Holiday gatherings should be merry and bright, but for many recovering addicts, spending time with family and friends over Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year’s can pose a threat to their sobriety. With family tension, flowing cups of holiday cheer and constant reminders of Christmases past, the holidays can lead to relapse.
Relapse — when an addict reverts to using addictive drugs or alcohol after a period of chosen sobriety — is a common part of addiction recovery, especially surrounding the holiday season.
“Relapse during the holidays is very common,” said Jolene Feeney, Clinical Director at The Recovery Village Ridgefield. “It can be emotionally hard for people, bringing up difficult or bittersweet memories. Substances are also around during this time. People have wine, beer or champagne at home, and there are lots of parties — temptation is everywhere.”
The risk of relapse during the holidays is very real for alcoholics, in particular, because research consistently shows a dramatic increase in average drinking rates during holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s.
Roughly 16% of adults say they drink more during the holiday season and half say alcohol plays a role in family celebrations or traditions. Experts consider Blackout Wednesday, also known as Thanksgiving Eve, to be a bigger drinking holiday than St. Patrick’s Day. The number of DUI offenses related to drinking rises 31% on Thanksgiving, 48% on Christmas Eve and 106% on New Year’s Eve. Alcohol-related driving deaths also spike during this time, growing to a rate of 40% compared to the yearlong average of 29%.
While the merriment commences, it’s more important than ever that addicts in recovery educate themselves on relapse and the triggers that can lead to it.
Triggers During the Holidays
Most relapses start with a trigger — a stressor that prompts a thought, feeling or action leading to the use drugs or alcohol. Triggers often cause urges and cravings, or temptations to get high. During the holidays, triggers are everywhere.
“Triggers set off a memory or flashback to the original event,” Feeney said. “Seeing an old friend could trigger a memory of all the fun times you had drinking with friends, and now you’re thinking, ‘Man, I really want to do that.’ It sets off a cascading effect of thoughts and memories that lead to urges and cravings.”
There are two types of triggers — internal and external. External triggers are often situational, while internal triggers involve emotions or memories.
Holiday Season External Triggers
Many professionals describe external triggers as an addict’s people, places and things. Events or circumstances may also be a trigger.
During the holidays, examples of external triggers include:
- People. Running into old friends with whom you drank or used; spending time with your relatives who have addiction problems and are not in recovery
- Places. Visiting your parent’s house where you used to get high or drink; passing by your favorite liquor store or location where you used to get drugs
- Things. Wearing an old jacket that smells like marijuana or another drug you smoked; noticing an unattended bottle of liquor or pills at home or a party; seeing drinking or smoking paraphernalia during Black Friday shopping
- Events. Attending a New Year’s Eve party with a champagne toast; witnessing a family argument at Thanksgiving dinner
In addition to these people, places and things, the “most wonderful time of the year” also carries financial stress, exhumes family conflict and involves a large number of parties — all of which can be triggers.
Holiday Season Internal Triggers
As much as external factors can influence a person, many recovering addicts also face the threat of internal triggers. These emotions, thoughts or memories may remind a person of drinking or drugs and prompt the urge to use.
Many addiction professionals teach their patients to H.A.L.T. to become more conscious of internal triggers. Hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness are the four pillars of the acronym, which are each powerful states of being that can push an addict to fulfill their urges.
During the holidays, examples of internal triggers include:
- Hunger. Feeling the physical need that is hunger and confusing it for a substance craving
- Anger. Feeling angry you can’t drink on New Year’s Day during the football game; feeling frustrated your friends didn’t invite you to holiday parties involving alcohol
- Loneliness. Feeling self-pity and loneliness after your family uninvites you from Christmas celebrations; feeling lonely because you are single during the holidays and worry you can’t achieve intimacy without being high
- Tiredness. Feeling exhausted and irritable after a long drive to see family for Thanksgiving
How to Avoid Relapse During the Holiday Season
Despite encountering so many simultaneous triggers, Feeney said the solution to avoiding relapse during the holiday season is simple — have a plan.
The plan starts with tackling avoidable triggers, which often pop up around the holidays in a social calendar. Feeney recommends RSVPing no to party invitations where drugs or alcohol will be present, and avoiding drives through old neighborhoods where you used to get high — even if it is just to look at the holiday lights. Also, if you have a beloved relative who has a drinking or drug problem, Feeney recommends you spend some time on the phone with that person rather than visiting them.
For the triggers that are out of your control, she said it’s essential to form and stick to a backup plan. That way, when a friend brings a bottle of champagne to your ugly sweater party, you won’t be tempted to partake in the liquid merriment.
“Sometimes having a plan is about relying on a good support system. Sometimes it’s about knowing when and where your closest NA meeting is. I recommend having a plan A, plan B and even a plan C because we can’t control everything that goes on around us,” Feeney said.
Jon-Michael Myers, recovering heroin addict and alumnus of The Recovery Village and Orlando Recovery Center, said this plan requires daily maintenance.
“You have to affront addiction on a daily basis, so it’s not even about the holidays. I am going home for the holidays this year, but I’m not too worried — it’s about who you surround yourself with,” Myers said.
Both agreed communication and understanding are key parts of the plan. “Addicts have to be smarter — not stronger — than the disease,” Feeney said. “Any plan made in isolation never works. You have to include your family or loved ones in your plans.”
Families can help their loved ones join in the merrymaking by listening, avoiding the use of drugs or alcohol around their loved one in recovery, or even planning a sober holiday.
Signs of Relapse
Among all the signs of relapse, the basis of the term is a continued spree of using after a period of well-maintained sobriety. Feeney said a one-time lapse is possible without falling back into addiction, but if the person starts to “feed into the cycle,” it becomes a relapse.
Other signs of relapse include:
- Neglecting healthy habits, including eating poorly and not getting enough sleep
- A decline in personal hygiene
- Mood swings or erratic behavior
- Withdrawal from loved ones, hobbies and activities such as AA or NA meetings
- Reduced performance at work or in school
- Spending time with old friends or at old places associated with substance use
If your loved one is in recovery from drugs or alcohol and starts exhibiting any of these symptoms, they may be experiencing a relapse.
What if I Relapse During the Holidays?
Despite most relapsing addicts’ feelings of self-consciousness, relapse is a common part of recovery. If you find yourself in a downward spiral of drug or alcohol use during the holidays, it’s important to remember you don’t have to be alone.
“Often when someone relapses, they don’t want to talk about it. They feel defeated,” Feeney said, “and it starts a downward spiral.”
Silence can become the enemy. Myers recommends maintaining small, seemingly insignificant routines to help stay sober during the holidays.
“I pray on a daily basis, I talk to my sponsor, I reach out to my support network,” he said. “When I relapse I stop doing all of that, I stop telling my story. I take it all on by myself, but you can’t do that. Addicts — our way doesn’t work.”
What does work, according to many experts (including Feeney), is getting the person who is relapsing to a counseling session, an AA or NA meeting, or in touch with their sponsor.
During the holidays, relapsing addicts can also find a special kind of support during Alcathons. These marathon AA meetings create a supportive environment to those struggling to hold onto the idea of a sober Christmas. Alcathons run all day and through the night, and often for entire weekends, to help those facing the temptations of the holiday season.
To anyone interacting with a relapsing addict during the holidays, Feeney’s top piece of advice is to “be supportive, but don’t enable them.”
“Relapse carries a lot of emotions for everyone involved. A family member or friend may feel angry, upset or disappointed in an addict,” she said, “but try not to put that on the person with the addiction.
“Don’t shame them. Instead, help them take that next step back into sobriety.”
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