Syringes to Sobriety

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Holidays in Recovery- Beating Bah Humbug

So, you have made it through Thanksgiving with the family. Maybe this was your first Thanksgiving in recovery or maybe you are a bit more seasoned, having attended multiple family gatherings since you started your recovery journey. Either way, this article is for anyone who is just trying to cope with the holidays in recovery.

With preparation and a little extra recovery work, the holidays are survivable. Don’t worry, the work is not too stressful. Consider this an exercise in centering yourself before dealing with situations that may trigger you. Following the advice in this article before the holidays should be equated to having a light stretch before going for a run.

I hope everyone enjoyed Thanksgiving, but if you didn’t, there is still hope of turning things around for Christmas and the New Year. If you follow the blog, you may have read Coping with the Holidays in Recovery: Part 1. This is a continuation of that article. However, in this article, I delve into more detail about a few key tips, as well as answer some questions I received from readers of Part 1 of this series.

Let’s get started.

Holidays in Recovery:

Xmas Tree Time Triggers

Stressing over buying gifts, attending family gatherings or seeing that family member you never truly get along with, are all potential triggers. However, a bit of preparation will get you through the holidays intact.  I will give you some pro tips to make your holidays as enjoyable

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Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash

as possible this year.

You can thank me later. 

I last addressed the topic of coping with the holidays in recovery before Easter, but this is not an effort to be redundant.  It takes time for a recovering user to master the skills required to truly enjoy the holidays, free from the risk of relapse.  

It would be irresponsible, and frankly, unkind to put loads of information I have gathered on the subject into a single article.    Splitting the series up into Parts allows me to limit my word count in an effort to quell any panic causing a reader to click right out of the article.  You have enough stress, my goal is to alleviate that, not create more!

On a serious note though, holidays can be a very dangerous time for recovering substance abusers and, unfortunately, recovery programs lack the necessary curriculum to prepare clients to enter the ‘real world’ of Thanksgiving Dinners, Christmas parties and the like.

In this article, I share advice on how to prepare for any family-centered events that, those of us who are well enough, have been fortunate enough to receive an invite. I will share personal experiences, some ending well and some not so well, that most of you will be able to relate to. Also included are survival tips to follow during this relapse-heavy time of the year.

Image courtesy of Gratisography/Ryan McGuire

A little preparation goes a long way in ensuring the holidays do not leave a sour taste in any of yours, or your families, mouths. Trust me even the smallest of incidences has the potential to negatively impact familial interactions long after Christmas morning gift exchanges…or the last day of Hanukah! Don’t worry, I did not forget about you, Jewish friends! I grew up in a household that celebrated Christmas (mum’s side) and Hanukah (dad’s side). I am very familiar with both holidays and no, before any of you ask, we did not get double presents!

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Holidays in Recovery:

The Family Dilemma

Family relations, even the lack thereof, are extremely important to the successful recovery of EVERY substance abuser. If you have struggled to get clean and you can not quite put your finger on what the issue is, I suggest contacting a family therapist that specializes in working with family units that include a member(s) struggling with substance abuse issues.

It took some time to relearn how to interact with my family without feeling the need to use. Importantly, my family was also willing to do the therapy work needed to prevent them from unknowingly contributing to my substance abuse issues.  

A recovery plan has a significantly higher chance of succeeding if both the user and his family get treatment.   I was referred to  Mitzi Mackenzie, MSW, LCSW, who specializes in family therapy and systems, as well as substance abuse issues. My family seemed healthy enough on the surface with no bright red flags for substance abuse risk,  but Mitzi was able to help us identify the issues we did have that had been running under the surface for quite some time. This allowed us to finally move forward and for my recovery to begin.

If you cannot find Mitzi Mackenzie with a Google search, feel free to email me at syringestosobriety@gmail.com so I can get you connected. She has appeared on Intervention and her methods are in line with the mission of Syringes to Sobriety. Even if you just use her as a consultant, she is incredibly skilled at crafting recovery plans tailored to each specific individual and, most importantly, she will let you have a say in your recovery.

Holidays in Recovery:

A Little Imagery

A quick search of the internet returns plenty of tips for alcoholics trying to stay sober during the holidays, but little information is readily available for those of us who have the urge to use drugs during the holidays.

Here at Syringes to Sobriety, we get it. We have all experienced the urge to either shoot up, smoke a tray, snort some shit, or pop a pill before showing up to certain holiday-decked functions.

Can you imagine it now? Aunt Joan, wearing her paper Santa Claus beard, greets you with her cheek -squeezing and billions of questions before you have a minute to get to your bearing.

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Photo by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Grandpa Jo, dressed in the ugliest Christmas sweater Grandma could dig up from the basement, corners you with stories of how his buddies that used to smoke opium in Nam all passed away within months of returning from overseas, trying to scare you straight. (all out of love, but this can be triggering) “Cadet, you need you some good ol’ boot camp!  Back in my day…”

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Am I making you nervous with this imagery? I bet you feel yourself coming down with the flu bug suddenly.

Are you suddenly thinking of ways to get out of the next function to RSVPed to?

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Photo by Ethan Haddox on Unsplash

Well, get that thought right out of your head!

This brings us to tip #1.

Holidays in Recovery Tip #1

Tip #1: SHOW UP, but don’t be a ‘yes man’

Most of us missed out on numerous years of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s family gatherings. Some of us were completely estranged from the family, not even receiving an invite. Others made promises of attending and would not show up, maybe because we were dope sick or, hell, just too high to really care or want to be seen (judged) at the time. Whatever your story is, while stuck in a cycle of substance abuse, we are all notoriously unreliable.

Canceling plans at the last minute, even if you are clean and living your best life now, will spark unwanted memories in the minds of your family members. This will naturally cause your family to question whether you are truly clean. They may start to believe you have slipped up.

Nip all these potential rumors in the bud and SHOW UP.

Now, you may be having a bit of de Ja Vu if you are a regular reader. Tip number 1 in Part 1 of this series was “Show up, even if you have not stopped using completely.” Although this tip is still useful, we wanted to take it a step further. It is important to show up, BUT you do not need to be a ‘yes man.’

Around this time of year, we are faced with thanksgiving dinners, Christmas parties, family brunches, golf days with the uncles, shopping days with grandma, Christmas light festivals with the nieces and nephews, gingerbread decorating with Great Aunt Bernie, and so on. Your squeaky-clean, horribly missed self will be invited to ALL these events.

A YES man responds yes to every invitation offered to these events. A YES man ends up overwhelmed with all the events he committed to attend. The YES man ends up at a much higher risk of using than those of us who limit ourselves to only attending a few select gatherings over the holiday season.

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Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

If you communicate to your family which events you are available for AND you SHOW UP for the events you do commit too, your family will understand your need to limit yourself. Explain that spreading yourself too thin may cause too much stress and that you are not quite ready for this yet.

Trust me, your family would much rather have you alive and off substances than at risk of relapsing because you committed to too much. I suggest, if fresh in recovery, you pick 2 or 3 events to attend and focus on being your best you while in attendance.

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As time goes on and we get more ‘clean time confidence’, most of us can attend an increasing number of events. Others may never be able to

attend more than a select few, but that is OKAY.

Try to pick events scheduled around the healthy habits that have helped keep you clean.

Trust me, you can do this. Let’s get you prepped.

Holidays in Recovery:

Potential Triggers

We all know that a drug user does not need to worry about turning down a heroin fix during dinner, like an alcoholic may have to do with a glass of wine. Exposure is not the issue. However, a drug user must worry about a much more insidious, often unavoidable, trigger…FAMILY.

To give you an idea of what I am talking about, here are just a few specific examples of triggers I have personally faced during the holidays:

1. Issues between family members that have been brewing for years

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2. Judgment from family members who do not believe recovery is possible for substance users, or at least not possible with an AA style program

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3. Failure to find a healthy balance between time spent with family and time spent on healthy habits you have developed to rebuild your life in recovery.

Photo by Manan Chhabra on Unsplash

Holidays in Recovery: 

Personal Experience with Holiday Triggers

There was a time when I was deep in a using cycle, where I could not bring myself to have so much as a phone conversation with any of my family members without getting sufficiently doped up first. My family never meant to make me feel this way, but my own shame made me feel inadequate.

Shame is a powerful emotion. When I feel ashamed, I get incredible urges to numb myself before speaking to those who care about me. I can almost guarantee a high percentage of recovering users can relate to this.

This feeling can butt its ugly head when you least expect it. For example,

Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

sometimes, I will be having a perfectly normal day, going about my routine and getting shit done. My mum’s or dad’s number will come up on my caller ID and I take pause. In a split second, I will go from feeling fine to knowing if I answer that call, the minute I hear the voice on the other end of the phone, the waterworks will begin.

This is usually because I am feeling some type of shame about something and hearing the voice of someone who loves me is bound to bring all the emotions I have been stuffing down deep straight up to the surface.

Have you ever felt like this? Well, using drugs before these conversations was an extremely effective technique for staving off the tears. Repeatedly using to suppress my feelings only made the situation worse in the end.

I still struggle with this today, even though I am in a much better place in

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Photo by Ksenia Makagonova on Unsplash

my recovery journey. Sometimes, hearing the voice of a loved one just knocks down all the walls I have erected to shut the feelings in.

I try to put on a happy façade, but most of the time, I am not as ashamed to let these feelings out with people who love me. It is the only way to truly, healthily deal with the shame I feel about the mistakes I have made thus far.

Even after months of counseling, I am still working on my relationships with family members. I share this because it is important to remember that there is no immediate fix, certainly not in time for Christmas morning and the New Year.

Holidays in Recovery:

Knowing Your Family Dynamic

If you feel seeing family during the holidays this year is going to be detrimental to your recovery, you are not alone. Some of us are fortunate enough to have families who are loving and supportive. Others are not so lucky, having families who are emotionally and physically abusive, or even cold and dismissive. If you are in the latter category, it is okay to stay away from your family this year. YOUR RECOVERY (and physical and emotional safety) must be your number one concern.

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Photo by Johanna Dahlberg on Unsplash

Many Anonymous meeting halls serve food and hold meetings over the holidays. Churches are also a good place to look for company during the holidays. If you have any friends that are celebrating, see if you can join them for the holidays. Being alone on a holiday, whether using or in recovery, is not the answer, EVER.

If you are struggling with drug use, you will inevitably feel drained after a family function, no matter if you have a supportive or unsupportive family. I call this the ‘after-family hangover.’ Getting high may seem like a great way to alleviate ‘after-family hangover’ symptoms, but it will cause you to take one step back in your recovery.

You are going to have to learn to deal with these feelings, without using, eventually. This takes practice, but we must start somewhere. Why not this year? (For decompression ideas, see Part 1

Holidays in Recovery- Tip #2

Tip #2: Step out of the Spotlight

If you are fresh in recovery, your family has probably spent the last few years worrying nonstop about you. Face it, you probably deteriorated quickly before you ended up getting your life back together. Parents and other family members naturally get worried when they witness a loved one spiral.

Most likely you lost a job, were evicted from an apartment, moved back into your parent house(if lucky), your health may have started decline, and you may have started hanging with a crowd your parents viewed as dangerous.

Your negative decisions and the events arising from these decisions compounded stress for your family. Knowing your family was stressed only stressed you out more. This is a vicious, dizzying cycle, but you are finally regaining your balance.

This is all positive but be careful not to get overconfident. If you have less than five years of clean time under your belt, you are not out of the woods yet. Around the holidays, the exhaustion you and your family felt during the dark period of your drug abuse can creep up if you do not stay aware.

It is important, especially at family functions, to remember, you are not the center of attention. Trust me, you do not want to be anyway. It will not help your recovery. You can smile and thank people when they congratulate you on your recovery but, learn to take pause and resist the urge to engage in a detailed conversation. Holidays celebrations with family are not the time nor the place.

I know, I know, there are always those family members who, after putting back their sixth overfilled glass of wine, decide it is appropriate to press you for more information. There is one in every family who fails to see the irony of speaking to you about your recovery while they are two sheets to the wind. Oh, the irony!

Regardless, you endure!coping with the holidays

..and endure you will, especially if you follow the pre-family gathering preparation advice discussed below.

Holidays in Recovery:

Personal Experience Stepping out of the Spotlight

Even when I was using, I tried my best to attend holiday functions with my family. It is important to show your family you love them, even if you are strung out. However, do not get completely fucked up before seeing your family. They will know and you will not escape the spotlight. If you do this, none of these techniques will save you from distress.

Side Note on Common Sense

Photo by Christopher Farrugia on Unsplash

I shouldn’t have to include this section, but here are some, should-be-common sense tips that are extremely important.

I hate that I have to say this but, DO NOT steal from your family members or ask for money at gatherings. You will not be invited back next year and, when you decide you finally want to stop using, you will have lost the respect of the people who could be your best advocates.

If you are high, stop by, give hugs, eat some turkey, and leave. Do not put your family through hours of watching you nod out at the dinner table.

Some may not agree with this advice. If this is you, please consider this. While I was using, I attended holiday functions with my family. When the functions went smoothly, I would start to feel confident I could ask for help from my family. These positive interactions pushed me toward making better decisions.

Holidays in Recovery- Preparation

Before attending your next family function this holiday season, you have some studying to do!

Step 1: Make a call.

Call your cousin (or whatever family member) who loves to gossip. Usually, this family member knows way too much about your other family members’ lives, the good, the bad, all the drama. We all have at least one family member that feeds on this kind of information. (Important: Refrain from divulging any information about yourself that you don’t want to be repeated.)

Step 2: Gather Intel.

Ask this family member questions about each family member planning to attend the holiday event you have RSVPed to. Commit this information to memory. Once you are familiar with the current lives of each of these people, you can be on the offense.

Step 3: Smile, Nod and Change the Damn Subject!

When Great Aunt Joan, two sheets to the wind, starts pressing you for details on why such a smart person like yourself would use drugs, requesting a minute by minute agenda of what you do each day to stay clean, you vaguely give her an answer. You are not obligated to explain each detail of your daily recovery routine. By vague I mean, focus on one or two healthy habits you have picked up and explain them in a succinct manner.

Immediately after you answer, ask Aunt Joan a question about herself. People love talking about themselves and, remember, you have done your homework. After all, gossiping cousin Glen gave you all the spicy details on Aunt Joan’s new business venture. This is where your preparation comes in handy

When you ask how she plans to implement a massage parlor into her marijuana dispensary she will totally forget about what she was asking you. She will be so caught off guard that you have been paying attention to the parts of her life that are important to her, that you will be in the clear! Situation avoided.

Arming yourself with a little bit of detail about each family member will keep the spotlight off your drug use and you will control how much or how little you want or feel comfortable with sharing about your recovery.

That’s all for today, folks!

Below, I have relisted these tips included in Part 1 of the Coping with Holidays in Recovery series. Refer to the original article https://syringestosobriety.com/coping-with-holidays-in-recovery/ for explanations as to why these strategies are crucial to your recovery and for detailed explanations on how to implement them.

Tips for Coping with the Holidays in Recovery

1. SHOW UP, even if you have not stopped using completely.

2. AVOID talking recovery with family members.

3. PLAN your responses.

4. LET IT GO immediately.

5. PREPARE conversation starters and diversions.

For another helpful article, visit SMART Recovery Holiday Challenges in Addiction Recovery.

If you need tips to get off opiates before the holidays, check out Over the Counter Medications for Opiate Withdrawal and Top 15 Natural Remedies for Heroin Withdrawal -All Needles to Au Naturel.

If you have any questions, comments, concerns about your next family event, drop a line in the comment section below and we will respond ASAP. Good luck and happy holidays fam.

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34 comments on “Holidays in Recovery- Beating Bah Humbug

  1. Thanks for sharing! I definitely do have stronger cravings around holidays, but I never really realized that family could absolutely be attributed to this.

  2. Hey, Thank for writing on Holidays in Recovery. Your article is very helpful for me because my Grand father is in recovery and I found what you say here sounds so familiar. In my opinion your article will help everyone. So I decided to share with my friends and family members. Thank you very much for helping me to understand me how I should behave and be supportive of people who are undergoing recovery.

    Parveen

  3. Wow Ana, what an amazing and inspirational post.  I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it must be for recovering addicts to endure the stresses of the festive seasons – your article has truly opened my eyes.  Makes all my First World issues seem pretty insignificant.

    One thing that really stood out for me was how supportive your family was in helping your recovery, even attending their own therapy sessions. Very brave to admit that they may have been part of the problem by enabling your addiction.  What advice would you give family members in terms of how they behave or act if they suspect a family member may be using drugs already or maybe suffering from depression and could turn to drugs or alcohol as an answer to their pain? 

    1. I am extremely fortunate to have a family who was willing to do the work required to help me recover.  Most families, including mine at one point, have no idea they are making the situation worse.  It is important to understand, as a family member, that you are most likely not doing any of this intentionally.  It is part of the patterns we become comfortable with as each member falls into their ‘role’ in the family unit.  A good family therapist will help identify problem areas and work to mend them.  

      To your question, if you suspect drug use, the worst thing you could do is get angry or say anything that could make the suspected user feel ashamed.  Trust me, we are beating ourselves up enough anyway.  

      Compassion, love, and taking the time to listen is the best way to help someone struggling.  Not only will they respect your advice, they will feel comfortable coming to you when they make the decision to change their behavior.  You could save their life.  

      In both cases, substance abuse and/or depression, a therapist is a great third party to give advice to A