When I experienced my first winter holiday season, I was barely six months sober. After going to residential treatment over the summer, I actually felt confident about my recovery. As soon as I got out of treatment I felt some anxiety—would I be able to stay sober or be tempted to relapse? But, because of the tools I learned in treatment, combined with going to 12-Step meetings for alcohol abuse, I felt like I had a good foundation for staying sober. And then, the fall and winter seasons came.
As the weather started to turn cold during my first year of recovery, my warm and fuzzy notions about my newfound sobriety began to feel as chilly as the temperatures outside. Plain and simply—I was not “feeling it.” Going into treatment, my life was in complete shambles. Even though I was young (25), and didn’t have a family of my own—I had done plenty of enough damage to my family of origin, lost my job, and incurred an insane amount of debt. I had no friends to speak of. And, although my Mom, Dad, brother, and sister supported my recovery (as much as they could living a few states away), they simply didn’t understand substance abuse disorders (SUDs).
In treatment, I learned that my substance abuse disorder is an allergy and disease of the mind and body. I was told to compare my addiction to someone who has a food allergy. If someone is allergic to shellfish, they can’t simply “will themselves not to be allergic to lobster or oysters anymore.” Nor can they will away the outcome of what happens should they eat crab cakes (like a full-body rash and swollen tongue).
This comparison made sense to me, but it seemed like no matter how much I tried to explain my substance abuse to my family, they simply couldn’t understand. They kept saying things like, “But, if you could just moderate your drinking, couldn’t you drink successfully?” And, “Your brother and sister can hold their alcohol just fine.”
I had only gone home to visit my family once since I had been sober, during Thanksgiving, and the experience was awful. I actually ended up cutting my trip short. Not only did my family have the fridge and cupboards stocked with alcohol, but they also seemed to be drinking nonstop. Although I was able to stay sober, I was irritated and resentful that my family continued to drink around me, while also having the expectation that I not only stay sober—but also suspecting that I may drink at any moment.
Because I have a sponsor as part of my 12-Step recovery, she helped me explain to my family that it wasn’t healthy for me to remain in that environment. And, while I could have stayed at a friend’s house or a hotel, I decided it was best to return home. While my family initially wasn’t happy or understanding about my decision to leave, they seemed to have gotten over it in time. My sponsor helped me to come to the realization that I did not have to be responsible for the feelings of my family, since ultimately, I was protecting my sobriety.
Shortly after Thanksgiving, even in light of my early departure during the Thanksgiving holiday, my mom said she was already looking at flights for me to come home on Christmas. The idea of returning to my family home filled me with fear. I had never not come home to be with my family during the winter holidays. But, I had also never attended a family function that didn’t have alcohol (and at least one or two family members—myself included—who didn’t get completely drunk).
Although I was able to remain sober the family drama and chaos was only one aspect of what made Thanksgiving tough. There were also painful memories that came to the surface surrounding past holidays. And, Christmas would likely be no different. In fact, the last Christmas I drank so much on Christmas Eve that I blacked out, crashed my parents’ car, got a DUI, and missed Christmas Day with my nieces and nephews who I promised I’d spend time with. Because of this, I was shocked by my family’s desire to 1. Have me come home for the holidays and 2. Not understand how my drinking was something I couldn’t control!
Add to this fact, that I had just started a new job working in the hospitality industry and although I could technically take a few days off, it would look better if I stuck around, my fears of being with my family turned to dread. Then there were also my 12-Step meetings. I had come to look forward to them and was attending at least one meeting a day since becoming sober. And, even though my sponsor had helped me find a list of meetings in my hometown, I had been too nervous to attend them during my Thanksgiving stay (something which I later regretted, thinking it likely would have helped me).
When it got to the point that I just couldn’t put the trip off any longer, my sponsor and I arranged to sit down together. We made a list of pros and cons of being with my family (or not), that looked like this:
|Pros of Being With Family During the Holidays||Cons of Being With Family During the Holidays|
|I’ll get to spend my first sober time with my nieces and nephews||I’m worried I could relapse from all the alcohol around|
|I’ll make my family happy by fulfilling their wishes to have me home for the holidays||I’m scared I’ll be miserable the entire time|
|I’ll have a chance to show my family that sobriety is helping me be a better person||I don’t want to be judged by my family|
|I don’t want to have to explain why I don’t drink anymore|
|I’m fearful I may be tempted to party with my friends who come home for Christmas|
|I’m concerned I’ll end up having to cut my trip short again|
Making the list helped confirm that not only were there more reasons to not spend the holidays with my family but that in doing so, I could put my recovery at risk.
Before calling my mom, I did a quick meditation to make sure I was calm and in a good place. To my surprise, while clearly sad about my missing Christmas, she said that she and my Dad totally understood. And, in fact, they were planning on reaching out to let me know there was no pressure to come home.
So, rather than sweating out my first Christmas in my hometown, I took responsibility for my recovery and stayed put. And, I even attended a couple of sober functions—one with friends from my 12-Step recovery group and the other a work party. Even though there was alcohol at my work event, I attended a 12-Step meeting before I went, drove my own car (in case I wanted to leave early), and tucked sparkling water in my bag to make sure I didn’t accidentally grab the wrong drink. I ended up being thankful for taking my own car because a few of my coworkers ended up getting pretty inebriated (I actually drove one home)!
I was still able to see my family on Christmas day through video chat. I had enough time to send a few small gifts ahead of time (since I was still working on being financially responsible back then), and my nieces and nephews opened the toys I got them while on our call.
New Year’s Eve rolled around quickly, which I was initially a little fearful of—after all, it’s one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year (although every day was that way for me before I got sober). But, the 12-Step meeting “homegroup” I belonged to had an all-night meeting rotation and dance. I decided to volunteer to lead one of the meetings close to midnight to keep myself accountable. My worries quickly disappeared, especially since I already had one successful sober winter holiday under my belt.
Because I took the time to make the right and responsible decision for my recovery during Christmas, I was more confident going into New Year’s Eve, and it showed. The only thing I regret from that first New Year’s Eve was the Karaoke singing I participated in (although I’m sure those listening to it regretted it more)!
Although not everything turned out perfect that first winter season—my brother made me aware of how selfish he thought I was for not coming home to be with my parents for Christmas—I was able to navigate the challenges without taking a drink or picking up a drug. I was even able to help others, which made me feel good. The more I could be of love and service to others, the less I thought about myself and “my problems.”
It’s been many years since that first sober winter holiday season. The following year, my pros and cons list looked much different, and I ended up going home during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some of my family members got drunk, but again, I stayed sober. By then, I had a year-plus of sobriety and many more recovery tools to use (I even hit some meetings in my hometown).
Now, I have a family of my own. Sometimes we all visit my hometown during Christmas, and other times my extended family comes to see us. I no longer experience dread around the holidays, but it took me several years to feel fully comfortable.
If you are in your first few days, weeks, months, or even years of sobriety, hang in there! It gets better each year. And, if you are still active in substance abuse, you are not alone. Reaching out for help saved my life, and it can save yours too if you’re ready!
If you or a loved one needs support for substance abuse, Futures is here to help. We offer multiple pathways of addiction treatment and wellness programming. This includes inpatient detoxification and residential treatment, and outpatient services by qualified, experienced professionals in substance abuse and mental health disorders.
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