Mental Health Matters: Sobriety a tough journey that gets tougher at New Year’s
Mental Health Matters
I’ve never been much good at letter writing; sometimes a bit late, or not at all. But late is better than not at all, so here goes. To all my friends in the Recovery Community, and to their friends and fellow travelers:
This is my end of year letter, wishing all of you a safe holiday season and a good and prosperous new year.
Sobriety, and I mean both drugs and alcohol, is a long, tough journey, a never-ending road full of pot holes and sharp, unmarked dangerous curves. Particularly during the holiday season.
According to the United States National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, alcohol beverage companies make more than one-quarter of an entire year’s profit during these holidays. After all, it’s the season of good cheer, gift giving, parties, and family gatherings.
These social events are almost never without the lubricating effect of alcohol. Moreover, “ party drugs,” and drugs in general, invariably find their way into these gatherings, large and small.
And for those of you who are already near the edge, the precipice, the falling off or down point, the risks escalate: job loss, demotion, financial troubles, legal troubles, a relationship problem or breakup, new-found or recent sobriety, or social isolation — each ups the ante and increases the likelihood of a big mistake.
Just knowing it’s the “holidays” can add additional stress to your life. You’re supposed to have fun. Merriment is the order of the day. “Everyone else is having a good time, so what’s wrong with me?” goes the self critical refrain of those who might not be in a celebratory mood.
There are other lurking dangers; routines are disrupted during the holidays — days off work, less structured time, increased expectations to socialize, or maybe increased social isolation.
Rates of depression tend to increase during the holidays, a particular danger for those in recovery. Suicide increases right after the holidays, an indicator that for those “at risk” the holiday season can be difficult.
Here are my top 12 tips for those in recovery, those contemplating that journey, and anyone else who might listen in:
1: No matter what else you do, celebrate your sobriety throughout the holiday season. Remember the hard work you did to get there, and emphasize the work you’re doing right now to stay there. Every day of sobriety is a gift you give to yourself.
2: Maintain your routine as best you can. If you usually attend AA or NA meetings, make sure you continue that activity, no matter where the holidays may take you.
3: If you’re an AA or NA participant, you likely have a trusted friend or sponsor there. Contact them before holiday events, and let them know you may be calling them afterward.
4: Don’t mope. Stay active. Listen to music, go for a walk, to the gym, or the movies. Engage.
5: If you’re going to a party, have a clear pre-party strategy; rehearse how you’ll handle social discomfort. Decide how you’ll engage the alcohol/drug issue knowing that others will be drinking and/or using. Nurse a glass of soda water at social events, and know just what you will say in rejecting any and all offers. Again, have a plan and follow it.
6: If you’re going to a party and complete abstinence is not your program, plan ahead of time carefully. Know there will be cues to drink or use and don’t be seduced by false recollections of warm, fuzzy, nostalgic good times when you drank too much and/or used in the past. Know your intake limit before the party, and stick to it. And don’t accept gifts from strangers. You never know what’s in it.
7: While there is “No place like home for the holidays,” that’s precisely why you need to contemplate your visit ahead of time. This can be tricky. Home may be where your substance abuse history was nurtured. Contact with family can trigger old unsettling memories and childish behavior. Be ready for them, and know what you will do.
8: When you’re home with parents they may well treat you in ways that are not consistent with your view of your adult self. Be prepared. More importantly, if you want to be seen as a grow-nup at home, act like one.
9: If immediate family and/or relatives tend to make you a little crazy, rehearse how you’ll deal with it ahead of time, and find a reason to limit your visit.
10: If you’re a parent, model appropriate alcohol use around all your children. No drugs.
11: Know your particular “triggers” or cues, know they will be more prominent during the holidays, and pre-plan your coping strategies.
12: If you use opiates and/or heroin, have Narcan or naloxone readily available. It will save your life if administered shortly after an overdose.
I do hope there is something in this letter that grabs you by the lapels, or your skirt hem, as the case may be, to remind you that sobriety is one of those gifts you earn, a gift that can keep on giving for a lifetime.
Best wishes for a safe and sober New Year.
Incline Village resident Andrew Whyman, MD, is a clinical and forensic psychiatrist. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.