Let’s start with the expectations we harbor.
First – Society’s Expectations. We’re expected to be joyfully anticipating the holidays and all the traditions – getting together with loved ones, giving and receiving gifts, etc. So, the pressure’s on to have a good time celebrating with family. However, when a family member is caught up in an addiction, holiday time can seem more a reminder of strained, increasingly distant relationships than a time of joyous celebration. Arrival of the holiday season does nothing to ease the pain of addiction. Nor does holiday time lessen the tension and emotional pain of unresolved family strife. The problems present throughout the year have not resolved with the changing calendar. In fact, problems sometimes feel worsened when facing a major holiday.
Second – Family Expectations. What about the expectations family members put on the addicted person? Family members often expect the addict/alcoholic to happily be present at their holiday table. But facing one’s sometimes judgmental family members is not easy. Family members, even those who truly have the best intentions, are often unsympathetic of the addict/alcoholic’s struggles to soberly cope with emotional pain. Breaking the pattern of using alcohol and/or drugs to ease one’s emotions is a truly monumental task. Such a challenge cannot be easily comprehended without having had personal experience doing so.
Third – Our Personal Expectations. We all have hope that our lives will continue to progress and improve, even the alcoholic/addict. We try to look forward to the holidays. We try to regain that feeling of holiday innocence and joy we remember from long ago holiday celebrations. Though those were likely less than perfect times, our memories often work to leave out the painful moments and fill in those blanks with, at worst, neutral feelings, and, at best, joyous emotions. All of this leaves us, emotionally anyway, seeking a simple, happy holiday time. Intellectually, the more objective parts of our brain tell us that the simple joy we seek will never be found. The mistakes of the past -the regrets- cannot be erased, and the resulting pain from grieving the loss of what-will-never-be can seem intolerable.
So, all of this having been said, what can someone in recovery do to survive the holidays without relapsing? One can choose to have hope and look forward rather than remaining stuck in the pain of the past. The alcoholic/addict may not like where they are today, with regard to their personal life, career, finances, etc., and that person may struggle with related self-pity. However, that same alcoholic/addict may readily accept that today they are better off than where they were before starting their recovery. Thankfully, those small steps forward do add up to huge changes and real progress toward lasting sobriety.