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People sometimes struggle with addiction relapses around the holidays. You often hear some people in local 12 step meetings verbalizing their struggles and challenges with holidays and relapse. On the surface, it would appear there is a parallel. The real question is, what lies underneath? We do not believe relapses have anything directly to do with the holidays other than covering up something that led to the relapse. The added stress of the holidays could be enough to put someone vulnerable and headed for relapse over their breaking point long before the holidays. Holidays are a great diversion from the actual cause of relapse.
Relapses don’t just happen by accident; they take time and work. The longer someone has been sober, the longer it takes before they return to alcohol or drugs once the behavioral relapse starts. Whenever you dissect a relapse, you can almost always go back to the trigger point that started the subtle shifts in behaviors that led to their relapse ending with consuming alcohol or drugs.
The point being made is, if you’re relapsing during the holidays, chances are excellent there are few reasons why. You could be new in recovery and have not yet been grounded in an effective recovery plan, for starters. Another reason is that people who call themselves sober are not abstinent and dry. What abstinent and dry means is they were just able to stop on their own for a while without addressing the reasons for their addiction in the first place. They may pass a drug or alcohol test but are still angry, miserable, restless, irritable, dishonest, and discontent. People who have been sober, not dry or abstinent, can relapse for a period of time. If a person who has been sober relapses during the holidays, it is almost always because they started regressing long before the holidays came.
We’ve yet to see anyone genuinely sober working through an ongoing recovery program relapse during the holidays. This is not to say that sober people working a strong recovery program do not have their struggles. The difference is they have a program of recovery in place and the tools to help them through it. People who relapse during the holidays always appear to be the scenarios described above.
The only way we believe a truly sober person can relapse is either by slipping on a banana peel and falling into a pile of drugs or bar or by working hard on regressing for days, weeks, months, or even years, leading to their relapse.
Holidays and relapse: Why is it so common?
Although common, we believe holiday relapses occur for reasons that have much less to do with the holidays and much more to do with whether or not the substance user is doing the necessary things that it takes to remain sober during stressful and difficult times. As stated above, holidays and relapses are more coincidental than directly correlated. Addicts and alcoholics who are vulnerable and in the early stages of relapse blame people, places, and things as the reason for their slipping. For instance, it is easier to justify a relapse because of holiday stress than to explain the reasons for regressing in the middle of June.
Bear in mind; we are not trying to make light of holiday relapse. We’re trying to help you understand that relapse doesn’t happen overnight or out of an isolated incident or specific time of year. For some reading this, they may be angered and disagree. A truly sober person and a healthy family member engaged in their recovery efforts know exactly what we refer to. Families, addicts, and alcoholics make excuses for drug and alcohol use. Although relapse can occur more frequently during the holidays, a holiday relapse could be exposing weak spots in your recovery plan and program.
Causes of relapse
Relapses occur when we stop doing what has been working and often shift backward in perception and behavior. When substance users go to a rehab center or are engaged in the 12-step program, neither resource teaches you how to stop using drugs or alcohol; they help you understand why you used drugs and alcohol. Addiction recovery comes from addressing and processing trauma, past uncomfortable experiences, feelings and behaviors, a change in thinking, distorted perception, and maladaptive coping skills. People use drugs and alcohol to fill a void and cover various forms of pain.
Selfishness and resentment are two enormous precursors to relapses involving alcohol and drug use. When a person is in addiction recovery and starts to become resentful and selfish, they’re on a slippery slope. Old behaviors, thinking, and perceptions often follow when selfishness and resentments build up and set in. When these resentments are with family members, you will see how this may cause one to drink or use drugs as a weapon during the holidays. It has been said many times that people who are resentful and use drugs or alcohol are taking poison while waiting for the other to die. Addicts and alcoholics don’t use drugs or alcohol with people they resent; they drink and use drugs against them. Processing these resentments, addressing selfish victim behavior, and bringing a different mindset into the holiday season when you are surrounded by people you were once angry with can greatly reduce your chances of a holiday slip or relapse.
10 ways to avoid holiday addiction relapses
- Know your limitations and triggers – If you’re not ready to be around alcohol or people you still have issues with, avoid the gathering altogether. If you’re sincere and are putting your recovery first, those closest to you will understand. If they don’t understand, that is on them. Your sobriety is the most important thing in the world for the rest of your life. Without it, you lose everything you put before it.
- Double Your Spiritual Efforts – We don’t quite mean religion if this puts you off in any way. Spirituality is a practical component of recovery. Most people in recovery are told to double their spiritual efforts during difficult times. They are referring to doubling down on the effective recovery efforts that kept you clean and sober.
- Go to More 12-Step Meetings – During the holidays, many groups such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous have meetings running all day. There are often sober events put on by these groups as well. Surrounding yourself with others in recovery can help hold you accountable.
- Do Service Work – Volunteering at a 12-step meeting hall or homeless shelter during the holidays helps with selfishness. Getting out of yourself and your comfort zone by helping others is a great way to boost your self-esteem and do something nice for someone else without expecting anything in return.
- Work with Someone New in Recovery – Part of many recovery programs is about helping newly sober people. Sponsorship is a huge part of the 12-step program. The 12-step program is designed for you to work through the first 11 steps with momentum and then go to meetings to carry the message and find new people to share the news with, which is the 12th step. It’s another great way to avoid holiday relapses and relapses at any other time of year.
- Increase Your Therapy Appointments – If you’re currently seeing a counselor or therapist, if you’re not, it is highly recommended that you do; it may be helpful to schedule more appointments around the holidays and during other times of struggle. The more you surround yourself with people and effective solutions, the less you are in isolation with ineffective solutions.
- Work on Your Resentments and Your Amends – Resentments and not clearing up past harms done to others puts many on the fast track to relapse. Having resentment or neglecting to make amends with someone will undoubtedly increase stress levels during the holidays. The more we clean our side of the street and the more sincere we are in our willingness to own what we did that hurt someone else, the easier the holidays and all the other days of the year will be, especially when you come in contact with the person.
- Set Boundaries – Like knowing your limitations, knowing who will be with you at holiday gatherings, and working through a plan with your sponsor, treatment team, and other family members. Have other families aware of your concerns and the higher risk of relapse to help you and formulate plans for risky situations. If a toxic family member is there, ask others if they see you one on one with the toxic individual to intervene in the conversation casually, so you are not alone with them one on one.
- Do Not Isolate Yourself – When we suggest avoiding high-risk situations and people, we are not suggesting that you sit home alone. Isolation, especially during the holidays, can cause depression and sadness in anyone, regardless of addiction concerns. Always be around positive people and influences. Surrounding yourself with people, places, and things that are high risk is not advised.
- Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) – Talk to your treatment team about your concerns. Many opioid addicts and alcoholics have medications available to them that can help them with another layer of protection. Medications like Vivitrol and oral Naltrexone are helpful for both opioid users and alcohol users. Medications like Antabuse can help alcoholics. Talk to your doctor or treatment team about these medications and how they can help.
Tips to maintaining sobriety during the holidays
Above, we explained things you could do to avoid holiday addiction relapses and increase your chances of successfully making it through the holidays and any other time of year. There are many other little things you can do in addition to the suggestions listed above. Adding exercise to your routine is good for your physical and mental health. Not to mention it can help with an increased appetite during the holidays. Meditation and yoga can help clear the mind of unwanted thoughts and help recenter you during times of increased stress. Spending more time with your family and children attending holiday events and being happy and present with them can help you feel better and remind you of your purpose in life. Another great tool is practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is being aware of your thoughts and minimizing your reactivity to situations that arise. When something happens, take a deep breath and think it through before acting on impulse. Once you react or say something, you can not take it back.
The more you do for your recovery, the greater your protection against a slip or relapse. The greatest tip may be to perform at least some of the suggestions above instead of complete inaction. Running through the holidays on willpower alone, with no support, can set you up for danger. Remember, the holidays are not directly causing the relapse; the slip backward in your recovery program or never getting started in one is.
Healthy recovery for your family
Much of the conversation has been centered around what the substance user should look out for and do to avoid holiday addiction relapse. The family can significantly impact their loved one’s chances of relapse, too. If your loved one is new in recovery, it is important to give them space and respect where they are at. They will be vulnerable and don’t need you to bring up things that will stress them out at the dinner table. We understand the family has gone through a lot and is angry. There is a time and place for that discussion. Setting aside your grievances with them at family gatherings can help your loved one through the stressful time. On the flip side, we suggest that if the person is actively using drugs or alcohol, these suggestions may change. We suggest for your families’ sanity and concern for others that if the substance user is actively using drugs or alcohol or plans on drinking or using drugs at the family gathering, you do not allow them there.
Family First Intervention helps families and substance users all year. We do receive an overwhelming amount of inquiries between Thanksgiving and Christmas. We see a much higher level of stress from families wanting to know what they should do during the holidays with their loved one who is actively using. We are happy to help guide you through your questions and concerns. We suggest and remind most families that they have most of the control because they are the ones who determine for themselves what they can and can not do. Letting the substance user ruin your holiday plans is up to you and the other family members who can and will be affected. The greatest gift you can give yourself and the substance user is a second chance at life and a life of happiness by changing the situation and entering recovery for both family and substance user.