October is coming to a close, which means the holidays are getting started. Soon, we will all be in the thick of it. For those of us in recovery from addiction and/or mental illness, the holidays can be notoriously difficult. It’s not just the fact that alcohol appears at many holiday gatherings. Holidays are also typically associated with family gathering and bonding, which can be a touchy subject for those of us with addiction or mental illness histories.
Mental illness is so heavily stigmatized in our society that if you have anything but the most well-educated, open-minded, and compassionate family members, you have probably experienced some share of stigmatizing from the people who are supposed to protect you. Even if your family is lovely, your own erratic behavior during an active addiction or symptomatic flare-up may cause you to feel shame and embarrassment, whether or not your family did anything to contribute to those feelings.
Relapse doesn’t just mean taking drugs or drinking alcohol. It can also mean relapsing into a dangerous depressive episode, mania, or other symptoms of your condition that were in remission. It would be impossible to specifically address every single potential holiday trigger for every single mental illness. Instead, I’ve put together a list of ways to avoid having a major breakdown during the holiday season. It doesn’t matter what holiday it is–this can even be applied during your birthday–any time when you have extra social, familial, financial, and emotional stressors burdening you is dangerous. Hopefully applying some of these tips can help.
Even if you don’t have a substance use disorder, drinking or taking drugs can exacerbate any mental health condition. If you are normally fine to have a drink, you may still want to reconsider drinking during this high-stress time. Those of us in recovery from an addiction will definitely want to avoid contact with intoxicants, even those that aren’t normally problematic. This is a personal decision, of course, but in my experience as someone with co-occurring substance use and mental health conditions, the high stress of the holidays makes alcohol more dangerous than usual. If you do decide to drink, it’s a good idea to set a firm limit, and have someone you trust help you keep it.
Unless your holiday celebrations are taking place in a sober living community, avoiding the sight and smell of alcohol altogether will likely be impossible. People drink on the holidays, and if they don’t have a problem, that’s fine. You may not be able to have all alcohol removed from the premises, but you can ask your family to be sensitive to the fact that you don’t want to drink. Ask them not to offer you drinks, and have a tasty alternative on hand. My personal favorite is warm non-alcoholic apple cider. If you’re not comfortable telling everyone who will be present that you have a substance use issue, you can always say you’re not drinking for other reasons, like because you need to drive, or you’re taking antibiotics. At least confide in someone. If at least one person knows avoiding alcohol is something you may struggle with over the holidays, he or she can help you if she notices you’re feeling tempted.
Temper Your Expectations
One of the things that gets me down during holidays more than anything else are disappointed expectations. We’re often conditioned to think that birthdays, winter holidays, and family gatherings are supposed to be joyous events filled with bonding, gifts, and good cheer. The reality is usually far messier.
I’m not telling you to say “Bah-humbug” and go full pessimist, but it’s a good idea to temper your expectations to reality, rather than a storybook idea of what the holidays should be. How have these events gone in the past? When I was younger, I would visit my East Coast family every Christmas. Inevitably, I would get into at least one blow-out fight with someone. Who that person was changed every year, but every year it happened. My extended family can be nosy and opinionated, and so am I. So…we fight. When I finally started to accept this fight was going to happen no matter what, I was far less affected when it did happen, and better able to move past it faster.
This also means tempering your expectations of yourself. Often, those of us with mental health conditions may understand that we need to set boundaries and show ourselves compassion every other time of the year, but when the holidays come around, we suddenly expect ourselves to magically function as though we don’t have a mental illness. It makes no sense, but tell me you don’t do it. This year, instead try reminding yourself that it’s okay to skip a gathering or two, or to go home early if needed. You don’t have to behave as though you’re a different person just because it’s a holiday, and if these people truly care about you, they will understand.
Set A Financial Plan And Stick To It
Unless money is no object, finances are usually a concern during the holidays, especially the gift-based holidays. If you’ve decided to host a dinner or party, then you have to worry about food and decorations. Even if you’re attending an outside event, you’ll probably be buying some gifts. If you’re as super-lucky as I am, then you not only have something like Christmas, you also have your partner’s birthday three days before, and your child’s birthday two days after. Yep, Christmas season takes a major bite out of my wallet.
It can be really easy to splurge like crazy during the holidays. After all, you’re giving to others, right? But financial stress makes everything else in your life feel so much worse. If you’re prone to anxiety, then it’s entirely possible that your party will be ruined when you suddenly remember how much you spent–and then can’t. stop. thinking. about. it. So, instead of ruining everything, create a budget. Plan out how much you want to spend on each expense, and then stick to it. Remaining at or below each designated price point will seriously help you avoid the broke-ass blues.
Reach Out To Your Supports…And Create Backups
I think the holidays are stressful for everyone, but for those of us in recovery they are downright triggering. Holiday relapse is exceedingly common, so it’s important to seriously prepare for the idea that you may feel like drinking, taking drugs, cutting, lying in bed all day, dissociating, or whatever other kind of relapse you’re concerned about.
For this reason, it makes sense to set up a strong support system in advance. Reach out to the people you trust and let them know you’re going to be leaning on them a little more than usual for a couple weeks (or however long you think you’ll need). And because this is a stressful time for everyone, including your supports, reach out to backup supports too. It’s important to have a good friend to lean on in case your sister is suddenly unavailable to help, or maybe an online forum you can turn to if your therapist goes away for the holidays.
Set Boundaries–And Stick To Them
We all wish that the people in our lives were always happy to respect our boundaries. Unfortunately, the people closest to us are sometimes the people least willing to respect our boundaries, as ironic as that may be. It’s hard to set boundaries. It’s even harder to express those boundaries when you are concerned that they won’t be respected. Nonetheless, it’s important. It’s always better to be direct than passive aggressive. Even if it’s scary, practice telling your friends and family directly. If you think you can make the big family gathering, but should only stay for a couple hours, let them know that beforehand. If you need to go gift shopping online rather than in person with your friends, let them know. If you have to forgo a tradition because someone triggering will be there, that’s okay. Your mental health comes first.
Boundaries sometimes get transgressed during the holidays even by the most well-meaning people. People can get giddy and ridiculous during these times, but it’s usually because they are happy and just want to be close with you. That doesn’t mean you should allow your boundaries to be crossed, however. Stay firm, but try to be understanding. Unless you have a real reason to believe someone is intentionally ignoring your boundaries, do you best to be kind but firm in expressing that you need this part of yourself to be respected.
It’s hard to crave drugs or lapse into catatonic depression if you’re busy. I’m not saying overwork yourself–you’ll need to rest too. But if you can plan out things to do that will help keep your mind busy, it will help you resist the temptation to relapse. If you feel able, give yourself responsibilities. Make sure they are responsibilities you actually feel comfortable and capable of taking on. You won’t be helping yourself or anyone else by volunteering for more than you can do. But I have found that even having a few people count on me in a small but important way helps me remain sober, healthy, and on point.
Eat Healthy Food
Holidays and comfort food are practically synonymous. I’m not saying don’t indulge, because what fun would that be? Just make sure to balance those candied applies and dumplings with some healthy greens. Healthy food helps your body run the way it should. A healthy body means a healthy brain. After all, you brain is an organ in your body, yeah? So keeping it well-fed–and by that I mean quality, not quantity–will also aid your mind. Feeling good physically helps you feel good mentally.
Seriously. Even if you decide to spend most of the holiday season away from people, get out of your house. Every day if possible, or at least every few days. Even if it’s just walking around the block for ten minutes, moving your body and getting fresh air in your lungs will help produce neurochemicals that stave off depression. Plus, don’t you just feel more clear-headed and less anxious once you’ve gotten away from the room where you’ve been stewing in your thoughts?
Listen To Yourself, And Trust What You Hear
Ultimately, only you can truly know what you need to keep from relapsing. Listen to yourself. Listen to your physical, emotional, and mental cues, and most of all: trust them. If a situation is making you uneasy, don’t push yourself. On the other hand, if you really feel like confronting a long-standing issue will actually make you feel better, consider doing just that–but keep checking in with yourself to make sure you know when it’s time to let go. It may be difficult to stay self-aware during a high-stress time, but that’s all the more reason to really try to do it. Mindfulness meditation is a great way to gain access to your real feelings while also learning to better handle stress. You can also try doing these mindful playtime activities if meditation doesn’t sit well with you.
Allow Yourself To Feel Happy
If you’re anything like me, a lot of what makes the winter holidays tick also makes you roll your eyes. Those of us who have experienced a lot of pain and trauma in our lives create protective shields around our hearts. We use cynicism as a means of lowering our expectations and pre-processing what we predict will be an unkind reality.
Unless you’re celebrating Festivus, however, there is typically an element of cheer and love embedded into these holidays. Those happy, sappy emotions that people like you and me tend to distrust. It may feel easier to ignore the joyful moments and focus on what makes you feel anxious or neglected, but is that really going to help you stave off a relapse? In fact, all of my holiday relapses have resulted because I’ve chosen to obsess over everything that’s making me feel shitty. This year, if you can, try letting the holiday spirit overtake you. I know, it sounds cheesy as hell. Totally ridiculous. So how about we try it together this year? What do you say? Leave me a comment and let me know if you’ll choose happiness with me this holiday season.
If you do relapse, whether on substances or negative emotions, please forgive yourself. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there. Last year was the first Christmas after my suicide attempt, and also the first Christmas after my Abuelita died. It was a really hard year for me, and I needed my mom and husband and family more than ever in my life.
Instead, everyone was still resentful toward me because of my attempt, or maybe because for some of them that overdose was the first they learned about my issues with heroin. So nobody got me any gifts. It was especially awkward when I handed out the gifts I’d scrounged together money to buy. But anyway, as I’m sure you can understand if you’ve ever been in a similar position, it wasn’t about the lack of stuff, but the fact that nobody thought of me. Especially bad was the fact that even when my Abuelia forgot her age, she never forgot me on Christmas. It was a though my family members were beating me over the head with the fact that she was gone.
As you can imagine, I got extremely depressed. Even somewhat suicidal. I also got pretty wasted. I wanted to spend the holidays sober from all substances, but I ended up downing a bottle of rum. Was it self pitying? Yeah, maybe. But it was also a reaction to a deep hurt. I felt terrible for being hung over on Christmas Day–even though I still managed to be a great Santa’s Helper and set up an epic spread for the kids. Nonetheless, I was weepy and achey all day when I should have been overjoyed and bonding with my kids. I felt guilty and crappy, but those feelings lead nowhere.
This year I hope to do better. I hope the people around me are kinder as well, but if they’re not, I still hope to do better. If I slip up though, I’m going to forgive myself. Because the holidays are hard. And struggling isn’t a sign of weakness–it’s a sign of being human. I hope you’ll treat yourself with equal compassion if you do relapse.
How Do You Stay Sober During The Holidays?
What are you best coping skills and tools for staying sober during the holidays? Leave me a comment and let me know.
Are you a poet who writes about mental health in any capacity? You have a chance to have your poetry featured on Betty’s Battleground! Send your submission by or before November 17 to firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to reading your poetry. All experience levels welcome.