Holiday season is a notoriously difficult time for recovering addicts, alcoholics and their families. The trifecta of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve is aptly named ‘The Bermuda Triangle’ due the turbulence it can create in people with both long-term and short-term sobriety. While this time of year is generally considered joyful, there is no doubt it creates stress in people who aren’t in recovery, too, as everyone is rushing to be prepared for the holiday. As families come together, there are often stressful interactions and frictional relationships that add another dimension of stress. All of that being said, those anxieties represent just a piece of the struggle that families and those in early recovery endure during the holiday.
For a newcomer in substance abuse recovery, the experience is sometimes daunting: the presence of alcohol spikes across the board and wary family members can act skeptical and cautioned, creating a sense of exclusion. Since many journey back to their hometowns, the sense of nostalgia can sometimes be overpowering as lifetime friends reunite in happiness and celebration. The power of nostalgia combined with holiday jitters, a sense of family unease, and the copious amounts of alcohol create an environment where relapse and accidents can occur. It is important to be aware as a sober person and as an affected family member or friend what each party might be experiencing on that day, taking into account how triggering some situations are.
Though alcohol is ubiquitous in our daily life, the increase in alcohol consumption and sales is highest during holidays. A study of first-year college students found that some of the highest drinking days of the year included Christmas and the New Year’s Eve, as well as days in their close proximity. It’s likely to be encountered at holiday parties whether they are private or public, and therefore makes avoidance an incredibly difficult maneuver. In support of that, and to broaden the range beyond first-year college students, a separate, Finnish study found that spirit sales, highest on May Day, Midsummer Day, and Christmas correlated to higher rates of death from alcohol poisoning.
In addition to alcohol poisoning, consider the impact of intoxicated driving: it does not take much for one life to drastically alter another’s. The exponential growth in holiday commute combined with the drinking that occurs at many holiday get-togethers is more than enough to leave an indelible mark on the unsuspecting. This caution applies to everyone.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion and comes in fistfuls around the holidays. While most people experience it over the holiday, those that are returning home and newly sober can encounter a number of obstacles. From the family dynamics and celebrations to high school reunions (many of which are held the week of Thanksgiving break), newly sober individuals have a unique battle as they encounter many familiar faces and places of their past.
They can run into people with which they used substances, often called ‘using buddies.’ These interactions can be incredibly triggering, eliciting a wide range emotions and reminders about a person’s past. As use was a critical part of their daily routine at one point in their lives, the response is sometimes to spontaneously jump back on that path.
Alternatively, they can run into old friends and old hangouts that may not have been associated with substance abuse, but which certainly bring up a slew of emotions. Powerful emotions can be triggering and are something that the person may not have encountered yet in sobriety. As a newly sober person or a friend or family member, understanding how old friends, habits, and places can cause turmoil is essential in preparing for these situations.
One thing that can be very tough to deal with on the holidays is the navigation of interactions and emotions with family members. Sobriety is sometimes the unspoken elephant in the room and, although, each party is perfectly aware of its existence, choose to avoid it and anything related to it. Not only can this method create incredibly awkward experiences, it can often be stressful for both parties. Family members have a heightened sensitivity to any deviation from normal behavior and, depending on the history, may be uncomfortable with the sober person wandering through the home.
On the other side of the coin, the person in recovery is usually aware of the hesitant actions of family members – these are people with whom they have probably shared much of their life and who know them inside and out. That awareness and lack of discussion about the uncomfortability can lead to a sense of exclusion, where the person feels like a black sheep amongst family. While that is not the intention of the rest of the family, it is something to pay attention to as it is often overlooked.
The chance of experiencing strong emotions over the holiday is high as family, friends, and memories come together, intensely. As everyone is navigating their own stressors, it’s important to keep communication channels open – remove the elephant from the room. A person newly in recovery may be facing some of these challenges for the very first time sober so feelings are felt deeply and adapting to this new, revealing environment can be confusing. As an affected family member or friend, history may have created resentments, but, if the sober person is invited to participate, it is important to check in and make sure the adaptation is as welcoming as possible.
As the sober individual it is important to recognize the fragile, emotional state of mind when celebrating the holidays. Though difficult, let family and friends know when intense feelings come and understand that others may not be aware of harm they may cause with their behaviors. The strongest tool in having a successful, bonding holiday is the communication of feelings, interpretations, and actions between both parties, hiding no lingering emotions to come up in moments of vulnerability.