Holidays Can Be Hazardous for Alcoholics And Other Addicts

Last week I posted a couple of articles about sobriety during the holidays. We talked about ways to be safer at holiday parties, and mentioned some ways that people with recovering guests can make things easier for them by observing some simple guidelines. In this third article, I’d like to discuss some of the hazards of holidays in general.

Holidays, especially the Winter holidays, are times when our emotions are near the surface. For those of us in early recovery, it sometimes seems imperative to get to family gatherings and let everyone know how we’re doing, make up for some bad behavior in the past, see loved ones, and generally try to fit in again. There’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, and yet there are several major hazards That we need to keep in mind.

For one thing, our families are the ones who hard-wired all our buttons, and we did our share of wiring theirs. Close family members, in particular, can push our buttons and play us like a two-dollar whistle — often without even meaning to. Add to that the fact that some of them may not be as clean and sober as we are, and as the gathering progresses there can be some pretty upsetting behavior.

It’s not that people necessarily intend to be hard on us, it’s just that it may come automatically. For us, the entire world has changed, but for them it’s just another family gathering, perhaps amped up a bit because of the pressures of the season. While we’re looking at them through new eyes, all they’re seeing is the same old Dick or Jane, perhaps a bit less bleary than usual. The chances are good that they won’t see our current attempts at staying clean any differently from the efforts (and promises) that went before, and we may find them watching us like hawks, waiting for something to happen. If we let that get to us, something may.

Then we have our old partners in crime, those family members who drink and drug the way we did. They will almost certainly find it uncomfortable to have our sober selves around and, consciously or unconsciously, may put pressure on us to rejoin the flock (especially if we start preaching). I’ve heard reports of everything from “you can have just one, can’t you?” to slipping some vodka into a soft drink. It may even be that some of the non-drinkers are uncomfortable with the “new” us, and — again, perhaps, unconsciously — attempt to establish the same old dynamic. Well, we know our part in that, don’t we?

Then there are the resentments. There’s an old AA saying, equally applicable to other addicts, that goes, “Don’t expect a medal for finally doing what you should have been doing to begin with.” We know that we’ve worked hard and made major changes, but they have no idea what’s really been happening with us. To them, the feelings may be along the lines of, “Well, it’s darned well time!” (and they’re right, of course). If we have expectations of being feted and welcomed back into the fold with open arms, we may be disappointed at best, and traumatized at worst. We need to understand their point of view, and that for them, things aren’t “normal” yet at all.

There are good reasons why the Ninth Step is number nine, and not number one. Until we have some time and step work under our belts, we are not emotionally ready to handle the rejection that we may suffer at the hands of people who see our amends as just another stage in the old, oft-repeated cycle of promises, relapse, and promises broken. Even though we may try to make it clear that we have good intentions and regret our old behavior, there is no guarantee that everyone will believe us, not that they will be ready to forgive and forget. There’s no reason that they should, and we need to understand that, as well. Trust comes with time — a little bit at a time. Forgiveness, in the case of some, may not come at all. If we expect flowers and applause to follow our first performance, we’re likely to be sorely disappointed, and liable to wonder why we brothered getting sober to begin with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not telling you that I think you should avoid your family. I don’t know you, or them. But I do know a lot of addicts and codependents. I have listened to a lot of folks who have had wonderful experiences, and some who couldn’t handle it and relapsed. All I’m saying is please be careful. It could be best to skip the festivities and volunteer at a soup kitchen that day. Certainly it would be a good idea to have another recovering person with us, and be ready to leave if the water gets too hot. It’s important that we reestablish good relationships with our loved ones, but we’ll never be able to do that unless we can stay sober. That must come first. Everything that we put ahead of it, we are likely to lose.

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