Guest column: Navigating the holiday season in recovery
By Dr. Deni Carise
For anyone in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction, the holiday season can pose significant challenges and risk of relapse. The holiday spirit brings with it an increased tolerance for “partying”, often to excess!
It can also be a time of high stress and emotional strain as we all try to get that perfect gift, serve that perfect meal and more. Additionally, for those struggling with substance abuse, there’s often guilt and shame that come with spending time with loved ones and others they may feel they’ve disappointed. Far too often, “social use” can seem a welcome reprieve.
Research shows that 50-90% of people in recovery experience relapse in their first year, and holiday parties and stressors contribute to that statistic. The number of hospitalizations due to drug and alcohol overdoses increase by 25% during the holidays. DUI-related traffic stops increase 33% on Christmas Day, and 42% of traffic accidents on New Year’s Eve are drinking-related, a day that accounts for the second-highest rate of binge drinking in our country.
Although relapse can be a part of recovery, it doesn’t’ have to be! Here’s what I have learned during my 30 years as an active member of the recovery community: some simple steps can steer your celebration in the substance-free direction. And for those with a loved one in recovery, supporting them through a safe and sober holiday is the best gift you can give them.
Surround Yourself with Loved Ones
Resist the urge to isolate yourself. Even though temptation is great, isolation is not the answer. Recovery is a delicate state that requires the support of friends and loved ones. Everyone has someone in their lives that loves and cares for them. If you’re not in contact with your immediate family, perhaps there is an aunt, uncle, or cousin you can spend time with, or a dear friend who is also in recovery that you can celebrate the holidays with as you support each other.
Volunteering Your Time
A 10-year study by Case Western shows volunteering reduces the chance of drug and alcohol relapse, making service to others a valuable tool to stay sober during the holidays. This time of year, volunteer opportunities are many: soup kitchens, homeless shelters, animal shelters, and youth mentoring programs need temporary volunteers while regular staff is home with family and friends. At the same time, programs such as AA can also offer the opportunity to give of yourself by orienting new members, taking on new sponsorships, or guest speaking at meetings.
Plan for quick exits. It would be naïve to believe you can skip all holiday parties. Work and family obligations require those in recovery to deal with real-world situations, and part of recovery is developing strategies to deal with these realities. Stay away from parties that at their core are just excuses to overindulge, and lessen temptation by bringing a friend with you and making plans ahead of time to have a ready escape hatch. Lyft and Uber now make it easier than ever to get an immediate ride home. Download their applications and open an account now to assure you can quickly leave an uncomfortable situation.
The Next Steps
Surround yourself with support. Structure and frequent contact with support systems are key to recovery. Unfortunately it can be tough to maintain during the holidays. Make sure you attend your regular meetings and consider increasing your attendance during this difficult time. Many programs offer toll-free, recovery hotlines where you can speak to a counselor and keep yourself on track. Operators are standing by 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to help you explore your treatment options.
Rethink your rituals. A friend in recovery once insisted that he could keep going to bars and parties every night without having a drink—but as the old saying goes “if you hang out in a barbershop long enough, you’re going to leave with a haircut.” The best way to stay sober is to limit temptations and rethink your rituals. Maybe this is the time to return to your house of worship to seek spiritual enrichment.
Don’t hide a relapse. If you make a mistake, don’t be ashamed to ask for help immediately and re-commit yourself to your recovery.
The holidays can be the toughest time of the year for those in recovery, but it can also be one of the most meaningful, as the New Year brings a fresh start to heal and rebuild bonds with family and friends. Stay committed, focus on the positive, and be honest with yourself and your loved ones.
Dr. Deni Carise, Ph.D., is the Chief Clinical Officer for Recovery Centers of America, 1-800-RECOVERY, WWW.1800RECOVERY.COM