14 Tips for Making It Through the Holidays Without Relapsing
By Anastasia Selby
As a recovered heroin addict and a recovering bulimic who’s had to deal with intense family interactions during the holidays, I want this to be a resource for everyone having to endure similar situations.
An unhappy man in a rocking chair in front of a Christmas tree.
Since I was a child, the holidays have been a challenging time for me. I was raised by a single mother who struggled with undiagnosed mental illness and alcoholism, and she hated holidays. She was often depressed around Christmas, most likely because of the distance she felt from her own family. She’d grown up poor and we were growing up poor, and I’m sure buying presents was a difficult task for her.
As I got older I dreaded going home for the holidays; my mom was remarried, and she and my stepdad had a tumultuous relationship. They’d often get drunk and fight on Christmas Eve, then drag themselves to the Christmas tree in the morning, hungover and surly. After my mom got divorced, Christmas got worse; my stepdad was gone and I was the focal point of her bitterness and anger. On my last Christmas with her, she awoke on Christmas morning and announced that she’d forgotten it was Christmas, and who cared anyways, Christmas is awful.
My mom has been dead for seven years now; she took her own life. I don’t speak to my stepdad. I never thought I’d feel grateful for those awful Christmases I spent with her and my stepdad, but I do. Now my holidays consist of me learning how to be alone and doing everything I can to prevent relapse (I’m a recovering bulimic and recovered heroin addict).
No matter what holiday you celebrate, this time of the year can be very challenging, especially if you’re recovering from drug or alcohol addiction, or if you’re recovering/recovered from an eating disorder. Visiting family (or choosing not to), and navigating the holidays without a cohesive support system can be incredibly triggering, and can lead to relapse. I’ve made this list to help all of us, including me. As a recovered heroin addict and a recovering bulimic who’s had to deal with intense family interactions during the holidays, I want this to be a resource for everyone having to endure similar situations.
Remember, you don’t have to go. The most important thing is your recovery. If visiting your family has triggered you to relapse in the past and you’re worried it may trigger you again, you can choose not to go. Your family may or may not understand, but in recovery it’s important to put yourself first.
You’re allowed to set boundaries. Whether or not your family will be accepting of them, you can make a list of boundaries before heading home for the holidays. For someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, this list could include things like, “please don’t comment on my body,” and “please don’t comment on the food I choose to eat or the amount I am eating.” For someone recovering from a drug or alcohol addiction the list could include things like “please don’t offer me alcohol,” and “please don’t invite (blank).” Of course, your family members can choose to honor these boundaries or not, but the point of stating boundaries clearly is to be able to take the appropriate actions when they aren’t honored. For example, if a parent drinks too much and becomes belligerent, you can state that you’ve asked them not to do that, and remove yourself.
Bring your own transportation. This is important, for obvious reasons. You’ll feel much safer if you can leave when you want to.
Create an escape route in case things get too intense. This could be a trusted friend’s house, a booked hotel room or Air BnB, or plans to get back to somewhere you’ll feel safe. Often, just honoring your needs and having a plan like this can help you feel less trapped when things get intense with your family, and ease some of the pressure that might lead to relapse.
Bring someone you love and trust with you. A friend, a partner. Just make sure it’s someone who won’t say things like “they seem fine,” or gaslight you when you’re experiencing intense emotions.
Find nearby meetings. Whether it’s AA, NA, OA, or Al-Anon, going to a meeting can prevent a relapse, even if you aren’t into the 12 steps. I’ve never been a 12-stepper, but have gone to meetings in times of intense need and am so grateful they’re there as a resource. During the holidays there will likely be people there who are also dealing with family issues. (You can also look for non-12-step programs like SMART Recovery or LifeRing, but depending on where you are, they can be hard to find.)
Remember, you have control over your emotions and life. Often when we’re around parents and other family members we can revert into negative relational patterns. It becomes easy to blame our parents and siblings for our problems, but in doing this we often hand over control. As an adult, you’re now responsible for your life, and your family members don’t exert any control over you (even if it sometimes feels like they do). If you sense yourself reverting to the familiar pattern of blaming and giving up your important (and often newfound) sense of self and personal power, it might be time to regroup.
Designate a space in (or near) the family home to regroup. This could be inside or outside, or even in your car. It could be a nearby coffee shop or the nearest empty bathroom. When you begin to feel a sense of overwhelm, leave and do what you need to do to regroup. Remind yourself that you are an independent person on your own path. Remind yourself of the importance of your recovery. Allow yourself, if possible (and if warranted) to feel compassion for the people in your family who are still stuck in their own cycles of addiction or are still struggling. The holidays are often hard for everyone, and it’s important to remember that. Most importantly, don’t be hard on yourself.
If you do get into conflict with your family or a family member, remove yourself ASAP. Ideally, we don’t want to fight with family members, as being in conflict can be excruciatingly triggering. But it happens, right? If you do happen to get into an altercation with a family member, leave. Go to the safe place in the house or follow your escape route. Even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. You can always come back, but before coming back make sure that the argument or fight is over, and it’s safe to do so.
Don’t expect your family to be different just because you’ve changed. Prepare yourself for the worst. As you may know, those of us who struggle with addiction often come from deeply flawed families and relational dynamics. Don’t expect your family members to be accommodating, and understand that your own recovery may actually be triggering to them. They may (most likely) still be stuck in their own negative patterns, and when someone you love is trying to get out of relationships that are often founded on co-dependence, the result is often a negative reaction. Just remember, their behavior is 99.9% not about you, but about them, their own belief systems, and the ways in which they’re choosing to live their lives. As much as you’re responsible for your own life, they’re responsible for theirs.
The holidays are the wrong time to air grievances. Everyone’s vulnerable during the holiday season. This isn’t the time to ask your family members to hold themselves accountable for things that may have hurt you in the past (or may even be hurting you now). It’s also not the time to be extra hard on yourself about the ways in which your addiction has affected your family. Be gentle with yourself and those in your family.
Have someone on call. Set up a phone call with your therapist or ask them if you can email while you’re home. Ask a friend (or a few friends) if they can make sure to answer your calls in order to be of support. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or upset, use these resources and reach out.
Not all of us have families. If you’re like me, you may be spending the holidays alone or with someone else’s family. This can often be triggering in many different ways. But although you may be alone, you can still use many of the resources in this list. I make sure not to isolate myself during the holidays (especially on Christmas or Thanksgiving) but this Thanksgiving I spent the day alone because I was feeling overwhelmed. Whatever you do, it’s okay. Just take care of yourself. Understand that being without a family on the holidays can be especially difficult. If you are going to be alone, do something special for yourself. Allow yourself to sleep in, buy (non-triggering) food that you can make for yourself. Take a long relaxing bath, watch some movies that you enjoy, and allow yourself the space to relax. But also, call a friend if you find yourself feeling lonely or upset.
Lastly, it’s helpful to stay away from social media. Studies have shown that social media can make us feel bad about ourselves. I suggest either limiting your social media or eliminating it for the days around the holidays. No matter what, remember that people usually post the happiest versions of their lives. It can be helpful to follow accounts of people in recovery who may be dealing with similar issues, but even that can be difficult.
Don’t forget that you are in the company of millions of people working towards full recovery. You’re not alone, even if you feel isolated. You will get through this holiday without a relapse!