Old painful memories seem to come up at the most inopportune times. Emphasis on joy and peace around the holidays is, for many of us, the opposite of how we feel. Triggers come in the form of songs, parties, decorations and everything else this time of year. For those of us from dysfunctional families, Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, along with Hanukkah or anything else we observe (my birthday is in here, 2 weeks before Christmas) were a time of pain, fear and disappointment. We may come from a family where our parents were heavy drinkers, if not alcoholic, and the holiday season provided excuses to indulge more, as well as more often. Maybe our parents were divorced and argued over where and with which parent we were to spend time; maybe they were not divorced and argued, over us and everything else. Or maybe we are from a single parent family and always felt “different’. As we got older, the holidays became a time we found relief in our drug and stayed loaded as much as possible. We temporarily escaped the chaos and dysfunction at home and began creating our own traditions: get as blitzed as possible, obliterate our pain and fill our emptiness. Alcoholics do this with alcohol, druggies pick their drug of choice or whatever they can find, compulsive overeaters use food, anorectics use the control over food, sex addicts use relationships, intrigue, sex and so on.
Okay, so we are sober, clean, in recovery for at least a few days or weeks, maybe even for months or years, and all this old stuff comes up. We may or may not realize why we are irritable, restless, discontent and thinking about using. There is a physiological reason: neurochemical and neuroelectrical pathways in our brains become imbedded during years of behaving in a specific way; they determine our reactions. They were established long ago; now we get to change them. You may have thought you had already dealt with this last year, only to find another layer of healing necessary. Ughh. Perhaps our family of origin always served certain foods on Christmas Eve. After dinner, our parents got sloppy drunk, became mean and loud and spent the rest of the night arguing. We escaped to our bedroom and felt alone and abandoned, wondering what we did wrong, blaming ourselves, as children do. We now see or smell that food and get a knot in our gut. In the past we had one solution: get loaded.
Great. Now we have to find a way to deal with our feelings and not use.
For now, let’s look at simple answers, believing that as we stay sober and work the program (Steps!!) more, we will resolve old stuff on deeper levels. Immediate actions we can take include: more meetings, different meetings, chair and/or introduce topics such as, “holidays triggering old pain”, “how to change how we react”, and, “how to handle stress”. Talk more to others in recovery, especially your sponsor. Seek out new people; helping them helps you. Limit time with family of origin. If you must attend a family function, go, but leave early. Tell them ahead of time that you have another event to attend, then make an appearance, be cordial, leave and get to a meeting. If your family is out of town, consider not going home until you have been sober for at least a year. Start new traditions with your family of choice: other recovering people.
For many years, going home was too dangerous for me (two alcoholic parents) during the holidays. Several of us with the same issue decided we would have Thanksgiving together. I agreed to use my house and cook a turkey as long as my new friends brought everything else. We did that every year for 17 years, the tradition growing to about 35 of us, including children, until I moved out of town. It worked and most of us are still sober! Start your own new, sober traditions and let me know what they are.