The holidays are in full swing, but for many people in recovery this is not the most wonderful time of the year. Family pressure, social engagements and high expectations can combine to make the holidays a very stressful time, something that can be especially triggering for people who are in early recovery.
For many people in recovery, the holidays this year won’t be perfect. However, that’s okay, says Dr. Alia Kaneaiakala and her husband Ben Kaneaiakala, the chief clinical officer and CEO (respectively) of Phoenix Rising, an outpatient treatment center in Aliso Viejo, California. Here’s how to set yourself up for a better holiday season in recovery, and how to cope if it still doesn’t go as planned.
Realize that your loved ones are on their own journey.
You’ve spent time working your program and getting to a point where you can be proud of your recovery. Unfortunately, your family members might be skeptical and slower to embrace your progress.
“When people get clean, family members are slower to believe their recovery,” says Alia Kaneaiakala. “They’re going to be wary and uncomfortable too.”
If you feel like your family members are watching you closely, you’re probably right, she says. This can be frustrating, but it’s important to remember that you know the truth about your recovery. Try to recognize that their reaction is entirely normal, not a reflection on you.
“There’s a lot of anxiety on both sides, and those feed off each other,” Kaneaiakala says.
Talk out family tension.
One way to defuse the tension around the holidays is to address it head on. After all, having open and honest communication is the opposite of how the family probably operated during active addiction.
“If the family is willing, family therapy sessions around that time are a great idea,” Kaneaiakala says. If that’s not an option even taking time to talk to your family members before holiday gatherings can help everyone be open about their feelings.
“Sitting down and saying ‘I know it’s been a rough year and I want these holidays to be smooth’ is beneficial,” she says. “Tell them you’re excited to be clean and sober, and say ‘I know it won’t be easy, but we can’t pretend nothing has happened.’”
Be clear about expectations.
During that conversation let your family member know what you’ll be doing to protect your recovery during the holidays. That might mean warning them that you may leave if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or that you’ll be arriving late so that you can attend a meeting before the gathering.
It’s also a good idea to talk about everyone’s expectations around alcohol consumption at the gathering. Discuss whether you’re comfortable being around family members who are drinking or if the family is willing to have a dry holiday.
Recognize if going home for the holidays is toxic.
Sometimes family members may still be caught up in their own addictive cycles. If that’s the case it’s perfectly acceptable to choose not to go home for the holidays.
“The holidays are a big time of drinking and using drugs,” says Ben Kaneaiakala. “If you grew up in that, that’s when you probably got exposed to drinking and using drugs for the first time.”
Kaneaiakala, who is in long-term recovery, did not go home for the holidays during his first few years sober.
“I couldn’t go back home because of the alcohol and drugs that were around,” he says. “It was too dangerous because I was too early in recovery.”
If that feels like the safest option for you reach out to 12-step and church groups that may be having sober holiday celebrations.
Consider the sacrificial holiday.
This year, let go of the pressure to have a perfect holiday, says Alia Kaneaiakala. “Not every holiday is completely perfect,” she says.
Instead, focus on letting your recovery thrive this season so that future holidays can be filled with joy.
“This is one holiday out of many,” Kaneaiakala says. “If you stay clean and sober you have many more to come and you can make them what you want them to be: about love, family and connection, not about drugs and alcohol.”