How to Handle Holiday Family Time During Recovery

Many people in recovery trace the origin of their alcohol or substance use disorder back to events that occurred early in life. Family dynamics are at the core of the issues they work through when they enter treatment. Anyone who has attended an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting, or a group processing session during rehab knows working through childhood issues is a common element of the work of treatment and recovery.

The stories shared in these meetings and group sessions unite people in recovery.

Although the details are rarely identical, the emotions and patterns of behavior people from a wide variety of backgrounds develop in response to early challenge and adversity are remarkably similar. Childhood trauma can lead to disruptive, confusing, and painful emotions in adolescence and early adulthood. When these emotions become overwhelming, people often seek relief with alcohol and drugs, which is known as self-medication. This may work temporarily, but when alcohol or substance use becomes a primary coping mechanism, this approach backfires. Temporary use becomes chronic, disordered use, a.k.a. addiction – and addiction adds another layer of adversity to work through.

That’s why the holiday season can be incredibly challenging for people in recovery. In a typical year – meaning a year when we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic – holiday time means lots of family time. Most of us travel across the country to see relatives or host holiday get-togethers at home. But for people whose problems with alcohol and drugs stem from family issues, a joke, a look, or an innocuous gesture from a certain family member can release a flood of thought and emotion that’s hard to control and may lead to relapse.

Family Triggers

If you’re in recovery, you know exactly what we just described: a trigger. You also know triggers can lead to relapse. And you know at least one more thing: during family holiday time, it seems like triggers are everywhere.

Why?

Because the holidays are connected to family, and family members know how to push our buttons better than anyone else on earth.

Correction: we let family members push our buttons, whether we like it or not. It makes sense because if anyone knows where our buttons are, our family members do. After all, they were around when those buttons formed – and they may have helped put them in place.

However, now that you’re in recovery, you know it’s your responsibility to manage your reaction to what your family members say and do. That’s part of your growth in recovery. You replace non-productive reactions to triggers – i.e. using alcohol or drugs – with productive reactions to triggers – i.e. the set of sober friendly coping skills you develop in collaboration with counselors, therapists, and recovery peers.

But hold on a moment. At this point, you may be thinking something like this:

If the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises us to avoid holiday travel this year and restrict our Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings to our pre-established quaranteam, then I won’t have to deal with all these family triggers.

Right?

No – not really.

You Take Them With You

First of all, if you plan to have a Zoom Thanksgiving meal with your family, they’ll be right there in front of you on your phone or computer – and you need to be ready for how they behave. Second, it’s important to remember your family memories – holiday and otherwise – live inside of you. That means that during the holidays, your memories can act as triggers, whether you’re around your family or not. Third, the fact that memories can act as triggers means that during the holidays, anything holiday related can evoke a family memory, which can act as a trigger, which can lead to relapse.

We hope that makes sense. It needs to. It explains why the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays – like roast turkey, for instance – can evoke a broad spectrum of emotion. One simple thing can take you on a ride from joy to sadness to anger and back again, all in an instant. This can happen whether you’re alone, with friends, or with the family members that are part of the memory.

So how can you deal with all of that?

Here are our top five tips:

1. Be Realistic.

Now that you’ve read this entire post up to this point, you understand that even though you may not eat Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in-person with your family this year because of COVID, the holidays are still rife with triggers. Being realistic means knowing ahead of time that the holidays will be tough, and if you’re completely honest with yourself, your chance at relapse increase during this time of year. If you have your coping skills ready to deploy at a moment’s notice, you’ll decrease your chance of relapse.

2. Plan Ahead.

This is related to being realistic. You approach the holidays with appropriate caution, because you know there’s a real risk of relapse. You look ahead at the holiday week – whether it’s Thanksgiving week or Christmas week – and anticipate the days and times you might experience a trigger. For instance, if you plan to attend a holiday Zoom dinner you know your brother-in-law will attend – the one who thinks addiction is a moral failing and treatment is a sham – then be ready for that. Get your exercise in beforehand, make sure you get enough sleep the night before, have your phone ready to text your sponsor – whatever you need to handle a challenging relative, get it ready ahead of time. That way, you won’t get ambushed by waves of emotion between courses – and you’ll be able to make it through the whole dinner with your sobriety intact.

3. Go to Meetings.

Follow all local public health guidelines, of course – but if there are in-person AA or NA meetings in your area, then plan to attend one on Thanksgiving or Christmas morning and another on Thanksgiving or Christmas evening. If public health guidelines restrict you from attending in-person meetings, then attend virtual meetings. Your recovery peers will likely all be brainstorming ideas on how to handle holiday triggers, too. You can learn from them, and they can learn from you. As a recovery community, you can support one another through the challenges of the holidays.

4. Create New Traditions.

There’s an elephant in the room we haven’t pointed out: for some people in recovery, family contact is not helpful. At all. In some cases, it can be detrimental, and undermine the recovery process. If that’s you, then you’ve probably confirmed this with your counselor, therapist, or recovery peers, and you know you need to avoid your family during Thanksgiving – and that’s okay.

It may be better than okay.

It may be best for everyone.

Therefore, in lieu of family celebrations, we recommend that you enlist your recovery peers – including your sponsor, if you have one – and create sober holiday traditions that are all your own. Host a sober Zoom Thanksgiving, plan sober Christmas outings (COVID-safe, of course), and get a head start on planning a recovery-friendly way to celebrate the New Year. Trust us when we say you’ll find other people in the same boat, and they’ll be overjoyed to join you in creating treatment- and recovery-friendly holiday events.

5. Focus on Gratitude.

Once you go through your practical checklist – previewing the holiday schedule, making sure you get to meetings, and preparing yourself for your relatives – you can shift your focus to one of the things the holidays are all about: gratitude. If you’re sober and in recovery, you can be grateful for your recovery, first and foremost. You can also be grateful for your family – including the ones that push your buttons – and recognize that although they may be imperfect, they’re your family. This is true for your chosen family, too, if you don’t communicate with your biological family. You can be grateful for the warm, supportive, compassionate group of recovery peers in your life – and be sure to let them know how you feel about them.

These five tips will help you maintain your sobriety and keep your recovery on track during the holidays. One thing we should also mention is that if you have a good recovery routine going that you know works for you, you should maintain that routine through the holidays. The winter holidays are a time to double-down on your regular exercise, healthy eating, and top-line recovery activities. Resist the temptation to change your routine too much. If you stick with what keeps you safe and sober and on your program, then you increase your chances of staying safe, sober, and on your program. We know that sentence may seem obvious, but nevertheless, there it is: you dance with who brought you – especially when you know you’re about to enter a month filled with potential triggers.

A Time for Reflection, A Time for Looking Forward

We don’t want you to fear the holidays. We want you to approach them with clear eyes, so that you’re not surprised by the things that come up inside over the next six weeks. Once you do your prep work – meaning you use the tips we list above, or some version of them – we want you to embrace the holidays with open arms.

The holidays are tricky, but they’re also a blessing.

You can view all these family memories, interactions, and experiences as opportunities to apply your coping skills. You get to test them out and see if they’re as effective as you think they are. If they need some work, that’s good for you to know. When you look at the holidays that way, you can use them as a benchmark to gauge your progress. Maybe last year a relative got under your skin, and maybe this year that same didn’t bother you at all.

That’s progress.

What this approach also means is that, rather than seeing the holidays as a threat to your recovery, you can use them to strengthen your recovery. The holidays can confirm your resilience, reaffirm the wisdom of your choice to seek treatment and support, and remind you that you’re one hundred percent capable of living a full and vibrant life in recovery.