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Recovery and the Holidays: Tips for Celebrating Sober

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The Hallmark version of the holidays – a loving family gathered for a Thanksgiving feast, caroling around a Christmas tree, or the solemn lighting of a menorah candle – doesn’t reflect the experience of many families.

It’s common for people to start having complicated feelings as the end of the year approaches. Family ties and finances can feel strained, loneliness can surface, and a runaway train of unrealistic expectations can go off the rails. For someone who’s in recovery from a substance use disorder, the holidays can be especially challenging.

“Culturally, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration,” says Bronwyn McInturff, director of the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program. “But for the person new to recovery, it can be a time of intense grief.”

Feelings of loss can show up in a number of different ways, but they often start with recognizing that this is the first holiday season without using the addictive substance. In addition to the psychological distress, those in their first year of recovery also may suffer from physiological symptoms.

“Substance use disorders impact people physically,” McInturff says. “The body hasn’t adjusted to enjoying things naturally.” As a result, she says, the first holiday season is often marked by low-key depression, along with feelings of guilt for not feeling perky even though their life has improved. “The body hasn’t resumed its normal production of dopamine, the chemical that allows us to feel pleasure.”

Alcohol dependence is the most common issue treated by UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery, McInturff says. According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General, a full year must pass before a person is considered to be in remission, and it can take 4-5 years before the risk of relapse is the same as what the average person faces.

Five Tips for Staying Sober

Despite the challenges, it is possible to survive – and thrive – during the holiday season. McInturff offers five tips to help those in recovery navigate the expectations that surround holiday parties and family gatherings:

  1. Plan ahead. “Whether you’re new to recovery or have been in recovery for years, creating a plan before attending holiday get-togethers can help you avoid awkwardness and triggers,” she says.
  2. Have an escape route. “Understand your transportation options and know where you’re staying, so that the 10th time someone offers you a drink and asks why you’re refusing, you can exit gracefully.”
  3. Find a supportive crew. “It’s important to have people who know your story, and to know that you can talk to them if things get tough.”
  4. Set realistic expectations. “There’s nothing weird or wrong if you’re not feeling joyous or jazzed about the holidays.”
  5. Schedule activities around sobriety. “Attend support meetings or share meals with those in your recovery community.”

UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery provides an extra measure of support to help those in recovery navigate the holidays. UAB’s “Attitude of Gratitude” dinner features speakers, community, and a sense of camaraderie. “We also provide clinical services throughout the holiday season,” McInturff adds.

This summer, UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery added four peer support specialists to its staff. “These are people with lived experience in recovery who are available to have non-clinical conversations any time of day,” McInturff says. “They can say, ‘That sucks’ or ‘I’ve been right there.’”

Family Complications

Substance use disorders can have both genetic and environmental origins, so seeing family members during the holidays can be especially difficult for some people in recovery. “We may ultimately help a person make the hard decision to not spend the holidays with family,” McInturff says. “Sometimes it’s because family members have their own substance use issues, and other times it’s due to unhealthy emotional patterns.”

Unpleasant memories of previous holiday seasons and a lack of trust can make families hesitant to open their arms to the person recovering from a substance use disorder. McInturff urges families to acknowledge the “elephant in the room” rather than avoiding the subject altogether.

“Ask the person in recovery how they’re doing and if they need anything,” she advises. “Respect their boundaries regarding how much or how little they want to talk about it.” Family members also can be supportive by hosting substance-free celebrations or making sure to offer non-alcoholic beverages.

Most people’s holiday seasons don’t look like a Norman Rockwell painting, and it’s normal for those in recovery to feel a sense of loss or separation. “Recognizing that the holidays are difficult, creating a plan to take care of yourself, and tapping into the recovery community are the best ways to navigate this difficult time of year,” McInturff says.

Click here to learn more about the UAB Medicine Addiction Recovery Program.