Guarding Your Sobriety through the Holidays

"There’s no place like home for the holidays," according to the song made famous by Perry Como in the 1950s and played every holiday season ever since: "Oh, there's no place like home for the holidays 'Cause no matter how far away you roam If you wanna to be happy in a million ways For the holidays you can't beat home sweet home!" Read More

guarding your sobriety during the holidays

“There’s no place like home for the holidays,” according to the song made famous by Perry Como in the 1950s and played every holiday season ever since:

Oh, there’s no place like home for the holidays
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam
If you wanna to be happy in a million ways
For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!

There are probably a lot of us who have some trouble with that sentiment, perhaps especially in the recovery community. Many of us have complicated relationships with our families of origin, and find visits home challenging. And for many reasons—the presence of relatives not usually seen during the rest of the year; the added stresses of travel, shopping, and being surrounded by others, not all of whom may be familiar; the pressure of memories of previous, similar situations that did not turn out well—the holidays often top the list for pushing our buttons.

woman by the ocean prayingIn fact, one of the reasons “there’s no place like home” when it comes to recovery is because home was often the source of the troubles that led to addictive behaviors in the first place. The spiritual teacher A.H. Almaas has developed what he calls “the Theory of Holes”: that we develop destructive habits of mind and body because of “holes” in our being, caused by emotional emptiness where the fullness we were born with has been emptied out by traumatic experience. When this happens, he says, we unconsciously seek to fill those holes with substitutes until we begin to understand what we’re doing and address the root causes. Almaas’s thinking aligns closely with many who treat addictions.

So if our addictions developed out of our family experience, going home for the holidays can mean double trouble: trying to fill our inner void or holes with externals that can never really do the job, like everyone else; and having our deepest memories of trauma re-triggered by their original settings.

Despite the difficulty, however, there are things we can do to minimize the risk of a relapse and increase the likelihood of actually enjoying the holidays. Following are some suggestions from a variety of recovery-oriented sources.

The key ideas that everyone who works in recovery agrees on are keep your focus on your sobriety and plan ahead. A little foresight can prevent a lot of mistakes. If you do decide to go home for Thanksgiving or any of the holidays, set a clear intention beforehand—a principle echoed in all of the spiritual traditions. Putting your sobriety first means declining invitations to parties or places you know aren’t good for you. Keeping it at the front of your mind is a good way to evaluate whatever comes up: “Does this help or harm my sobriety/recovery?”

And when it comes to planning ahead, hazeldenbettyford.org says:

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.

Other sources recommend bringing recovery materials with you when you travel and having “props” ready—like having a glass of sparkling water in your hand if you know that wacky Uncle Waldo is likely to go around pressing glasses or bottles of alcoholic beverages on everyone. Recoveryanswers.org suggests preparing an “elevator speech”—a short “answer you feel comfortable sharing when someone tries to pass you that glass of champagne, or a relative has questions” about why you aren’t drinking. If you know what you want to say beforehand, you will have greater comfort heading into family or party situations.

After being prepared, probably the next most important thing to remember is similar, and will be familiar to many: self-care. “Keep the focus on yourself.” The Hazelden-Betty Ford clinic makes the recommendation to “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.” They don’t neglect our spiritual needs, either, and neither should we:

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.

Crossroads Antigua makes the additional suggestions of getting an acupuncture treatment or taking a yoga class to help ground, center, and firmly establish the point in your own mind and heart that you are important, your wellbeing is important, and you deserve to relax and enjoy the holidays on your own terms.

One way of making sure you take good care of yourself during the holidays is to check in with the “H.A.L.T.” formula, as outlined by recoveryanswers.org. H.A.L.T. stands for “Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired—the breeding ground for depression, low energy, painful emotions, and addictive behaviors. Counter these by eating well, maintaining your exercise routine, and observing “mental hygiene” by journaling, meditating, or just talking to your sponsor or a trusted friend.

Everyone in the recovery field agrees that another of the keys to maintaining sobriety during the holidays is avoiding isolation—don’t go it alone. Put positively, keep people you can trust within reach, by phone if not in person. Set up an agreement with someone before the holidays so you can call them if you need support. Find out where Twelve-Step meetings are in the area you’ll be staying in, and take in meetings if you need them.

This is all solid, practical advice. But spirituality has something important to say about this subject of being alone that goes beyond this.

buddhist monkThe ordinary concern on this issue of the holidays has to do with the idea of being alone for them—no family or friends to be with, no place to go. But any spirituality of substance calls this into question. In fact, you could say that spirituality is built upon the foundation of asserting that none of us is ever completely alone. If you practice a way that includes some idea of God, including that of a Higher Power, then that is your primary relationship, and the source of every other, secondary, relationship. Or, if you practice a way like Buddhism or Taoism, the teaching is that we are interconnected with everything: all other people, all living things, nature, and the entire universe. And if your spiritual life is linked to a tradition, from mainstream religion to the Twelve Steps to paganism or a meditation group, the support of your spiritual community can be a welcome replacement for a dysfunctional family.

Spirituality redirects our attention away from short-lived, temporary satisfactions, such as one special day to eat, drink and argue too much, or give and receive gifts, and towards the less obvious but continual blessings of our lives that we tend to take for granted, whether good health, beautiful weather, our animal companions, or the gift of life itself. And spirituality reminds us that gratitude, practiced with intention and sincerity, is its own reward—a conclusion that science now supports. From psychcentral.com:

Cultivating an attitude of acceptance enables you to feel grateful even when you’re in pain. It’s helpful to view all experience as an opportunity to grow and learn. Helen Keller wrote, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.” Rather than seeing yourself as a victim of circumstance, accepting reality and developing gratitude for what you do have vs. focusing on what you don’t empowers you to take appropriate action.

Here again, spirituality points to higher ground, offering a view that is strongly endorsed by recovery workers. This is the idea that sometimes, paradoxically, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to take the focus off ourselves, and offer ourselves in service to others. In today’s market-driven world, sometimes even spirituality gets framed in terms of “what’s in it for me.” For many coming out of traumatic backgrounds, whether involving addiction or not, this is very much the place to start. We can’t help anyone if our own basic needs aren’t being consistently met. But if we’ve made a good start on that, then turning outwards from self-preoccupation and discovering the joy of sharing what we’ve learned about living well with others can have powerful dividends for us as well.

As Robbin Mooney at Crossroads Antigua says,

When we can focus on others, we find more joy and gratitude. So look for ways to think about and serve others. Make a special family recipe and deliver to friends. Donate your time at a homeless shelter, food pantry, or soup kitchen. Spend time with a neighbor who is confined. These spiritual opportunities allow us to spread happiness and cheer to others.

Recoveryanswers.org adds, “Volunteering can help you get outside of your head, improve your sense of well-being & enhance self-esteem.” This is celebrating the holidays and giving thanks with your body, putting into action the principles we learn in the rooms and other sources of spiritual nourishment.

But if re-framing all of this just feels too hard or going to the family gathering brings up historical triggers that are too strong, there’s no reason why your family of origin is the only option for the holidays. Many places offer all kinds of activities where you can meet and mingle in ways that allow you to disengage and move on if it isn’t working.

Living in New York City, there’s practically no end of alternatives to the traditional “Turkey Day” or other upcoming holidays, such as escaping the family melodrama and watching the classic Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s a way of being with others in a fun, shared activity that’s low-risk and without the triggers of personal history. There are also plenty of restaurants and grocery stores that offer delicious holiday dinners if you don’t want to get stuffed by your relatives or do the cooking yourself. If you’re hosting your own, home-based celebration, consider having it catered: it takes the pressure off you, and lets you celebrate with friends while the pros work the party. You can check out the possibilities online.

Or, you can go window-shopping or just take in the sights. In NYC, there are plenty of world-famous tourist destinations open on the holidays, including the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the 9/11 Memorial Museum. Or take one of the dinner cruises available while viewing the world-famous New York City skyline. Fun for the whole family can also be had at places like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum or the Central Park Zoo. If your budget is tight, there are always the open-air public space attractions such as Times Square, the High Line, and Central Park. Getting out in the fresh air, weather permitting, can be a great way to air out your head, as well, and celebrate whatever juices you the most.

Many other cities offer their own equivalents of these activities. Even in the suburbs and rural communities there are often ways to celebrate besides the family get-togethers. If you live in one of these locations, search these out in advance, since it may take a bit more digging to find them than in urban settings.

Whatever you decide is the best way to spend the holidays, whether facing your family or steering clear of them and celebrating your sobriety with loved ones in the recovery community, respecting your core commitments by maintaining your spirituality is a powerful and potentially joyous way of observing what are, after all, supposed to be “holy days”—days on which we honor whatever is most important and of greatest value to us. As Crossroads Antigua sums it up:

Our commercial world wants us to believe that joy can come from tinsel, booze and shopping. It sells us the lie that happiness can be found in these. Instead, focus on the true spirit of the season. Regardless of your faith or spiritual beliefs, the holidays are really about two things: giving and gratitude. When we focus on these, the other things such as resentment, disappointment, anger, worry, self-loathing show up far less often and cannot find a foothold in our hearts.

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