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Staying Strong, Sober and Sane on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving marks the official beginning of the ever-stressful holiday season. It’s a challenging time of year for everyone, and especially for people in recovery. Family events—both large and small—can be stressful, complicated, and triggering for people struggling with substance use disorder. Add a global pandemic to the mix, and the usual holiday stress expands tenfold.

For people who completed a treatment program and stay active in a 12-step community, they likely have the tools and skills to resist the temptation of a glass of wine with turkey, or skip the beer while watching the Detroit Lions lose yet another football game. However, everyone at all stages of recovery can use a few tips to help make it through a post-election gathering of family members with wildly different political beliefs.

Honesty and Openness

The best thing you can do is to be honest and open. If friends or family are not aware of your recovery journey, they’ll probably hand you a glass of wine. Use this as an opportunity to preempt any awkwardness, and make sure the family knows that you’ve decided to lead a more fulfilling life. You can send an email, or shoot over a note on Facebook, and make it known individually, rather than to tap your water glass for a speech as Uncle John carves the bird.

Each family is different, and you may not feel entirely comfortable letting everyone know this year. Although if your family is anything like mine, they’re as gossipy as the real housewives of wherever, and the cat has long been let out of the bag. If you want to maintain a little privacy this year, the best thing you can do is get comfortable saying no.

Honesty is a critical part of sobriety, but you needn’t be totally transparent. A simple, “No, thanks, I have to drive” or “No thanks, I have a headache.” The latter may initially seem dishonest, but after a couple of hours chatting with Aunt Kathy about her latest bunion operation, it doesn’t seem like quite a stretch.

Create a Game Plan

If you’re concerned that family dynamics could trigger a relapse, make some time with your therapist or fellow 12-steppers to create a plan. Together, they can help you devise a plan to deal with your situation, and arm you with effective coping mechanisms. If the turkey day festivities have previously been a reason to hit the bottle, you’ll need an actionable game plan to prepare yourself.

If this year’s holiday is held via Zoom, it might feel less stressful than usual. Having the ability to mute an annoying relative may seem appealing, but it’s still important to prepare for stressful conversations. Use your new tools, and confront any lingering resentments you may hold against relatives before connecting to Zoom, or ringing the doorbell. If you’ve completed the fourth step, it might be time to take another look at the work you’ve done to see if you’ve omitted anyone. As you probably know, the fourth step work is never truly done. It’s natural for everyone to develop resentments as time progresses, no matter how introspective and self-aware you may be.

Beware of Isolation

Virtual holidays also present another mental health challenge: isolation. The holidays are usually when we come together and visit the people in our lives we don’t see on a day-to-day basis. Sure, it can be annoying and stressful, but the need to connect with other human beings is a hardwired behavior. We, as a species, are social animals, and connection with others is essential. People suffering from substance use disorder can become experts at self-isolation, and that disconnect can be our worst nightmare. Studies linked social isolation with a litany of adverse health consequences, including depression, anxiety, poor sleep quality, accelerated cognitive decline, low cardiovascular function and impaired immunity for individuals of all ages. Isolation can also be triggering for people in recovery.

Isolation and loneliness have a devastating and direct effect on drug addiction and alcoholism. Studies show that individuals who feel more socially isolated generally have more mental health and substance abuse issues than the general population. If that weren’t challenging enough, the inverse is also true. Addiction can also be the cause of isolation. People seek relief from substances when they are lonely and isolated, and many are lonely because of the effects that drugs and alcohol have had on their relationships. When you are new to sobriety and recovery, a crucial barrier to break the cycle of unhealthy behaviors involves addiction recovery beating back isolating behaviors. Granted, this is easier said than done in the age of COVID, but there are things you can do to help you stay sane during the holiday.

In many places, there are limited in-person 12-step meetings. If you haven’t gone to one since March, consider grabbing your mask and heading to a socially distanced meeting. You might also consider having a few friends over for dinner. It’s important to observe local regulations and guidelines regarding the gathering of people, but having a few socially distanced friends over for food is usually permitted. Just remember to require masks, and check the temperatures of your guests as they arrive. While human connection is vital, it’s never okay to put the lives of others or yourself at risk.

If you’ve started your recovery journey, you’ve probably learned some useful tools to help you survive Thanksgiving with your sanity and sobriety intact. Just remember the skills you’ve learned, and make use of your therapist and network of sober peers. The acquired knowledge of your sober and supportive community is an invaluable resource, and you should actively seek out their guidance and experiential knowledge. As you’ve learned in the rooms – no matter our backgrounds, our stories are remarkably similar, and the pain and suffering we’ve felt and caused is our sometimes unspoken bond.

For those who have yet to enter a treatment program, it’s time to make a plan. Delaying recovery until January 1 can have dire consequences. Stress and substance abuse usually increase during the holiday season, and there is no time to lose. It may be helpful to use the love and support of your friends and family during the holiday season set forth on your journey to recovery. Trust me. Your health, wellness and sobriety will be the best gift you’ve ever given.


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