Helping Those in Recovery Navigate the Holiday Season
The holiday season is a busy, complicated time for many families. Stress levels and expectations can be high. When your family is also navigating addiction during the holiday season, all of this is amplified. Whether you are a family member trying to prepare for a loved one who may show up at a gathering while intoxicated, or you’re in recovery and attending an event where other members of your family are dealing with addiction, or you are an individual in recovery looking for ways to get through the season without relapsing, the holiday season will require extra consideration, planning, and support.
At OneEighty, we recognize that our clients are particularly vulnerable because of the presence of alcohol at holiday parties and gatherings. Even if alcohol is not an individual’s substance of choice, it can lead them to making those choices that can take them back to using. We work with our clients to make plans that keep them safer from those vulnerabilities.
Internal Training for the Holidays
We will be hosting a training for our staff on November 30, 2022, about helping our clients through the holidays. This event will feature Dr. Nicole Labor, an addictionologist and Medical Director at OneEighty, Dr. Cheryl Thomas, Clinical Internal and Training Coordinator at OneEighty, and certified Recovery Coaches at OneEighty. Topics discussed will be addiction and the family during the holidays, craving symptoms and their interactions with the body and the brain, and preparing for risks. There will also be a roundtable Q&A giving participants the opportunity to ask questions.
In advance of the upcoming training event, Dr. Labor shared some of the most important considerations for those in recovery during the holidays.
The Importance of Setting Boundaries
One of the most pressing decisions for individuals in recovery is whether or not to attend a family gathering. There’s one word that is key here: boundaries.
“It comes down to boundaries all the way around,” says Dr. Labor. “Everyone needs to have good boundaries and uphold them.”
This is important not only for clients in recovery but also the family members and friends of someone working toward recovery from an alcohol or drug addiction. For example, you might tell a loved one that if they are under the influence when they arrive at the gathering, they will be asked to leave—if this occurs, you need to follow through with that boundary. Or, if you are in recovery, you may tell your family you will only attend if there is no alcohol present. If you arrive and find family members are drinking, you need to leave. Uphold the boundary you set for yourself.
Dr. Labor suggests three options for clients in recovery when it comes to family gatherings. The first—and sometimes best—option is to simply not go.
“This may sound harsh, but that’s always my recommendation,” says Dr. Labor. “If there’s something that happens with your family that triggers you or makes you feel badly about being there or puts you at risk of potentially relapsing, then just don’t go. You could undo all the good that you’ve done at this point.”
This is a common theme in recovery. For example, as you work toward recovery, you might quit a job if there are drugs in that environment. You may need to leave a relationship because your significant other is actively using.
“Going home is not just about seeing people drinking and being triggered by that,” says Dr. Labor. “It’s ‘why wouldn’t my family care enough about me and my life to just not drink if they’re not alcoholics?’ Usually, there’s a lot of underlying trauma and years of resentment that’s happening for people and it comes out during the holidays.”
If not going is not an option you’re willing to consider, the second option is to bring a sober friend with you. The last option is to have an escape plan: If you feel triggered, be ready to leave quickly and stick to your boundary. This may mean driving yourself or having a friend on standby that you can call for a ride.
Preparing for Cravings
“During the holidays, you are interacting with family—and whatever trauma possibly led you to becoming addicted in the first place,” says Dr. Labor. “Trauma is very triggering.”
Dr. Labor explains that glutamate, a chemical compound in the brain, remembers whenever you get a hit of dopamine—a different chemical in the brain that makes you feel good.
“Glutamate is layered through the brain with memories of your family: how many times you drank or used drugs around your family, related to your family, and with your family,” she continues. “Memories of your family are deeply entrenched in the brain and so are the glutamate memories of getting dopamine, and many of them are linked.”
This experience can activate cravings.
Cravings present as thoughts, actions, body sensations, and emotions. An individual recovering from addiction may think, I need it, I have to find it, I can’t do this without using first. They are experiencing physical symptoms like muscle tension, a rapid heart rate, and nausea, and emotions like anxiety and depression. They may begin visiting friends they have used with in the past or soliciting random people for drugs.
It is important for those in early recovery to understand how cravings can present—and how common they can be during the holidays—so that they can recognize them early on and seek support from a counselor, sober friend, sponsor, or recovery coach.
“The brain works the same all the time,” says Dr. Labor. “It’s not going to be any different because it’s a holiday.”
Finding Extra Support
“During the holidays, you need to take whatever support you currently have and amplify it,” says Dr. Labor. “This may mean increasing the number of twelve-step meetings you attend around the holidays, talking to your sober friends or sponsor more often, or increasing contact with recovery coaches.”
Recovery Coaches at OneEighty have been through recovery and understand the unique challenges presented during the holidays. They have developed their own system of dealing with the holidays and their families and can offer valuable advice and strategies to individuals in recovery. Individuals can call the Recovery Assistance Hotline (for Wayne and Holmes counties) at 330-464-1423 to contact a recovery coach for themselves or someone they know who is in recovery for substance use and addiction.
In addition to recovery coaches, OneEighty offers a variety of supports for people during the holidays. OneEighty clients can always make an extra appointment if they are struggling and need help. OneEighty staff will work together to assess the situation, determine next steps and provide the assistance needed.
To learn more about the addiction recovery resources available through OneEighty or to schedule an appointment, call us at 330-264-8498. If you need immediate assistance, call the 24-hour substance use crisis line at 330-466-0678.