There is arguably nothing more complex than the subject of family. While experts have reduced addiction in the family to a series of roles – the addict, the enabler, the scapegoat, the mascot, the lost child, and the hero – these labels, however accurate they may be, don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the intricacies unique to each familial unit. It’s a gargantuan task to maintain healthy relationships on an ordinary Tuesday in March, never mind navigating the holiday season. For many, the holidays are not a time of good cheer; they are a time of loneliness and pain. They can be a reminder of loss rather than a celebration of abundance. Unsurprisingly, the holiday season is a critical period for those in their first year clean and sober. Not only can it be tough to weather holiday celebrations without imbibing in substance related tradition, it may also be uncomfortable to reconcile with or detach from family members. With the holidays looming just over the horizon, how does one negotiate them with dignity, compassion, and sobriety?
The Gift of Presence
It’s a tale as old as the advent of recovery: Joe or Jane maintain three months of sobriety and declare “I have three months! Why won’t my family trust me? Why do my children still hate me? This isn’t fair!” As we mentioned in our blog on financial recovery, it takes time to repair the damage caused by years of drug and alcohol use. We can’t expect to rebuild our relationships overnight. If it takes years to unravel the fragile threads of trust, we must expect that it will similarly take years to weave them together again.
Surviving the first holiday gathering of your clean and sober journey may feel like a complicated endeavor but, at the end of the day, the task is simple: Show up. It’s one thing to say “I’m sorry,” but it’s another thing entirely to demonstrate your sincerity with action. Making an effort to be present is part of a “living amends”. When you consistently participate in family functions, your loved ones will begin to feel confident in your new way of life.
Addiction is a family disease. Therefore, the family unit is likely to be plagued by hurt and resentment. A little patience and tolerance will go a long way toward facilitating healing. Our loved ones are deserving of the same mercy and compassion we desire for ourselves.
Boundaries Aren’t Just for Maps
The unfortunate reality is that reconciliation isn’t always possible. It may need to be postponed – or even dismissed. Perhaps your family doesn’t want to see you. Or maybe they are caught up in their own drug and alcohol use. Or perhaps spending time together is simply harmful to your well-being.
The saying “blood is thicker than water” is one of the most destructive idioms in the English language. We do not have a duty to stay connected to our family of origin solely because we share a genetic pool. This dangerous cultural belief drives people to stay in toxic situations to the detriment of their health.
It is not selfish to detach from your family if the environment is unsafe, abusive, or otherwise harmful – it’s self caring. Additionally, the act of detaching doesn’t mean you’re hateful – or even angry – it means you are protecting yourself and shaping an environment of love and respect. You set the bar for how other people treat you by demonstrating what you will tolerate. At times, your family may have needed to protect themselves from your behavior. In recovery, you may find yourself feeling unsafe, too. Ask: “Does this threaten my sobriety or well-being?” If the answer is yes, recognize it as a guidepost and take the necessary steps to safeguard your health and happiness.
Recovery provides you with the option to tailor a family of choice. This could include your biological family, or it may be comprised of loved ones who don’t share DNA. You will undoubtedly experience pushback as you explore what’s right for you. At the end of the day, remember the phrase “to thine own self be true” – and be considerate of others who are honoring their spirit as well.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
J. K. Rowling famously said: “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”. It is, indeed, agonizing to feel alone or to grieve the loss of a tradition or a toxic family member. However, the bright side of rock bottom is that it presents an opportunity to create something new. Change is scary. But ‘new’ isn’t always synonymous with ‘bad’…it’s simply different. While the holidays may never be the same again, they can be just as good and, for some, maybe even better.
If you are worried about being alone, there are places where you will be welcomed with open arms. Twelve Step fellowships typically host ‘Alcathons’ or ‘Narcathons’ on major holidays. These events feature round the clock meetings, meals, and even dances. Volunteering can be another great way to connect with new peers and find fulfillment on an otherwise bleak day. In the film It’s A Wonderful Life, the angel Clarence writes “Dear George: Remember no man is a failure who has friends”. Attending recovery marathons or giving the gift of time are two ways to cultivate healthy relationships.
Sometimes nothing feels appealing on the holidays. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression – such as chronic fatigue, sadness, loss of motivation/interest, or suicidal ideation – it is vital to seek help. Reaching out to a counselor or support group can mean the difference between life and death. These resources will help you manage your symptoms and empower you to move forward with your life in a positive way.
Should you have already established a healthy support system, you are in a prime position to embrace the limitless creative potential of your sobriety. There are a myriad of ways to celebrate that don’t involve drinking too much spiked eggnog and waking up with a raging hangover. In my family, we turn the holiday season into a month long jubilee. We load up the car with cocoa and candy canes and search out the most awe-inspiring Christmas light displays. We also have a cut-out cookie night. (FYI…Booze is not a necessary ingredient for baking shenanigans!) Our decorated cookies are inevitably too silly to share at the office. Most recently, we started moving the furniture out of our living room on Christmas Eve and camping out in front of the tree. We watch It’s A Wonderful Life and bask in the yuletide glow until our eyelids are heavy with sleep. Each year, we try to incorporate a new activity. Last December, we caught a classic movie at the independent theater. This year, we plan to read from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
The endgame of drinking and drugging is ultimately death. When you get drunk or high, you step outside the stream of life. When you are numb to the pain, you are also numb to the joy. It’s no coincidence that Bill Wilson wrote “the joy of living is the theme of A.A.’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key”. This holiday season, we encourage you to step back into the stream of life. If you need help rediscovering your joy, please call (888) 649-1149. Our mission is to pass on the gift of recovery.
Autumn Khavari is The Process Recovery Center’s web content writer. She received an education in Substance Abuse Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.