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Holidays with Your Family in Recovery: From Surviving to Cherishing

Jo Colette holiday picture blog

Written by Jo Colette, recovered addict, tattoo artist, and mom. The holidays with your family–whether in-person or virtual–can be stressful and demanding, but Jo shares how she survived her first Christmas in recovery back with her family, as well as her tips and tricks that you can use to thrive over the holidays.

This article was originally published December 17, 2019. Updated December 23, 2020.

My first Christmas in recovery, I’d been abstinent for seven months. I’d spent the last four years in a different province, thousands of kilometres away, lost in addiction. I had completely isolated myself from all of my family, apart from some scattered emails and late night calls to my mom. Even though they tried to check up on me from time to time, I felt alone and isolated in my struggle. The holidays were no different. My only reason for looking forward to the holidays when I was living with addiction was because strangers were more generous when I was panhandling for money, and soup kitchens served holiday meals that were slightly better than their usual.

My First Christmas Back with My Family Was Really Tough

By the time I finally committed to changing my lifestyle–to starting a healthy life in recovery–and made my way back to my hometown after all those years, I was an emotional and physical wreck. I spoke very little of my years of excessive drug and alcohol use. I tried to manage my early recovery on my own. By the time Christmas came around, I had gotten used to saying the words, “no thanks, I don’t drink”. But I couldn’t yet stomach talking about how I had been living a life of addiction and self-betrayal, of which I was completely and utterly ashamed.

We had a small Christmas that year, with my mom and my two siblings gathered together at her house for a casual dinner. Being back in the country home where I spent time as a child, seeing family photos, and smelling my mom’s wood fireplace burning might sound nostalgic and beautiful. But to me it was excruciating.

Everywhere I looked I was surrounded by memories that brought back floods of emotions. A school photo from the year that I dropped out of high school; paintings and drawings that I’d made as a young kid, which my mom had kept; journal entries; my childhood bedroom… all typical things that one might find on a visit back home for the holidays. But for me, these seemingly mundane items were intense reminders of painful moments from my past. They brought up feelings of shame for the way that I’d handled myself in addiction and remorse for what I’d put my loved ones through.

I ate the food my mom had made, participated in small talk, and put in my time with the visit—but when the time came for me to leave, I couldn’t have been more relieved to make my exit.

Making Plans and Taking Care of My Needs Helped Me Avoid Relapse

The holidays can be a tumultuous time in anybody’s life, but for those in recovery it can be especially trying. It is a time of year where everything is done in excess. Money is spent loosely. People overindulge in food. Alcohol usually plays a large part in the celebrations. Stress levels run high. The structure of most people’s everyday life is disrupted for what is supposed to be a celebratory occasion.

In order to make it happily through the holidays in recovery, I realized that I would have to take some steps to prepare myself to be able to not only enjoy myself, but also to be present, and spend real quality time with my loved ones. Handling my mental health and staying in a recovery-focused and grateful mindset became a much more difficult task when I was not paying attention to my basic needs, and allowing stress and anxiety to creep its way into my life.

Knowing that I would be in potentially triggering situations, I made a point not to ignore the simple things. I tried to eat well, sleep well, and not become preoccupied about finding the right gifts or getting swept up in the materialistic pressure of the holidays. I set very clear boundaries for myself. I practiced saying “no”, not only to substances, but also to situations or gatherings I knew wouldn’t be healthy for me. I made active choices to spend time with the people with whom I felt safe. Instead of attending parties or going out with acquaintances or friends who would be less sensitive to my needs, I picked safe environments where I knew I wouldn’t feel pressure to drink or do drugs.

Opening up to My Family Allowed Me to Become More Comfortable

Family dynamics can be tricky to navigate for anyone, but especially for people in recovery. Having family together for the holidays can sometimes mean having old wounds get opened up, or feelings of resentment or unresolved trauma to coming up. For myself, the root cause of my addiction came from an emotional need that was unmet in my childhood. Although my family was loving and well intentioned, the effects of my parents’ traumas and mental health issues trickled down to affect me and my siblings, each in different ways. Since my relationships with my parents and siblings had fluctuated and changed so much over the years, and was at times, completely non-existent, it was a foreign and uncomfortable feeling for me to reintegrate myself into my family holidays. But I was driven by a desire to start cultivating a new healthy relationship with my family.

I found it helpful to talk more about my recovery around people I could trust. Eventually I found myself feeling less pressure or temptation when I was offered a drink, and was actually happy and eager to explain why I was turning it down. Being around intoxicated friends no longer wore on me the way it had before. When I talked openly about my recovery, I was able to better manage the intense emotions that came along with integrating myself into my new life, and better equipped to answer questions that came my way.

If your family dynamic does not support your recovery, and if going home for the holidays will put you in a situation that endangers your recovery—then it is okay to decline an invite! You can propose alternatives to attending large family functions, such as meeting for a meal or coffee to spend some quality time. You can also bring along a close friend, or someone from your recovery circle, to keep you accountable and grounded at family gatherings. Don’t deny your own feelings out of a sense of obligation towards your family. Be true to yourself and comfortable with your own personal recovery process!

[Editor’s note: if you are doing your part by staying socially distant from family and friends outside of your household, you can still apply Jo’s advice in the strange and uncomfortable year that is 2020. Feel empowered to decline invitations for Zoom calls that endanger your recovery. Or find quality one-on-one time through technology or six-feet-apart walks with those whose support mean the most to you. Even when you’re socially distant, you’re not alone! You have the power and ability to safely connect with whomever you can share the most light and love with this holiday season.]

Now, shortly before spending my eighth Christmas in recovery, I eagerly look forward to spending time with my loved ones. Talking, connecting, and spending time with them, and being in the present moment. My son is almost seven, and sharing that time with him, my partner, and my family—healthy and happy—is a true blessing! I can watch my son open presents and share his innocent excitement around the magic of the holidays. I can appreciate the work my mom puts into cooking a meal for us. I am grateful that my spot at the table is not empty, that my mother will have her Christmas with me there, instead of wondering if I am hurt, in trouble, or even alive. It’s an exciting feeling to know that the holidays are coming up and that I will be spending them healthy, present, and happy to be there.

Seven Tips for Getting Through the Holidays in Recovery

If you or a family member is in recovery this holiday season, here are some tips to help cope with this potentially stressful time of year.

1. Manage your expectations

The holidays will be different sober. Finding new ways to enjoy them without alcohol or drugs will not be an instant process.

2. Validate your feelings

When triggers arise, like answering questions from family members about your abstinence, maybe being back at your family home, seeing people drinking in excess, or feeling alone or isolated, try not to minimize the way you feel. It’s normal for you to feel some heavy emotions, particularly at this time of year.

3. Have an exit plan

Whether it’s simply knowing when it’s time to go, or planning [a pre-set time or reason for when you need to log off from a Zoom call], don’t feel guilty for leaving when you have to. Your recovery is more important than staying in a situation where you’re not comfortable.

4. Be open with your family about your recovery

They may not know how to properly support you if you don’t tell them.

5. Don’t overextend yourself

Know your limits financially, emotionally, and don’t over-schedule your days. Putting unnecessary stress on yourself can increase your risk of relapse.

6. Reach out

If you’re struggling around the holiday season, reach out, attend a meeting, talk about it. Your needs do not come last! [Editor’s note: you can find online meetings, even if your local meetings have paused temporarily due to lockdown. Even if it feels unusual, there are still many people available to help you through during difficult times!] 

7. Help others

This one is huge for me. There are many opportunities to volunteer or help out in your community during the holidays. Helping people in need, or who have less than I have, helps me appreciate how fortunate I am to be in recovery and be grateful for my progress. [Editor’s note: many organisations are approaching the holidays differently this year as local safety by-laws differ from place to place. Where safe to do so, you may be able to find local initiatives to lend a helping hand. You can also find virtual volunteer opportunities!] 

If you have any questions about this article or anything else related to living in recovery, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me on Instagram: @jocoletteart


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