The Holiday Season is upon us and although it is supposedly the ‘happiest’ time of the year, we all know that this is not always the case. In fact, when combining the pressures of visiting with family, gift-giving, decorating, preparations of food, the endless parties, there can be considerable anxiety for many of us to handle. We may also be overwhelmed with memories of lost loved ones and this can have an even heavier impact during the holiday season. The final coup de grace is that we are ‘expected’ to be happy and filled with holiday joy. The combination of these very real variables can produce the ‘perfect storm’ for those of us in recovery. After all, we will be around others not in a recovery program. Family, friends and coworkers may resort to indulging in those spurious coping mechanisms – alcohol and drugs.

We all know how difficult a time of year this can be, from Thanksgiving through the New Year’s, with the added inclusion of the start of the dark, cold winter months which affects people who have seasonal sensitivities even more powerfully. The holidays are the Olympics of social stressors. Let’s take some time here to delve into the challenges we will face with one goal in mind – to maintain our sobriety without a relapse. First, let us insert the following thought to help adjust and set up our inner being for success and not failure – we can choose now, to commit ‘unconditionally’ to our sobriety throughout the course of the holiday season – WITHOUT A SINGLE RELAPSE.

For those who may be experiencing their first holiday season clean and sober, we are thrown into family and social gatherings that can be filled with strife, derision, and the history of other holidays that may have been disastrous due in part or entirely to our using. Much of the discord and friction may be cloaked by the perfunctory smiles and ‘appearance’ of love and friendship, when the opposite is true. As someone who is known by others as ‘that’ person who struggles with alcohol and/or drug addiction, we are singled out, often silently but not invisibly. The whispers in the corner of the room can be felt, and sensed. As the drinking and possible drugging progresses during the course of a party or family get-together, barriers break down and family and friends can often participate in offensive behavior directed at not just others, but you. All the while, you are there, surrounded by many individuals consuming the very substances you are trying to avoid. After all, so much is at stake for you in these types of social occasions. Recovery programs may urge people, particularly in the early stages of their sobriety, to completely avoid any gathering where drugs or alcohol may be present. It is such a slippery slope for a person and the longer one is around this kind of environment, the more likely one’s own self-control or will power can break down. The result can be a disastrous relapse, which will set you onto that perilous path into addiction.

Of course, there can certainly be wonderful, positive social gatherings around the holidays. Many friends and families, cognizant of your recovery journey, might be more than empathetic and supportive during this season. They may want you to succeed just as much as you do and often will completely remove the presence of any and all substances from the gathering. This kind of assistance demonstrates real concern, support and love for your commitment to sobriety – and is so appreciated by those in the recovery community who are aware of the many temptations and hazards seeming to lurk around every corner during the holidays. A big thank you can be given to those who truly support anyone trying to change their life and end their addiction.

There are many suggestions I wish to offer to you for this season. First, one needs to commit with the mind, heart and soul to stick to their given recovery program. This may take the form of attending meetings (possibly more meetings than usual), which are quite plentiful during the holidays. Luncheons and dinners are offered throughout the recovery community that are enjoyable and provide an excellent social environment, complete with support and fellowship. Each morning, upon awakening, read or recite to yourself inspiring, uplifting spiritual literature and meditate upon it. Deep breathing and greeting the day with a prayer of gratefulness is one of my daily habits. You can simply recite to yourself, that you are committed today to your sobriety, one day at a time. If you feel lethargic, unmotivated or depressed, do something – push yourself to become active. Just get up, out of bed and simply stand outside in the open air and breath. Try not to give in to how bad you feel right now. Do not let the haunting promptings to use or drink again have any influence over you. Those urges can pass, only if you give yourself permission to show your inner being that such thoughts and feelings can pass. Remember, recovery involves action and movement, not complacency and doing nothing. We are embarking on opening new, healthy passageways quite divergent from our habit of succumbing to the impulses to use or drink alcohol again. Moreover, you must make the initial step, each day, each moment. Is it easy? Of course not – not at first. Remember, we are reclaiming are mind, body and soul. We are taking charge of ourselves and this takes time and practice. Are there rewards ahead for doing it – yes there are!

Remind yourself of how you were when using and abusing alcohol and drugs. See your past and the destruction you brought upon yourself and others. Inform yourself that even if you feel anxiety in this moment or the want to use, this is normal and will pass. You have not had the needed time in early recovery to completely cross over that great ‘abyss’ from addiction to Unconditional Recovery. But, you have chosen to embark on a healing pathway, distancing yourself from the noxious and deleterious substance/s of your past. You can choose to set boundaries with your social engagements during this time of year.  If you feel certain that some visits/events will be too much of a trigger that could lead to a relapse – bow out!  There is no social obligation that is more important than your sobriety.

Experience the benefits of restructuring your life in recovery – making your bed, cleaning around your house, vacuuming. Give personal attention to your physical hygiene. Nourish yourself with healthy foods that will certainly assist with the healing of your body following addiction and alcoholism. Become cognizant of the plentiful, sugary desserts offered during the holiday season, everywhere, and just try to set some limits on your consuming these items. Slow down your eating to allow your brain to register the food intake. When thirsty, drink a sparkling water with ice and a lemon or lime slice. Or, enjoy a ginger ale on ice, or better yet, my favorite, a little apple juice with sparkling water. It tastes so good, and hydrates the body. Remember, we are learning new life skills. Lying in bed, alone, late into the morning or afternoon, watching endless TV or playing video games, are not, and I repeat, ARE NOT, beneficial practices for healing from the throes of addiction.

The most important suggestion I can offer during this holiday season is to be grateful for the life we are choosing to have with our unconditional commitment to recovery. There will be challenges ahead during the upcoming weeks. But, please do not enable yourself to give in to the urges to use and drink again. Remember, that very important phase during the relapse sequence – giving yourself permission to use. DO NOT give yourself permission to use and do not linger in that precarious state of hanging on the fence while over-filling your mind with senseless arguments or seemingly rational reasoning trying to justify a permission-giving decision. By choosing to fill your mind with a prayer or meditation of thankfulness for the life you have this day, each day, you will be giving permission to your mind to open up to the real joy this season can bring. Giving compassion to yourself will allow you to give to others during this holiday season. It is not just a season of giving material presents to others and partying into oblivion, but giving the presence of yourself to others, while living clean and sober. Your personal gift this season can be a total promise to Unconditional Recovery. Such a gift to self and others is priceless, and will invoke the true spirit of the holiday season – gratefulness to be alive, to be present, to be your true self.  We’ll be talking more about the holiday season and coping strategies . . . until next time . . . stay true to yourself.

The word ‘love’ is such an ambiguous word and packed with so many meanings. For this posting the type of definition I would like to associate with the word love includes -  tenderness, compassion, gentleness, appreciation, benevolence, kindness, respect, caring, warmth, endearment, and encouragement.

So, why is love essential to recovery and continued sobriety? For starters, I am convinced, as I know many others are in the recovery community – that there is a direct correlation between addiction and the lack of love in someone’s life. Simply put, a person needs love in and around their life to feel a sense of self-worth.  This doesn’t just apply to an infant, young child, teenager, or young adult, but to anyone at any age. So often, individuals describe their life experiences leading into addiction as greatly lacking in  love in their environment.

For example, suppose your existing close relationships, including family, friends, spouse or significant other, are not conveying any appreciation towards you or even a sense that they respect you. Perhaps in your situation there is a dearth of either compassion, kindness or tenderness. We all have challenging days and you might need just an affectionate, caring hug – just to affirm that everything will be okay and that someone cares. Maybe all we need to better our day from a problem is a simple, supportive word of encouragement or confirmation that another person is there for you.  

What do many of us end up doing to replace the absence of love in our lives? The answer is simple – we attempt to fill the void with alcohol or drugs. These substances may offer a temporary sense of relief for a moment. However, they really provide a surreptitious ‘pretense’ of affection or caring or at least dull our emotions and enhance denial. Again, it’s only temporary and not a solution to fulfilling our very human need. Remember, drugs and alcohol is just that, a pretense of love, of comfort and even oblivion, but actually operates as a deceitful charade, feigning love and support, while predictably destructive. The more we use, the farther away any semblance of ‘real’ love will be in our lives. As abuse and addiction grows, we begin to deteriorate into a barren desert, starved and thirsty for any kind of true human compassion or nourishment.  We ourselves become ‘unlovable’ and often angry, bitter, and resentful as we spiral uncontrollably into our addiction.

I never say things lightly, as anyone who has read any of my previous Blog postings will certainly confirm. I also do not take recovery lightly. We are not discussing here a new diet plan or utilizing network resources to find a job or career. Such subjects may be quite important to us, and they are. However, when examining the issue of recovery verses addiction, I have to say, without exaggeration that we are talking life-or-death. Recovery involves a crucial decision of either living a healthy vibrant life, or destroying ourselves and those around us with our addiction - an imprisoning behavior that leads us on a painful, certain excursion into oblivion. What can be a more serious subject matter than this?

Sometimes when I meet a person that is suffering with that muddled fogginess from their prolonged use of an addictive substance, I want to simply sit with them, in silence, if need be. I want to be there with them until the fog begins to clear and they realize that their drinking and drugging is keeping their inner being from grasping the true consequences of the addiction. I remember a quote from the great American poet, Walt Whitman, that truly expresses what I sometimes feel inside upon meeting a person stupefied by their drug of choice. “I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, nations, Crying, leap from your seats and contend for your lives!” But, when a person is under the influence, even that assertion doesn’t help.  When I remember myself when I was using, cluttered and bewildered by my own addictive drinking, I realize that no one can compel another person to “Leap from your seats and contend for your lives.” Only someone who is willing to change and give to themselves the opportunity of sobriety, can alter and change their present course.

I often hear insensitive comments during the course of the day, which I feel like challenging. Statements along the line of ‘how our society has become weak and we need to toughen up, or we need to cease pampering and coddling the younger generation, etc.’ Obviously, we do not ever want to ‘enable’ others to persist in negative patterns. Frequently discussed in recovery meetings is the direct relation between alcohol and drug addiction and those who inadvertently enable such behavior.  But what I am asserting here and what I believe is that what is lacking in our society is compassion, affection and caring for others. The prevalence of a lack of compassion is evident in families, schools, businesses, politics, and personal relationships -- everywhere. It is not that we need to toughen up so much, as untie the bonds and impediments to our own hearts. We may not want pampering or coddling if it is an enabling expression, but we may want and need an affectionate hug or a kind response or empathetic ear.

Once an individual embarking upon the recovery path realizes that their involvement with drugs and/or alcohol was attempting to fill a void, they will begin to have a clearer, more compassionate and forgiving explanation for their addiction – to themselves and to their loved ones. That void consists of feeling alone, empty, insignificant, unloved, weak, worthless. We certainly cannot wait for our society to change and become a supportive, caring community for our recovery to begin or succeed; we must be that change and it starts with our Unconditional Recovery. It is vital that we surround ourselves with the wonderful people you will find in recovery – in meetings. Many supportive sober and clean individuals, professional counselors and therapists, highly effective recovery organizations, are there ready and willing to help you.

Most importantly, the avenue of finding love, compassion and caring in one’s life can only be discovered within yourself. We can receive support and encouragement from others, however, we must find a way to truly care and love ourselves. This can be the most challenging part of the journey to transforming ourselves from addiction to sobriety. I am not speaking of what is commonly referred to as narcissism. Narcissism is a vain self-love or egotistic self-admiration with a total absorption into self. Narcissism does not and cannot feel genuine human love or affection.  It seeks to manipulate in order to obtain continual attention to self. However, finding the pathways within to caring for yourself and acquiring empathy for self and others is an entirely different matter. If we can come to realize within how exceptional and wonderful our own existence is, while having a loving appreciation of ourselves we will be on our way to filling that pernicious void in our life.  It takes practice, patience and time – recovery time. When we are able to open that avenue within and nurture ourselves, we will be able to truly love and give to others – another major step in the recovery process. This can only be accomplished while living clean and sober – there is no compromised alternative – only your pledge to spend the rest of your life in Unconditional Recovery.  Until next time, listen to the words you speak to yourself and make them nurturing ones . . .