‘Tis the season of glad tidings and good cheer, but for people in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, the holidays can be an especially trying time to stay healthy and sober.
Unrealistic expectations, over-commitment, unhealthy eating, financial strain and fatigue can fray emotions. Travel complications and busy schedules can add to the stress, as well. You might be spending your holidays away from your addiction recovery support system and sober routines, which can make you more vulnerable to relapse. Holiday customs, childhood memories and annual gatherings that are closely associated with drug or alcohol use can also tug at your emotions and put your recovery at risk.
But there are ways you can prepare for this challenging season and safeguard the greatest gift you’ve ever given yourself and those you love: Your sobriety. Here are seven practical tips to help you avoid relapse and stay sober during the holidays and beyond.
1. Have Sober Strategies in Place
Develop a plan to protect your sobriety ahead of any holiday event and activity that could potentially trigger relapse to substance abuse. This may mean going to a Twelve Step meeting before or after the event, attending the festivities with your sponsor or a sober friend, or making sure you can leave the gathering at any time and are not dependent on someone else for transportation. Your plan to stay sober could also include “bookending” the event with before-and-after telephone calls to someone in recovery. Feel empowered to limit your time in stressful situations or around difficult people—and always have an escape plan. Much of relapse prevention is having an awareness of the people, places or things that could trigger trouble and planning strategies for staying sober given those inevitable situations.
2. Adjust Your Attitude
Talk with your sponsor, a friend who understands addiction recovery, or a professional counselor about the emotions and expectations you have wrapped up in the holidays—especially if you find yourself replaying childhood experiences or memories during this time of year. This is called “calculating reality.” Remember that your loved ones, coworkers and friends are probably feeling tired and stressed during the holidays, too. This realization alone will help you adjust your attitude, lower your expectations and be forgiving of yourself and others. Instead of showing up at a holiday event feeling on edge or defensive, orient your thinking to be open, accepting and positive: Ask yourself, what is the next right thing for me to do in this situation?
It’s also important to be aware that some people in addiction recovery are vulnerable to substance abuse relapse after the holidays. The buildup of stress and resentment that might come with the holidays can lead to rationalizations, denial and relapse. In other words, we can convince ourselves that, considering what we’ve been through, we are entitled to drink or use. Sometimes, as alcoholics and addicts, we manage things better when we’re in the midst of a crisis than afterwards. Remember, the disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day of and the day before. As we learn during addiction rehab and in the meeting rooms, recovery is a one-day-at-a-time endeavor, no matter the season.
3. Be of Service
The holidays offer powerful opportunities for spiritual growth by sharing your gratitude and joy with others. Connecting with others in this way can be a new experience that takes courage. But because you’re in recovery from active addiction, you’ve already demonstrated the capacity for tremendous courage and change. So keep strengthening your recovery. Look for ways to be of service to others: Serve a meal at a homeless shelter, reach out with hospitality to a newcomer at a meeting, spend time with a neighbor who is confined. There are a million different ways to give back, pay it forward and be of service.
4. Be Mindful of What You’re Drinking—and Thinking
At social gatherings, it might be helpful to always have a beverage in hand so people aren’t constantly offering you a drink. When you order a beverage, pay attention to how it is being made. If you ask someone to get a beverage for you, he or she may not know your situation or might forget your request and bring you an alcoholic drink. If you accidentally pick up the wrong drink and swallow some alcohol, this doesn’t mean you will automatically relapse. But watch for any rationalizations that could creep in: “Hmm, I guess I can handle alcohol in social situations after all. Perhaps my period of abstinence taught me how to control my drinking.” Do not go down that road. Instead, tell someone who understands recovery from drug or alcohol addiction about your experience as soon as possible. A mistake is not a relapse—but it can lead to one if kept a secret.
6. Avoid Known Risks
If you know Aunt Lucy is going to grill you about rehab, avoid her. If Uncle Bob will try to mix you a stiff drink, stay away from him. If the office New Year’s party is really all about drinking or other drug use, make a brief appearance or don’t attend. It is unrealistic in all of these scenarios to say, “I can soldier through.” That’s what Step One of the Twelve Steps teaches us, right? That we don’t have the power. So, why put yourself in the position of having to “power through” an obstacle course of relapse triggers? Staying sober and safeguarding your recovery must always come first.
6. Practice Self-care
Celebrate the holiday season and the fullness of your sober life by taking time for yourself. Proper nutrition, gentle exercise and restorative sleep can do wonders for your well-being. The better you feel physically, the stronger you will be emotionally. Nourish your spirit, too, through personal reflection and connection with those you love. Find some quiet time each day for relaxation and meditation—if only for a few minutes, no matter how busy you are. Let your spirit be your guide.
7. If You Need Drug or Alcohol Addiction Treatment, Consider Going to Rehab During the Holidays
Some families might consider the holidays an inappropriate time to help a loved one get into addiction treatment when, in fact, it could be an ideal opportunity. For many of the reasons mentioned above, substance abuse tends to ramp up over the holidays. Addiction treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift you give to your family, your friends and yourself.