This time each year can be stressful for anyone, but the holidays present a special challenge for people recovering from a substance use disorder. Those in long-term recovery typically are adept at navigating the minefield of temptation at holiday social gatherings. But many of those in their first year of recovery, their friends, and family members wonder how best to celebrate the holidays safely, comfortably, and joyously.
If your festivities will include someone with a year or more in recovery, you may simply want to ask if there is anything you can do to make the holiday better for them. They may want to bring a friend who’s also in recovery. They may have beverage preferences or want the flexibility to step out for a short while, either to attend a mutual aid meeting (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or SMART Recovery), make a call, or get some fresh air.
The holidays may come with expectations, such as shopping, travel, cooking, and multiple social gatherings. People in early recovery are often experiencing difficult personal or financial circumstances while at the same time trying to learn to live without the substance that had become central to their lives. While the holidays are a time to celebrate family and good cheer, they are also a time when other feelings can be heightened. Such feelings can include a sense of loss about a deceased family member, or feelings of hurt, resentment, anger, shame, or guilt about the past on the part of the recovering person, other family members, or both.
Early recovery brings reawakened awareness of the harm one caused oneself and one’s family and friends during the course of the addiction. It is also a time when the brain and body are still actively recovering from the effects of addiction. Those in early recovery are relatively new at learning to experience, process, and manage feelings and to function in social situations without the use of a substance. Alcohol or other drugs may have served the recovering person as a social lubricant during the early stages of their use, helping alleviate social anxiety and feelings of not fitting in while simultaneously lifting their guard, making it easier to speak and act spontaneously. The social events of the holidays can be challenging in a number of ways for the individual who is new to recovery.
Fortunately, many in early recovery do well during the holidays. The experience of sharing the holidays with family or friends can strengthen their recovery and reinforce the value of the fuller, more authentic way of life they are entering. The holidays can, in effect, be a time to reconnect and restore. To help foster a positive holiday environment for those in recovery, please keep in mind the following:
Tips for celebrating the holidays with family or friends in early recovery:
You are not responsible for your guest’s recovery, even if that guest is your child, sibling, or parent. Behind the scenes orchestration to “help” the recovering person through the event can sometimes be unhelpful. Instead, reach out to him or her to see if there’s anything you can do to help the event go smoothly. If you do, be ready and willing to accept “No, thank you” as the answer.
Ask yourself if you and your family are ready to celebrate the holiday with the recovering person. Are there unresolved hurts or resentments that could make the holiday difficult for all? Does your family understand addiction and embrace recovery or is the topic shrouded in shame, an “elephant in the room”? Addiction affects not only the addicted individual, but the family as a whole. Denial or shame around addiction, if not appropriately addressed, can make the holiday difficult for the family and risky for the recovering person. So, it’s worth asking: Are you and your family ready?
Ask your friend or family member if they are comfortable taking part in the celebration this year. Make sure they understand that it is perfectly OK to miss the celebration if that is what is best for their recovery. Their recovery comes first. It’s better to miss them this time around in order to increase the likelihood that they will be alive, well, and able to participate in future events. Think of it as an investment that will pay dividends.
If you will be serving alcohol, check to see if your invitee is comfortable with that. Note, even if you’re willing to host an alcohol-free holiday event, your family member or friend might not be comfortable attending if alcohol is not served simply because he or she is present.
Ask if they’d like to invite someone or invite others who do not drink. Regardless of whether alcohol is served or not, the recovering person may want to invite a recovering guest. If you’re serving alcohol and have family members or friends who are in recovery or who do not drink, you may want to ask your guest if he or she would like you to invite them so that there will be other non-drinkers with whom to socialize.
Ask what kinds of beverages they would like to have. While non-alcoholic “mocktails” may seem like a good idea—and many in recovery do enjoy them—they may actually be a trigger for some people in early recovery, either because they visually remind the guest of cocktails or because they remind the individual that he or she can no longer drink. Despite all the pain and aggravation that alcohol and drugs may have caused the recovering individual, giving them up can result in a powerful sense of loss. Beverages such as hot spiced cider, hot cocoa, iced or hot tea or coffee are often welcomed. Some people in long-term recovery drink so-called “non-alcoholic” beer and wine. If this works for them, it is of course perfectly acceptable. It should be noted, though, that these beverages generally do include small amounts of alcohol. For people in the early stages of recovery from alcohol addiction, these beverages should be avoided.
Provide time and space to step away from the group, if needed. Being able to take a walk, relax in a quiet room, step away to connect by telephone with another person in recovery, attend a mutual aid meeting, or gracefully depart early can be very important to a person in early recovery.
Listen to them. If they don’t want any special steps taken to accommodate them, and both you and they are comfortable with them taking part this time, then simply go ahead.
Tips for individuals or families in early recovery:
Have a plan for the holiday, including mutual aid meetings and calls to sponsor, mentor, recovering peer, counselor, clergy or others central to your recovery.
Identify risk factors that should be avoided and know how you will respond if they’re encountered.
Know your signs of potential relapse and take steps to address them.
Stay in touch with your key supports, such as counselors, sponsors, mentors, or recovering peers.
Keep it all in perspective: Nothing that happens, no matter how painful or unpleasant, is worth giving up one’s recovery.
If relapse does, occur, don’t delay acting out of shame or guilt. Get help immediately. There is still an opportunity to build on the progress you’ve made.