Thomas G. Kimball, Ph.D., LMF / Texas Tech University George C. Miller Family Regents Professor & Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities
It starts earlier each year—the festive music, decorations, beautifully wrapped packages and, of course, the lights. The spirit of this season also fills us with feelings of gratitude, compassion, charity and reflection.
For those in addiction recovery, however, the holiday season can be a time of great vulnerability. The anticipation of the festivities alone can feel like an epic story of survival and unlikely triumph. This sets all the stress and anxiety triggers in motion. With the events soon to arrive, those stressors are exponentially compounded with each passing day, and it’s not uncommon for those in addiction recovery to find interactions with family and friends tremendously difficult.
Picture this: the sound of ice in a glass, the faint but distinct smell of a party goer’s eggnog laced breath or even the distant memory of holidays past serve as powerful and often painful reminders of unhealthy behaviors. These negative emotions exacerbate the anticipatory feelings, and potential positive emotions give way to rationalizing the lowering of protective guards against relapse.
In an effort to navigate this often misunderstood and complex mixture of emotion and circumstance, I have crafted five tips to help you not only survive but thrive during the holiday season and to protect yourself against relapse.
1. Make a Plan, Work the Plan
As Ben Franklin famously said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is especially true for those in recovery. When stress levels rise beyond current coping capabilities and vulnerability is heightened, the potential for relapse increases. Plan to reduce all levels of stress, in every facet of your days leading to and during the holidays. Take an honest look at your stress levels and write them down in a journal. Populate and prioritize each day with what you consider to be a small victory in your recovery. Visualize what this victory will look like and how it will make you feel. Plan to win each day. The scale of your victory does not matter, only that you planned to win and did so. This will help to increase your capacity to cope. Engaging in this way will compliment your existing self-care routine (e.g., breathing/meditation, hydration, eating healthy, whole food and getting enough rest) and fortify your confidence.
2. Give More
It’s a lifelong and age-old maxim: the more you give, the more you get. Serving those less fortunate is another fortification tool for enduring and, more importantly, enjoying the holiday season. Opportunities are everywhere, so open yourself to new engagements. Try something new and allow yourself to be creative with using your time, expertise and resources. For example, a friend of mine in recovery committed to give to every cause he was asked to support during the holiday season and stick with that support for one year. He gave countless hours and sums of money to dozens of causes that year. He told me it was one of the best and most fulfilling times of his life. His bank account was a bit smaller heading into the New Year, but his heart was full and his spirit full of compassion and gratitude. Service to others is a universal elixir championed across the globe as the foremost element of unification. Put a hearty helping of that on your plate this season and make a difference.
3. Your People Are Yours, Lean on Them
You’re in recovery, stay close to your people. While you lean on their commitments of accountability, support, and guidance, reciprocate by spending quality time with those who’ve contributed so much to your success. The holidays make free time in short supply, so aim for convenient victories. Beyond attendance at fellowship meetings or the like, try engaging your sponsor, therapist and trusted friends in new ways. That could mean an impromptu visit, unexpected card or simple communication to just say ‘hello.’ Make the small investment to be in frequent contact with them. If you travel during the holidays, make an effort to find your people at your destination. Rekindle the flames of old friendships, share your story, ask for their support - chances are they’re eager to help.
4. Choose Your Own Borders
Relational boundaries are essential. If situations or circumstances arise which cause discomfort, don’t be afraid to say, “no.” Easier said than done, but remember you can be strong in drawing your boundaries and explain your discomfort with civility. For example, if offered a drink you could say, “That’s very kind of you to offer, but no thank you. I have made a commitment to myself not to drink or use any other drugs. Will you support me in this commitment?” It’s truly fascinating to witness the positive reactions to well-articulated boundaries followed by an invitation to support the person’s commitment to recovery. Expect a positive reaction and it’s almost always returned to you. In the unlikely event of an unsupportive or demeaning interaction, get tough but stay civil - successfully exercising that toughness can sometimes help encourage your resolve to see your recovery through.
5. Push the Eject Button
Not only does James Bond always drive fancy cars, they’re almost always equipped with an ejection button. In the event he’s in a pinch or needs to retreat and regroup, that little red button is always there. You have the same capability to push that button in the event you find yourself needing to retreat from the clutches of temptation. If you can manage, bring a sidekick—a sort of recovery wingman—to boost your confidence and help you recognize situations you need to graciously walk away from. Another idea is to create a list of emergency contacts—your personal recovery team. When flying solo and faced with a seemingly impossible situation, simply speed dial the first person on your list and keep calling until you reach some backup. They will help you navigate the situation and you can feel good about your ability to call in help when you need. Whether you push the ejection button or call in air support, it’s a victory.
I want to wish a very Happy Holidays from my family to you and yours. Be safe, be mindful and take care of yourself. Serve others, stay close to your people and draw clear boundaries and, when necessary, push that ejection button and regroup for another successful day of recovery.
Dr. Kimball is the George C. Miller Family Regents Professor at Texas Tech University and the Director of the Center for Collegiate Recovery Communities. He also serves as a consultant with MAP and is MAPs Co-Clinic Director. Dr. Kimball has received numerous teaching awards for his courses on families, addiction, and recovery. He is the author of several peer-reviewed articles on addiction and recovery and has consulted and presented on recovery related issues across the nation. He is the co-author of the book, Six Essentials to Achieve Lasting Recovery.