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How to Stay Sober and Sane During the Holidays When You Have a Perfectly Imperfect Family


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Many of us look at Norman Rockwell’s famous paintings of happy families during the holidays — paintings like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — and imagine that our gatherings will have the same festive glow.

While we all aspire to have a harmonious table with all our loved ones, no one enjoys a perfect family holiday—not even Norman Rockwell himself.

In a 2013 book titled, “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell,” author Deborah Solomon reveals that the Rockwell family struggled as his wife, Mary, was treated for alcoholism and depression.

Now that we know even Norman Rockwell didn’t have a Norman Rockwell holiday, how do we make the holidays manageable for our own imperfect families; particularly when it comes to those new to recovery and how difficult it can be to stay sober this time of year?

Into Action offers a few tips for those in recovery to make staying sober and sane this holiday easier, even when life at home is far from perfect.

10 Tips to Stay Sober During the Holidays In Recovery

A trifecta of terror. That’s what a recovery friend called Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

If you’re in recovery, the holidays can pose serious challenges to your sobriety and sanity. For many, family interaction plays a big part in this holiday pressure.

How do we stay sober during a 30-40-day holiday period combining financial stress, family drama, and plenty of temptation to live in excess?

For starters, we get honest.

What’s your holiday truth?

Let’s start with Julie’s story. She’s allowed us to share her story, but we’ve changed her name to protect her anonymity. Her husband is in active recovery. She attends Al-Anon while her husband is in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Julie dreads holidays with her in-laws but feels like she has no choice in the matter. The idea of saying “no” terrifies her.

Each holiday is the same. The minute they walk in the door, her father-in-law asks if they want cocktails. On a good day, her husband asks for a juice. On a bad day, he asks for a gin and tonic.

Her in-laws don’t accept her husband’s drinking problem. In their eyes, he’s simply someone who is a little irresponsible. This is despite multiple treatment stays.

The denial in his family is deep. So deep, in fact, that when he does ask for juice, his parents give him lectures on how it’s unhealthy and full of sugar. If he asks for a cocktail, no one says a word.

Holiday dinners last around 4-5 hours. In that time, Julie’s brother-in-law, who always arrives under the influence of drugs, drinks too much and starts arguments.

Her mother-in-law makes hateful comments in Julie’s direction regarding everything from her parenting to her weight. Julie is often criticized for her husband’s mistakes within his family. She’s seen as the reason he drinks and gets in trouble.

Plus, her husband finds his family stressful. He, however, isn’t able to put words to the stress. He becomes irritable and snaps at Julie and the kids for no reason.

If he chooses to have that gin and tonic, his mood is worse after dinner. The drive home is usually miserable.

Does this scene sound familiar? Maybe the main characters are different. Maybe it’s your mother, father, or sister who is drinking instead. Maybe it’s you.

Luckily, Into Action has options for dealing with your family holiday without sacrificing your sobriety or sanity. Reach out to us anytime for resources and support.

1. Get honest

Take an honest look at upcoming holiday events and whether it’s healthy to attend. If you feel uncomfortable about a family dinner, that’s enough. It’s not disloyal to have these feelings. Recovery needs to be the main priority. Consider how these family dinners played out in the past.

Here are some clues the family get-together is risky for your recovery:

  • You are dreading the day.
  • You begin to feel irritable and snap at your spouse or kids.
  • You start to obsess. If you’re in Al-anon, you obsess about your family member’s drinking. If you are in AA or NA, you begin to obsess about your drug of choice.
  • When you think of the holiday, you feel anything but relaxed. The idea sends you into a panic or makes you weary. Maybe you sleep more than usual.
  • You find yourself pushing the day out of your mind. When it comes up, you look for something to take off the edge. Maybe you find yourself binging on Internet browsing or simply ignoring phone calls from family members.

2. Stay safe

If you’re living with active addiction, do not discount the extra stress the holidays bring. For the addicted person and their family, more stress means more vulnerability. After all, the holidays can kick off a perfect storm of family and money stress. Don’t discount the impact this storm can have. If you feel scared or unsafe in your own home, reach out for help.

Maybe you are worried about your own drug use, or maybe you’re worried about the drug use of someone else. Either way, most addiction recovery agencies, treatment centers, and domestic violence resources increase efforts during the holidays. You aren’t alone, and you don’t have to feel unsafe. Call a local treatment center like Into Action Recovery Centers or a local crisis line. Make this holiday the last unsafe holiday for you and your family.

3. Seek extra support when you experience extra stress

Alcoholics AnonymousNarcotics AnonymousAl-Anon, and other 12-step recovery groups put extra meetings into place either in person or over the phone during the holidays. Al-Anon, for instance, offers meetings every hour on the hour over the phone on major holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Call local intergroups for more information.

4. Create manageable holiday goals

Maybe this year the Christmas budget is slim because of the ravages of addiction. Instead of dwelling on the number of gifts under the tree, focus on the experiences you create. Research has proven that experiences are more valuable to children than objects. If you can’t afford to buy each child the latest tech gadget, think of a Christmas experience you can manage within your budget.

Taking a night to drive around looking at neighborhood Christmas lights is a small investment of gas and time. Throw in a stop at a local fast-food restaurant, and you have a super kid-friendly event without the pressure of spending tons of cash. Other examples of cheap holiday family experiences can include Cookie-making, gingerbread houses, Christmas movie night with popcorn and hot chocolate, paper wreath and paper chain making and more. Keep it low stress and low cost. Find the saddest-looking Christmas tree on the lot and make it look amazing. Take before and after photos. Call it “Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree.”

5. Get financial help if you need it

Living with addiction takes the strength of a superhero, regardless of if you are the addict or the loved one. Throw a couple of kids into the mix, plus a pet or two, and you have a recipe for a super meltdown. Luckily, community agencies can help in situations like this. It’s not your fault you are facing the challenge of addiction. If pride is a factor, imagine a time in the future when you will be the one helping another family in need. Call your local United Way or house of worship for information on help with holiday meals and gifts for children. Everyone needs help at one time or another. In the end, the humility you gain will only strengthen your recovery.

6. Be kind to yourself

There is no such thing as perfect recovery. Acknowledge your victories. Give yourself props every time you make an outreach call, head to a meeting, read recovery literature, say a slogan and rest.

7. Stay connected to other recovery folks

Don’t expect your family to instantly offer you the support you need. When the holidays get busy, it’s tempting to skip meetings, counseling appointments, and outreach calls. Stay connected to recovery, even if it’s less than normal.

Look to the people you trust who will stand by your recovery program. If you know the holiday is going to be difficult, attend a meeting the night before. Schedule a call with your sponsor on the morning of the holiday. Take a breather from the party and make an outreach call during the event. Schedule coffee with a recovery friend or make a counseling appointment the day after the holiday.

Many local recovery clubs have meeting marathons during the holidays. Meetings are scheduled every hour on the hour. Use phone meetings if attending face-to-face isn’t a possibility. Put in an earbud and listen to a meeting. Tell family you’re listening to a game or podcast. Visit Al-Anon’s holiday link for details on the Al-Anon phone bridge.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Maybe it’s easier to go to the holiday dinner, rather than make waves by turning down the invite. In this case, put things into place to make the situation as easy as possible. How can you ease the stress on yourself? If you go, can you set a time limit? Can you invite a recovery friend or two? One newly recovering alcoholic wrote AA slogans on index cards and kept them in her purse. When she needed a break, she locked the bathroom door and took five minutes to get quiet and read a slogan. Plan some self-care for after the event. Make a new holiday tradition by scheduling a massage for the day after.

9. Have an exit strategy

Is two hours your limit? Does three hours with your mother leave you craving a drink? Get quiet, ask your Higher Power for some guidance on the perfect time limit. Once you have it, lean into it. No one needs to know the real reason you’re leaving early. Saying you’re feeling unwell isn’t an untruth. It’s okay to put your recovery first, stay a little vague and take care of yourself.

10. Take responsibility

Take responsibility for your own holiday. So many of us have spent years pleasing others, only to drive ourselves deeper into addiction. Make this holiday different. Put you first. It may surprise you how fun the holidays can be once you remove some of the stressors.

Recovery from addiction isn’t easy. When you find yourself looking to Norman Rockwell’s image of the American family holiday, remember that even Rockwell didn’t match the scene. Instead, take an honest look at what you value most for your family’s season. If it’s time together, then make that the priority. If it’s relaxation and baking, make this the focus. Maybe this is the year for some new holiday traditions.

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