In reality, though, many family gatherings can be anything but peaceful and joyous. Sometimes resentments boil over into arguments, appetizers consist of awkward silences, and a buffet of grievances is laid out on the table.
We also tend to think of holidays and vacations as times when we can take a break from our normal routines and healthy habits. We tell ourselves it’s fine to have that extra piece of pie (or two) and stay up a late watching classic Christmas movies. If you are a person in recovery, you might also be tempted to see the occasion as an opportunity to take a break from your sobriety. “Having a glass of eggnog is a family tradition! Just one won’t kill me…”
All of this can, of course, make the holidays a particularly vulnerable time for relapse.
Though you can, and should, ask family members for support, it’s ultimately up to you to take care of your own recovery. Claudia Black—PhD, Senior Fellow at The Meadows, Clinical Architect of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, and expert in addiction and family systems—offers the following tips for avoiding relapse during holiday gatherings:
Have a Plan
Claudia recommends that everyone have a written relapse prevention plan. The plan needs to describe what you are going to do to beef up your recovery practices during the holidays.
For example, if you typically go to three 12-step meetings a week, go to seven meetings a week during the holidays. If you typically talk to your sponsor once a week, talk to your sponsor every day during the holidays.
Based on your past experiences at holiday gatherings, walk through potential scenarios you might run into and how you might respond. Decide what you’re willing to talk about and what you’re not willing to talk about. Think about which people are safe for you and which are not. Have a strategy or exit plan in mind for when you feel triggered or overwhelmed.
Also, be realistic in terms of your expectations. You will probably need to lower your expectations in terms of what you want emotionally from your family members during this time.
Have Crucial Conversations Before the Gathering
Claudia also recommends that you talk to key family members ahead of about any concerns you have and share what your plan is for handling those concerns. You might say to your mother, “I’m probably not going to stay as long this time,” and/or “I’ll probably take a walk just to get a breath of fresh air at some point…” Let people know how you intend to take care of yourself, so that there’s less of chance that your actions will be perceived as rude, or as cause for concern.
For example, let’s say you’ve got a brother who you know is probably going to come to the gathering loaded. So, say to your parents “this is going to be really awkward, and this is what I plan to say to him.” That way, no one is taken back or surprised if you find that you do have to say something really direct to him.
You could also try to have a conversation before the day of the event with that brother, or any person who may present a challenge to your recovery. You could simply say, “Since I’ve been in treatment, I need you to know what’s important to me, and I want you to honor it when we’re together.” If you can have that conversation prior to the event, in person, it can be very helpful in preventing any potentially ugly confrontations over the dinner table.
You can also use that same statement—I need you to know what’s important to me, and I want you to honor my recovery,”— as a mantra to repeat to someone who keeps trying to push past your boundaries. If they keep pressing you, it’s okay to walk away, or leave the event altogether, if that’s what you need to do to save your recovery.
Go to Meetings
Many of us have more than one gathering to attend during the holiday season, and many of us travel some distance away from home to celebrate with friends and family from afar. Both of these realities can easily become excuses for skipping 12-step meetings — don’t let that happen.
Even if you’re staying with family, you don’t have to be there 24/7. Claudia highly recommends that you go to meetings even on the day of the holiday itself. There is a meeting everywhere, every day—even Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Even if you can’t find a meeting specific to your addiction—SA for sex addicts can sometimes be hard to find, for example — you can still go to an AA meeting. The 12 Steps are still The 12 Steps no matter what kind of meeting you attend.
Many communities also have an Alanoclub that hosts various 12 step meetings throughout the week from Al-Anon to different addictions. They also often host Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. So, if you don’t feel that it’s safe for you to be with your family at all, you can go and celebrate the holidays with others in recovery.
Make New Traditions
“If your family has traditions or rituals in place that don’t serve to bring the family together in a positive way, it’s time to let go of that ritual,” Claudia says. Some family members may have rituals around drinking or their own use of substances. The holidays can present an opportunity to question some of the family rituals that enable unhealthy behaviors, and replace them with ones that are more supportive of your recovery and the family’s overall well-being.
You may feel guilty about suggesting change. You may say to yourself “I don’t want everyone else to have to change because of me.” But, the reality is, change is probably needed. If you have family members who are in recovery, there shouldn’t be so much liquor flowing at a gathering that people are getting drunk. If you typically go to the local sports bar to play pool with family members every Thanksgiving, you may need to suggest that you go to the local putt-putt golf course this year instead.
You might also suggest that you and your family start a new tradition of engaging in a community service project every year. Service work is an essential part of recovery, and it can have a positive impact on the entire family. Opportunities for volunteer work abound during the holidays. Talk to your family about a cause or organization you can all get behind, and look for opportunities to make a contribution.
Though things might feel awkward or tense at first, as time goes on, you will learn more and more about what works with your recovery, and what doesn’t. You will also feel more comfortable asserting your needs among those you love. And, they will become more comfortable as they see the positive difference the changes you have made have had on their lives, as well as yours.
Keep the lines of communication as open as possible, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help outside of family—your sponsor, a local 12-step meeting, etc.— when you need it. Taking steps to safeguard your recovery will help to ensure that you will still be present for many the happy holiday gatherings to come.