"Humbug," said Ebenezer Scrooge.
I wholeheartedly disagree.
Whether you are in recovery or not, the holiday season is one of the most stressful times of the year. Whatever holiday you celebrate, be it Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Bodhi Day, or Kwanzaa, we expect it to be filled with celebration, happiness, and joy. Peace on earth and goodwill to men are the order of the day, supposedly. But depression, drunk driving accidents, and suicide all increase during the holiday period. Our triggers for relapse come into full bloom.
A number of stressors come into play in a perfect storm of chaos and anxiety. As alcoholics and addicts, we are famous for ruining the season with our drinking and using. Over time, we have come to fear and hate the annual family gatherings. We expect things to go wrong. I have a friend who became so upset, that one Christmas day, he picked up the tree and threw it out the front door!
All manner of aggravations come together. Our normal routines are disrupted. People around us become frustrated and anxious. Demands from your spouse, partner, or family members add fuel to the fire. Packages get lost in the mail. Everyone we meet carries a load of increased irritability and would love to dump it on us.
We typically have unrealistic expectations about the holidays. We want to recreate the good memories from our childhood. We try too hard to provide the same for our children, who never seem to appreciate our efforts. We have painful reminders of those who are no longer present. We feel less than when we see the broken relationships with those who are here.
People seem to be pulling you in every direction. Gift-giving itself is at the top of our stress list at this time of year, whether for Christmas morning with our families or at office parties with our co-workers. There is never enough time to get everything done, and never enough money to buy presents for everyone on our list. Everything costs more than we thought it would and commercialization is everywhere. Baking, shopping, wrapping presents, and all the rest rob us of our energy. Weariness makes for short tempers. The Christmas season now begins at Halloween.
We show up at family gatherings with a chip on our shoulder, expecting family infighting to begin the moment the door opens. Old negative family dynamics surround the punch bowl. Bickering and sniping are handed out like presents. Despite past misadventures, we hoped that this year would be different. Disappointment and sadness invariably follow. We feel that somehow, we’re expected to meet some unspoken standard, to perform, and we fail not knowing why. We are sure that something will undoubtedly go wrong.
Long-distance travel to visit relatives is stressful in itself. “Daddy, are we there yet?’ echoes continuously from the back seat of the car, along with, “Mommy, I have to pee NOW.” Divorced and blended families stress over dividing time with their splintered families. One’s parents live in Atlanta and the other’s in D.C., and we’re supposed to visit both. We are saddened by being with our families, or not being with our families.
The worrying, the anxiety, the feeling of total ineptness, can all lead to feelings of shame, guilt, not to mention humiliation, embarrassment, and anger. This can be especially true for those of us who carry a Dual Diagnosis. We may end up stuck in our own heads tortured by our own thoughts. We all know the dangers of living there.
The newcomer is especially vulnerable. Early in sobriety, they feel an intense lack of purpose as well as pain from holidays past and present. Their lifeline to sobriety is weak and easily broken. Depression is almost always present at this stage of recovery. These high levels of anxiety cry out for some form of attitude adjustment. “Surely, I deserve a drink after all that I am forced to endure.” “Everyone else is drinking here, why can’t I?”
In short, our expectations are out of line with reality. “High expectations, low serenity” is something we can all relate to. As a friend said, “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” Fortunately, the tools we need to survive and enjoy the holidays are part of our recovery training. Look for the kit of spiritual tools at your feet.
Maintain your spirituality. It’s been said that I have the disease of addiction and that I should treat my disease with a daily dose of spirituality. And I get that dose of spirituality from going to meetings and from prayer and meditation. In the time of pandemic with in-person meetings difficult if not impossible to attend, prayer becomes even more important. I may not have my meetings, but I can always call a friend in recovery.
Keep your recovery foremost in your mind. The deeper my serenity, the less the world can hurt me. Remember, I no longer have to respond reflexively to the events around me. I can decide how I want to respond to Uncle John’s cutting remarks. Now, I can take a step back and smile. I can be content in my recovery.
This could mean bookending a holiday event with phone calls to someone in recovery before and after the event or by attending a Zoom meeting. Today I make my decisions based on my goal, which is to pursue my sobriety/recovery/serenity at all costs. Remember, holiday parties are optional. If you feel at all uncomfortable going, then don’t. My happiness cannot be found in tinsel, booze, and expensive presents.
Take care of yourself first. Make self-care a priority. If I’m deep in my sickness, I cannot be of help to anyone. I can spread no joy or gladness if I am engulfed in a black cloud of depression. The best way I can participate in the holiday season is to nurture my mind, body, and spirit. Give yourself the gift of time each day to relax and gather your thoughts and feelings. Binging on candy and sweets will not help; don’t overindulge. Eat properly and “don’t forget your vegetables.” Find a space for healthy physical activity, if only a walk to the mailbox. Find a bit of Nature to feed your spirit. I am inclined towards Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I keep a blue light next to my computer and take extra vitamin D.
The old axiom of “H-A-L-T” has never been as important as now. Don’t get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired.
Attitude adjustment was an afternoon delight in the days of my using. A joint and a glass of red wine at 4 o’clock were the bare necessity for dealing with the rough edges of the day. Today, my attitude still needs adjusting, but now I have non-chemical coping skills. Sit back, take a deep breath, and see the goodness in the world around me. Smile and be grateful for the life I have today. The pain and suffering of my old life are no more. Count your blessings, for they are truly many.
Set realistic goals for yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Make lists to help you organize your time. Stick to your budget. Larry said, “Feeling overwhelmed is just my disease talking to me. I can never be trapped in any situation. In my life today, I always have choices.”
When you arrive at the unavoidable party, immediately get a non-alcoholic beverage and keep it in your hand. Coke with a cherry and swizzle stick works just fine. Find the non-drinking table; there is always one somewhere. Have an escape route planned out if you start jones-ing. Arriving in your own car is a good idea. Don’t go it alone, take a companion with you.
What’s my goal here? Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don't set yourself up for disappointment and sadness by comparing today with the good old days of your past. Expect that something will go wrong and you won’t be disappointed.
Try to see each person in a new light. Look for the goodness that lives within them. After all, we are all children of God, even your mother-in-law. Approach each encounter as an opportunity for repairing broken relationships. Spread happiness and cheer, but don’t expect everyone to do the same.
Focus on the true spirit of the season. The holidays are really about two things: gratitude and giving. In my recovery, I have been given so much to be thankful for. When my niece Lucy spills the red punch on my new white carpet, it’s not that big a deal, unless I chose to make it so. I am grateful I have a new carpet to spill it on and that I have a niece who talks to me. “It is more blessed to give than to receive” is not just a sappy platitude. Try it, it works.
Stay in the moment. Appreciate the world around you for what it is, rather than despair over what it is not. Taste every bite of fruit cake, savor every kind word you hear, and feel every loving thought that passes through your head. Avoid bringing out the baggage from the past, or worrying about January’s credit card bill. The joys of this season may never occur again. Cherish every moment as it presents itself.
Know your limits. Recognize the level of your stress and work to bring it down. Blow off steam when you need to, but keep it under control. Take a walk in the cold air. There may be a limit to how much time you can spend with your family before it’s time to go home. Pace yourself. Don’t take on more responsibilities than you can handle. “No” is a perfectly acceptable word in recovery.
Helping others is a key component to recovery. Be guided by the quote at the top of page 20 in the Big Book of AA: “Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs” (A.A., 2001, p. 20). Let the spirit of the season show you how you can be of help to others. It also helps me get out of my head, where my thoughts are can be poison.
Donate your time at a homeless shelter, food pantry, or soup kitchen. Organize a gift drive or simply reach out with hospitality to a newcomer at a meeting. Help a neighbor shovel his or her driveway. A simple phone call can bring joy to another. I always get more back than I give.
To sum up, try to keep these ideas in mind. “No problem I face today will be made better by picking up a drug or a drink.” “Recovery is a one-day-at-a-time endeavor, no matter the season.” “No longer can resentment, disappointment, anger, worry, or self-loathing gain a foothold in our hearts.” “The disease of addiction is as powerful the day after a holiday as it is the day of and the day before.” And then there is the all-time favorite, “There is no way you can please everybody, so don’t waste your time or their’s.”
One last. “No matter what the question, the answer is love. No matter what the problem, it’s always made better by throwing love at it.”