Futures Recovery

The Ghosts of Christmas Past: Mindfulness and the Holidays

Written by Futures Community & Outreach Liaison Laura Kunz 

“The clock is running. Make the most of today. Time waits for no man. Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
–Alice Morse Earle–

The sound of holiday tunes as you stroll through the mall, the twinkling lights as you drive through the neighborhood, the fresh smell of pine as you decorate this year’s Christmas tree. Perhaps these small joys were overlooked in life before sobriety or, as I jokingly say, in my past life. However, the world seen through clear and sober eyes looks very different and the holidays can look different too.

I remember my first Christmas without alcohol. I was only a few weeks sober and still a deer in headlights staring at my new life. “How can I not drink at Christmas?” I thought. Some of my best belligerent holiday blackouts were on Christmas Eve’s and Christmas Day Eve’s. Then, a week before I was supposed to fly home to Ohio, a college friend called from New York telling me one of our best friend’s mother passed away. The funeral was the week of Christmas. In recovery, opportunities to be of service and support others are essential. So much of a life consumed by addiction is self-centered. I changed my flight from Cincinnati to NYC, gently broke the news to my family in Ohio and I showed up physically and emotionally for my dear friend who had always shown up for me.

The next few holiday seasons didn’t grant me as much immunity from myself and from my past. It was difficult navigating through family dynamics, many of which were not changing as I changed. Running into old, high school friends in my hometown, finding recovery fellowship meetings and time to get to them, and experiencing a new romantic relationship with my now-husband and getting to know his family; All of this felt very overwhelming to me. Although I was sober and thoughts about alcohol were scarce and fleeting, I was still not fully present. I was allowing past memories and fear-based thought patterns and behaviors to control me. I was still missing the magic and joy of the holidays because my mind was either in the past or in the future. One of my former colleagues at Futures Recovery Healthcare used to refer thinking about the past or worrying about the future as “time traveling.” This is such a great description. It implies that I have a clear choice of where my mind is going to be. I have a clear choice of where I am going to be.

Five years ago, after I gave birth to my daughter, I really began embracing mindfulness, meditation and living in the “now.” As I searched to create moments of connection for my daughter, I began to connect more often too. Also, as a mom, my time for daily self-care and recovery maintenance became limited. Meditation was a perfect way to spend 10-20 minutes on myself each day. I remember the shift my mindfulness practice created was very evident during the holidays last year. Instead of fearing old family dynamics, hometown triggers, and the ghosts of my Christmas past’s, I began noticing and appreciating the small things. The smell of a holiday candle, the shot of cold air on my face on a Midwest December day, the sound of a cracking fire in the fireplace: I was aware of my surroundings and it gave me joy. I also had a heightened appreciation for family. I genuinely wanted to be there, sharing experiences, making memories and learning about each other in a deeper way.

If you are new to recovery, in long-term recovery or just open to giving the holidays a sober go, I have the following suggestions to help you stay present.

1. Look for the little things. Make a conscious decision to momentarily observe your surroundings. Even just a moment of awareness and connection can create a memory that you’ll cherish forever.

2. Try not to judge others or yourself. As you observe your surroundings and look for the little things, try to steer clear of making negative judgments. “She’s being rude to the waitress.” “He is drinking too much” or “I am underdressed.” “I am not interesting enough to talk to.” The most powerful mindfulness moments are those where are present and positive.

3. Just breathe. If family, friends or holiday traffic starts to irritate you, pause and take a deep, slow breath. Take another breath. Take a third breath. Let the moment pass.

4. Exercise or move your body. In recovery, there is a saying “move a muscle, change a thought.” If you’re stuck in the past or the future, obsessing over a person, place or thing or just bored, get moving. Stretch, your muscles, walk, run, lift weights; Choose a movement or exercise that you will enjoy.

5. Support others. Loving and supporting others feels good and who doesn’t like to feel good! Whether its twenty minutes listening to your elderly grandmother tell stories or helping your sister manage her four rowdy kids, look for ways to show love to the people you love.

6. HALT. If you’re in recovery, you are probably familiar with this acronym. If you’re not in recovery, this is helpful for you too- Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. All four emotional or physical conditions can make a person very vulnerable and uncomfortable if not taken care of. Keep an eye on these four triggers as they make it difficult to stay positively connected to the present moment.

7. Hug. Hug people like you mean it! For many, the holidays are a time to see friends and family we may only see once each year. Furthermore, make the hugs count.

8. Laugh! Research has shown that laughter may reduce stress hormones and boost immune function. If nothing around you seems funny, remember this: Do not take life or yourself too seriously. If you look it loosely, you will feel it loosely and then the laughter will inevitably come.

9. Meditate. Take the breathing a step further and meditate. If you’re not in the mood to wrestle your squirrely mind, download an iPhone app to guide you through a meditation. I suggest the app Calm or Headspace. Even a 5-10 minute meditation will work wonders on your mood.

10. Stay sober. There is no easier way to remove yourself, and the joy, from the present moment than to take a drink or a drug. Whether you’re in recovery from a substance use disorder, wanting to abstain from alcohol, or work on your mindfulness practice, remember that a drink or a drug is a conscious choice to not be fully present. The holidays are packed with endless gifts of the moment. Don’t miss out!