Facing the Holidays in Recovery

If you are in recovery for any addiction or mental health issue, then you most likely know too well that the holidays can be a very difficult time for those in recovery.  Stress often increases, wounds often get exacerbated; thus, relapse is often high this time of year.  Thankfully, we have addiction and recovery experts in the world to offer us guidance.  Whitney Warren-Alexander is such a person.  She is a licensed marital and family therapist (LMFT) and a licensed alcohol and drug counselor (LADC).  She has countless hours under her belt in working with people in recovery.  We are grateful she allowed us to interview her for this article.  We hope you’ll gain much from reading it.  Also, be sure and watch her LIVE INTERVIEW by clicking the link below.

An Interview with Whitney Warren-Alexander

The holiday season is upon us. This is a time when we are “supposed” to be happy and joyful as we sing and dance and exchange gifts with our loved ones. But this time is often very hard for some people. Why is that?

Well, there could be many reasons.  For instance, In some families, holidays weren’t pleasant. Maybe there was heavy conflict growing up or something toxic like parental addiction. Whatever there reason may be, for some the holidays are associated with shame or secrecy and the desire to shun the whole thing. It’s not always a Norman Rockwell painting.

Additionally, the holidays, for some families, can shine a spotlight on the family and reveal that the family isn’t very healthy or shed light on what the family is lacking. Abandonment issues can culminate around the holidays because it reminds some of what they don’t have. Comparison can often work against people.

Loss is another reason some suffer during the holidays. If you have experienced loss in your life, this time of year is often especially hard. Losing a loved one is never easy and holidays often reminds us even more that a person is missing. Family gatherings may remind you of your losses in relationships such as a divorce, a pregnancy loss, infertility, etc.

Other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, may be a culprit in your lack of joy and enthusiasm this time of year. If you struggle with anxiety or depression, you may not have the energy to “perform” or worry a lot about how you’ll be perceived by others. This practice is exhausting and can make the holidays quite unenjoyable.

For these, and plenty of other reasons, the holidays are often perceived as unpleasant.

You have worked in the recovery field for quite some time, particularly D&A addiction. Do you see this coming up a lot in your work?

Yes. Addiction is a way to avoid. Avoid things that are unpleasant. If the holidays are perceived as unpleasant, it is often a huge trigger to engage in an addiction.

Also, drinking is a normalized practice during the holidays. What may be one person’s glass of wine or beer with the holiday meal or at a party could be another person’s addiction that they overuse to cope. When someone is in recovery from drugs and alcohol, they mourn not getting to use “normally” which often means they know they can no longer have the drinks as part of holiday tradition. This can be experienced as a loss and a huge stressor for a person in recovery as well as their family members who aren’t quite sure how to proceed.

What do you find is the difficult for those in addiction recovery this holiday season?

If someone is early in recovery, or even struggling in recovery, sometimes there are thoughts like “I can have just one.” There is an intense desire to not be an addict and to use “normally.” The problem with this thinking is “once an addict, always an addict.” Or, according to the big book, once you’re a pickle, you can’t be a cucumber again. You MIGHT be able to use normally once or twice. But eventually, addicted thinking will take over and a person will engage in their compulsions again and continue to re-experience those awful consequences associated with addiction.

Also, sometimes we travel over the holiday. That may put a person out of touch with their recovery community. This is tough because this may be when someone needs it the most.

What about those recovering for the wounds of infidelity or sex addiction?

The holidays may pose extra triggers around parties, flirtatious interactions and dress that could be especially difficult for recovering partners. Additionally, it may highlight what is being repaired in your own relationship and bring up shame for what was lost and why.

I also think holidays can make us grieve the dreams and expectations we create for ourselves and our family. Nothing highlights how short we may fall in this arena like seeing someone else’s dream played out before our eyes. If your marriage is particularly rocky, you may only have eyes for the loving couple in the room and find yourself comparing and feeling all the negativity of not living up to that image you created. Of course, that image we are comparing ourselves to isn’t real, it’s perceived. But that’s very hard to see in the moment.

What are a few tips you’d give to those in Recovery that might be anticipating a difficult holiday season?

I treat anxiety and depression often. This doesn’t get addressed enough in these discussions of holiday stress and I’d like to include them as well. These folks, as well as those in recovery for addictions can benefit from the following strategies.

Plan. Make a plan for recovery. This may mean talking to a sponsor or a therapist about the realities for you. Things to consider: needing to set boundaries about what events to attend and how long, who will be there and how those in attendance affect your emotions, finding recovery meetings that are open in the area where you travel, and talking to your family about your fears.

Be realistic about your own family. I finally gave up my dream of Christmas cookie decoration with holiday music playing and hot cocoa when I realized my family doesn’t like to bake. Did I mention Christmas jammies because those are a must. I tried this year after year. And it was HORRIBLE year after year! Realizing I was expecting something that wasn’t realistic was eye opening. My husband and kids still love me and care about me. They will eat cookies but maybe while watching a sporting event; they get zero enjoyment from being forced to decorate cookies. So I can jam my dream down their throats each year and get hurt by their reactions, or I can be real about the family I have.

Give yourself some latitude to struggle. If you know things might be hard this year for a variety of reasons, just take it easy on yourself. Christmas was often so hard for me because my husband and I dealt with many years of infertility. I finally gave myself permission to cry when I saw all the babies, to hurt over my losses, to have reactions to the prying questions. Eventually, I did remember what I had to be grateful for, but it is okay to let yourself have sadness and hurt. The worst thing is to ignore it; to pretend the feelings aren’t there. Then, they tend to sneak up on you.

Talk to others about their holidays. Find someone who will get real with you. I promise you that you are not alone. Someone else has difficulty during this time period. It helps to hear that you aren’t alone in this because then you realize you’re just normal.

Do you often find that friends and family members make the suffering worse for those in recovery?

Not purposefully. Very few family members and friends truly WANT to make a loved one’s life more difficult. Often, they are unaware. Other times they just categorically disagree with their family member’s truth. I’d suggest that if your family falls into one category, simply talking to them may make a world of difference. But, if you are part of a family who deny your personal truth and don’t respect your perspective, you will have to really focus far more on setting boundaries and bringing in the reinforcements to minimize the impact your family has on you during the holiday.

I was once told you have your family of chance and your family of choice. By chance, you were born into a family. As you age, you can create a family of choice. If you have an absent mom, you can choose the woman at work who loves you in that maternal way that you always wanted. Cultivate those friendships so that you can have your family of choice. If your family of chance is toxic and unhealthy, you can choose to do the holidays with your family of choice.

Family members! Listen Up! If someone in the family comes to you and says that something is a real struggle for them around the holiday celebration, I truly urge you to listen and help make the holiday feel safe and loving for that person rather than telling them how they should feel.

Attention Friends! If you are someone’s surrogate family, please know that you are vital and include them in your celebrations.

Again, we want to give a special thanks to Whitney Warren-Alexander for this interview.  Please visit he website to find our more about her and the services she provides.  Thanks again for reading.  But, as always, if you are having a difficult time in life, don’t “power through.”  Go ahead and reach out to someone for help – a trusted friend, a spiritual mentor, or even a therapist.  You deserve healing and happiness.  Take care. 

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