as the most joyous but as the most stressful time of year.
Yes, there are the occasional bursts of joy, connection, cheerfulness, and, if we are lucky, a few sporadic blasts of intimacy and genuine connection. But overall, for many addicted individuals the holidays more typically evoke an increased sense of restlessness, irritability, and discontentment – the perpetual precursors of addiction relapse – thanks primarily to our (highly unrealistic) cultural expectations of unrelenting peace, love, and joy. Plus, there’s all of that extra free time to deal with – those days off from work and/or school that many addicts automatically think of as “time when I can disappear….” Is it any wonder that even long-sober addicts firmly grounded in recovery sometimes find themselves reverting to old patterns of thinking and misbehaving during the holidays?
Needless to say, this is not the time of year for me or any other recovering addict to skip therapy sessions because there’s just so much to do, or to reduce attendance at support groups, or to cut down on time spent hanging out with sober friends/community. In fact (as if you weren’t feeling stressed enough), this is a really good time to double-down on emotional self-care, meaning this is the time to schedule extra therapy visits, to hit more than the usual number of support group meetings, and to reach out more often than usual to others who are also working hard to stay sober and survive the holidays. Yes, I do understand the resentment that we have against having to do more (for ourselves) at a time of year that is already overstuffed with things to do (for others). “More meetings? More Therapy? Really? I barely made it to the Black Friday sales and there is so much shopping and event planning left to do. And I work, too! Who has the time?”
In truth, almost every adult, addicted or not, struggles during the holiday season for an endless number of personal and general reasons. All of us experience at least some sense of holiday frustration, loneliness, disconnection, and disappointment. The unique challenge for addicts is that we don’t get to deeply indulge these feelings because the consequences for that kind of resentful thinking may include relapse. Meanwhile, non-addicts tend to simply get a little grouchy.
Let’s get real here: “Mired in relapse” is one of the worst possible ways to spend the holidays. Happily, there are plenty of ways for recovering addicts of all stripes to stay on top of things and maintain their sobriety. For starters, they might want to create a daily mindfulness check-in for the holiday season, asking themselves questions like:
- Am I feeling lonely, sad, angry, fearful, and/or isolated? If so, what are my plans for dealing with these emotions in a healthy way?
- Am I engaging in addictive fantasies? If so, am I keeping these addictive fantasies secret? And what are my plans for dealing with these in a healthy, non-addictive way?
- Do I have unrealistic holiday expectations for myself, my family, my work, upcoming parties, and/or anything else? If so, what can I do to combat this?
- Am I likely to encounter any past or potential “acting out partners” in the course of my day or at an upcoming event? If so, what are my plans for dealing with this?
- Am I getting enough rest, eating properly, and taking care of my physical needs via exercise and other forms of self-care?
- Do I have a workable plan for handling the inevitable holiday disappointments?
- Have I built enough structure and accountability into my holiday time to remain sober and stable – even happy?
In truth, many recovering addicts find this type of check-in useful year round, not just during the holidays. Some choose to do it while talking on the phone with their 12-step sponsor or some other accountability partner, after which the other person may respond in kind. In this way, we avoid secret keeping and trying to look good, and we also get to receive (and provide) feedback on where our days might go awry and what we might do to combat the triggers toward addiction that we’ll inevitably encounter.
Recovering addicts (and people in general) also find it helpful to practice gratitude during the holidays. For instance, writing out a ten-item gratitude list each day is a useful way to combat the holiday doldrums. As my colleague Brené Brown notes in her amazing book, Daring Greatly, gratitude and happiness are linked. You just plain can’t be grateful and unhappy at the same time. Dr. Brown also notes that grateful people tend to focus more on their strengths than their weaknesses, which makes them more hopeful, less stressed out, and more likely to overcome problems (such as addiction) – even during trying times (like the holiday season).
Along with gratitude, the best way for recovering addicts to stay sober during the holidays is to engage in seasonal activities with other people. Sure, it might be faster and easier to do the grocery shopping and bake 12 dozen cookies without the kids helping, but most of us (even when we resist the idea) find that we have a lot more fun (and a reduced chance of relapse) when we include others in our cooking, shopping, decorating, and the like. Similarly, recovering addicts should try to spend some quality holiday time with their significant other (if there is one). After all, both adults are likely to be feeling extra stress and anxiety, and a great way to escape this, as a couple, is to plan a few intimate hours focused solely on each other – dates that cannot be broken no matter what.
Not every recovering addict has a family, of course. In such cases, it’s still important to not isolate. Usually this means spending time with close friends (either in or out of recovery). For many addicts, families created by choice are just as good as families created by blood and/or marriage; sometimes they’re even better because blood relations can be so incredibly dysfunctional (and therefore stressful). Heck, even addicts who are married with children and lots of other relatives hanging around should not forget about their friends during the holidays – especially their friends in recovery, as these are the people who are most likely to provide balance and honest feedback during this hectic timeframe.
At the end of the day, staying sober during the holidays is incredibly similar to staying sober throughout the year, only more so. In other words, recovering addicts need to recognize that the emotional triggers we struggle with year round are likely to be both more frequent and more intense during the holidays, with spiked eggnog and over-the-top office parties and badly behaved fellow shoppers and all of the other holiday not-so-niceties simply exacerbating our usual daily challenges. As such, we need to stand up for ourselves during this difficult time, stepping up our self-care by increasing our usual sobriety-driven efforts in ways that mirror the emotional and physical stress this season bring us.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of National Clinical Development for Elements Behavioral Health. In this capacity, he has established and overseen addiction and mental health treatment programs for more than a dozen high-end treatment facilities including Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles, The Ranch in rural Tennessee, and The Right Step in Texas. An internationally acknowledged clinician and author, he has served as a subject expert on the intersection of human intimacy and digital technology for multiple media outlets including The Oprah Winfrey Network, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, and CNN, among many others. He is the author of several highly regarded books, including Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Love, and Porn Addiction. For more information please visit website at robertweissmsw.com.