There’s a saying in recovery circles that “a grateful addict will never use,” and if any holiday is tailor-made for gratitude, it’s Thanksgiving.
For addicts and alcoholics spending Thanksgiving in recovery, however, it can also be a time when the serenity we pray for at the beginning of every meeting is often tested. For those fresh out of addiction treatment, it might even be perilous — but it doesn’t have to be. Like any other holiday, there are certain triggers to beware of that might cause internal conflict, but any recovering addict or alcoholic with a firm foundation in sobriety has tools at his or her disposal to manage whatever chaos may arise.
Recovery teaches those who pursue it to take one day at a time, and every major event, holiday and milestone brings with it unique challenges to those who are just starting out. Navigating those “firsts” — the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first Thanksgiving — in recovery can be a little easier, however, if those individuals have an idea of areas in which they may encounter challenges. With that in mind, here are five potential issues those spending their first Thanksgiving in recovery may want to be aware of:
In early recovery, it’s easy to forget that the family members whose lives were affected by addiction are also recovering. As Rick Csiernik, writing for the Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions , points out, “Each family member is uniquely affected with negative outcomes ranging from economic hardship to violence being perpetrated against them to an increased risk among children of becoming alcohol or drug abusers themselves. Thus, treating only the active alcohol or other drug abuser is limiting and an overly narrow orientation for the enhancement of both family and community health.”
In other words — just because you’ve gotten better doesn’t mean your family has. You may be on different recovery trajectories, especially if the drug and alcohol treatment center in which you were a patient didn’t offer family counseling or was too far from home for your family members to attend. Keep in mind that even in the absence of facility-sponsored family therapy, there are resources available to your family members — specifically, Al-Anon, which is “is free of charge and widely available, making it a potentially cost-effective public health resource to help alleviate the burden of concern about someone else’s addiction, by means of the social processes it offers,” according to a 2015 article in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors . That study, incidentally, points out that “ bonding, goal direction, and exposure to sponsors and peers in recovery help … (with) key concerns of Al-Anon attendees, such as improved quality of life and learning how to handle problems due to the drinkers in their lives.”
However, just because those resources are available doesn’t mean family members have taken advantage of them. And depending on the destruction left in the wake of a loved one’s active addiction, they may not be in a place where they’re ready to get better. Anger, resentment and frustration are powerful emotions, and when members of a family gather together under one roof to celebrate a holiday like Thanksgiving, it can result in tension that might even boil over into conflict. So what can you do to avoid it?
- Remember that you’re only responsible for your own recovery. You can’t “make” someone else get better, and you certainly can’t “make” them trust you, no matter how much you feel as if your life has improved. If you used to filch pills or money from grandma’s purse and she clutches it throughout Thanksgiving dinner while giving you the side eye, don’t get offended. That’s certainly her right, and by acknowledging that your actions have caused her to feel suspicious, you’re doing the only thing you know to do: accepting responsibility.
- Bring a sober friend. If you have a family with whom you can spend Thanksgiving in recovery, you’re more fortunate than some of your sober brothers and sisters, no matter how dysfunctional the gathering may be. Why not, then, make one of their holidays a little less lonely while bringing a wingman or wingwoman who can be your sobriety back up? A neutral party may encourage others to rein in negative outbursts, and that individual is someone you can lean on if things get tough or awkward.
- Know when to say when. The most important thing you possess is your recovery: Safeguard it, and don’t put it in jeopardy by staying in openly hostile or antagonistic situations. It’s perfectly okay to excuse yourself and depart, especially if family dynamics grow so toxic that you’re feeling triggered or unsettled. Again: Your recovery is the most important thing in your life, and you don’t need to endanger it by putting the needs of others, even family members, above your own.
Spending Thanksgiving in recovery … alone
If chaotic or damaged family dynamics can be problematic for recovering addicts and alcoholics, so, too, can the absence of family entirely. A lot of individuals spend the holidays alone, but for addicts and alcoholics whose families have shunned, disowned or walked away from relationships because of alcohol and drugs, it can be a painful experience. Guilt, shame, remorse, anger … those are not the emotions normally associated with Thanksgiving, but if family members have requested you not be part of their holiday celebration, they can certainly manifest.
And then there are individuals who just don’t have families. Perhaps they’re an only child, and both parents are dead … or they live in a distant city and can’t afford to make the trip. If you’re newly sober and find yourself in one of these situations, it’s important to remember an oft-used recovery mantra: “Never alone, never again.” You may not be able to stop feeling lonely, but you can certainly do some things to combat it. According to the online mental health resource Psych Central , some of those things include:
- Picking up the phone. Hopefully, you have a network of recovering friends who, like you, understand that recovery works best through work with others, and even if they have their only family gatherings to attend, they’ll make some time to talk you through what you’re feeling.
- Host your own holiday gathering. Thanksgiving in recovery can be a difficult time for a lot of newly sober addicts and alcoholics, but community is vital, and planning a meal with others in the program who might also be alone during the holidays can be empowering.
- Get out of the house, preferably with a friend, but alone if you must. Movie theaters are always open on Thanksgiving, and if the weather is nice, there are local parks you can visit. Sometimes, just a change of scenery can make a difference in your mood.
- “Remember your bonds and blessings.” In other words, make a gratitude list — because no matter how much self-pity may cloud your mind, there’s always something we can find for which we can be grateful.
- Be of service: “Volunteering at a mission or shelter for the homeless will help you feel connected,” and if you look for opportunities to do it regularly and not just around the holidays, “this will make the experience more fulfilling.” It’s also a healthy attitude adjustment when you work with the less fortunate: “There’s nothing like that for slapping you back to realizing how well you are,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Rodino .
Thanksgiving in recovery … on Stress Mountain
What if, however, you have the opposite problem? What if you’re the matriarch (or patriarch) who’s always done the holiday planning, hosting, cooking and everything else? Your family depends on you to lead the way, and it may seem they take for granted the efforts you put forth to bring everyone around a table for a Thanksgiving banquet. One of the key findings of a Holiday Stress Report by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research  is that “holiday stress has a particular impact on women, who take charge of many of the holiday celebrations, particularly the tasks related to preparing meals and decorating the home. Women are more likely than men to report an increase of stress during the holiday season. In addition, they have a harder time relaxing during the holidays and are more likely to fall into bad habits to manage their stress.”
If that describes you, then planning and preparation are keys to stress management. Because stress, studies have shown, is one of the biggest relapse triggers: “Psychobiological and neuroimaging research points to alcohol-related changes in brain volume and function and in biological stress responses,” according to a 2012 article in the journal Alcohol Research . “These alterations were found to contribute to higher craving and increased alcohol relapse risk.”
So what can you do to prepare?
- Enlist a team. If recovery teaches us anything, it’s to not be afraid to ask for help when we need it. There’s absolutely no reason you should have to do all of the holiday prep work by yourself, but how you ask for help plays a big role in whether or not you receive it. A passive suggestion is less likely to get you the help you need than a direct question buffered by an explanation: “I really need your help, because this is stressing me out” is much more effective at getting loved ones who support your recovery to pitch in.
- Prepare what you can ahead of time. Dishes hot from the oven and onto the table are lovely, but when it comes to cutting down on your stress, so are reheated dishes that were prepared a few days prior and refrigerated or frozen. Don’t play “Super Mom” (or “Super Dad”) at the expense of your serenity. Or, if you insist on everything being made the day of, delegate dishes to relatives and mandate that Thanksgiving dinner will be a potluck.
- In today’s consumer-driven culture, you can pre-order hams, turkeys and just about every side item imaginable before the big day, and it’s not going to taste like Swanson’s. More and more eat fresh organizations offer beautiful meals, so if you’ve got the money to spend, why not indulge? Your wallet may be out a few bucks, but your peace of mind has no price tag.
Thanksgiving in recovery … like, for real
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for those in early recovery is feeling the need to be present at the expense of their sobriety. Because of the damage and pain addicts and alcoholics cause while drinking and using, they often feel obligated to be the good son/daughter/husband/wife and attend every holiday function or event. They may feel pressure from family members who don’t understand the recovery process to spend time with relatives instead of going to a 12 Step meeting. That may be especially true if you’re spending Thanksgiving in recovery — after all, it’s one day! Surely, they suggest, you can skip a meeting for one day.
And maybe you can. But you shouldn’t have to, especially if you’re feeling a little unsteady because the holiday season conjures up big feels. Look at it this way: Did you every take a day off from drinking or using? Possibly, but only because you couldn’t get the drugs or alcohol your body and mind craved. For most addicts and alcoholics, maintaining their disease was a full-time job, and it’s imperative you treat early recovery that way as well. At the risk of beating you over the head with what you already know, it’s important to:
- Call your sponsor. If it helps you feel better, talk to him or her about it beforehand, so you don’t feel guilty about interrupting their own family gatherings.
- Call your network. Your sober brothers and sisters may be facing their own dilemmas if it’s their first (or even second, third or 15th) Thanksgiving in recovery, and you taking time out of your holiday to reach out can make a world of difference — to them, and to you.
- Read your literature. Even if it’s just a daily meditation or devotional, staying in touch with the program through the readings can help you remain centered and calm.
- Get to a meeting! Some 12 Step home groups hold all-day/night marathon meetings around the holidays; if yours is, then you can drop in at your leisure. But even if yours doesn’t, it’s perfectly acceptable to excuse yourself from family and hit one up. Again, the most important possession you have today is your recovery, and you have absolutely nothing to feel guilty for if you choose to safeguard it with meeting attendance, even on Thanksgiving.
Those Dollar Bill Blues
As the unofficial kick-off to the holiday season, Thanksgiving has financial implications that may bum you out if you’re strapped for cash, as many newly sober individuals are. According to an article on the digital library website JSTOR , “Today, the commercialization of Thanksgiving is represented by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, when shopping (in real life or online) is closely watched for signs of national economic health.” And because we’re assailed by social media, we may feel a twinge of regret, depression or downright despondence if we’re not able to take part in the holiday shopping craze that often kicks off as early as Thanksgiving Day.
If there’s one thing recovery teaches, however, it’s the emphasis on spirituality over materialism. Many of us started out before addiction and alcoholism took hold with a lot of material possessions, and while recovery doesn’t promise to return any of them, those who walk the walk as well as talk the talk find that material blessings do show up. That matters little, however, when you’re broke and feeling guilty because the first holiday season of your sobriety, in which you’re present and accounted for and a willing participant, is one during which you’re also a pauper.
Don’t let those thoughts consume you. In fact, look for other ways to give of yourself that don’t necessarily have to come from your wallet:
- Make something. Maybe you’re a musician; why not write a song for your family? If you’re an artist, why not paint your loved ones something? Arts and crafts are excellent therapeutic outlets, and handmade gifts, no matter your skill level, often hold a sentimental reverence in the hearts of recipients that store-bought gifts can’t touch.
- Not the creative type? That’s OK. Volunteer your services. Maybe mom and dad need their leaves raked; maybe your sister needs the oil in her vehicle changed. There are countless opportunities for you to do for those in your family that don’t require any expenditure on your part, if you just look for them.
- Be present. For many of us, the most important commodity we possess is our time, and when you give that, you’re giving something valuable. Whether it’s showing up early to help with the cooking, doing the dishes afterward or just sitting and talking with grandma, you’re a part of instead of apart from.
Of course, the most important gift you can give is yourself — a clean and sober you is most likely something your loved ones have prayed long and hard for, and the best “gift” you can give them is to continue to do well, whether it’s your first Thanksgiving in recovery or June 23. That means going to meetings, working with your sponsor and continuing the healing process through your recovery program. That’s what they want, and it’s hopefully what you want — and it’s attainable, with the honesty, openmindedness and willingness you have thanks to the new way of life that you’ve found.