Psychology Magazine

Successful Recovery: Entering the Holiday Battlezone-Part 2

By Garrickkreitzer @GarrickKreitzer

(continued from Part 1)

Operation Sober Holiday: Strategic Initiative #1 – Recognize the Threats and Allies

The holidays are wrought with social engagements and time commitments, many of which are overflowing with alcohol and other chemicals. Also, a dynamic exists at holiday parties which allows, and many times encourages, over-consumption. It’s a dynamic unique to the holidays. Behavior that is deemed “inappropriate” throughout the rest of the year is acceptable during these two months. Remember the stereotypical holiday office party where the shy administrative assistant is dancing on the table with the iconic lampshade on his head?

To prepare for this fight, you must make a list of all the parties, get-togethers, and social interactions that you traditionally attend. Next to every event, classify it as “safe,” “neutral,” “dangerous,” or “hostile.” If your Uncle Fred’s Christmas Eve gathering is low-key and alcohol-free, mark it as “safe.” But if your Cousin John’s soiree has traditionally ended with fistfights or the police showing up, mark it as “dangerous.” If the thought of not going to John’s party makes you feel like you are betraying him, mark it as “hostile.”

Then, decide for which of these engagements you have a legitimate reason to attend. Pay particular attention to any “hostile” or “dangerous” parties in your “must attend” column. Hopefully there aren’t any. If there are, devise an escape plan before you go. Arrange for someone safe to accompany you into the “danger zone” – someone whom you trust and that has your best interest in mind. Make a pact with them stating that if you give a pre-determined signal, they will immediately drive you home or to a 12-step meeting. Or better yet, give them permission to remove you from the situation if they deem it to be too precarious.

Operation Sober Holiday: Strategic Initiative #2 – Plan and Schedule Your Missions

In addition to the parties and social engagements, the holidays are time-demanding. Stress levels are high and you must limit your chances of becoming overwhelmed. For instance, your house may need to be kept tidy, especially with friends and relatives popping in and out. If you are hosting a holiday event, preparations will need to be made. Gift shopping will need to be done. Chauffeuring the kids to and from their commitments is normally a top priority.

This is not a time to “wing it.” Remember, you are trying to limit the chances of being ambushed by surprises or negative emotions, or of becoming overwhelmed. To disarm these enemies, you must plan ahead. Make a list of all your holiday tasks that must be completed. Then write a daily schedule detailing when you will accomplish those tasks. Give yourself adequate time buffers. Stick to the schedule, and ask anyone who is of importance to respect the schedule. Post it on the fridge or send it to others via e-mail. Not only does your schedule create structure and a sense of duty, but it also manages expectations regarding your availability. That brings us to the next component of our battle plan.

Operation Sober Holiday: Strategic Initiative #3 – Manage Expectations

Unmet expectations are frequently the roots in the tree of resentment, anger, disappointment, and hurt feelings. These branches of negative emotions are the seeds of relapse. As humans, we don’t like to feel them. We naturally avoid them. As former alcohol and drug abusers, we seek to numb them. And to nullify them in battle, we must enact a pre-emptive strike at their root.

To effectively manage expectations, you must first classify them as falling into one of three categories: 1.) Expectations of others; 2.) Expectations of yourself; 3.) Others’ expectations of you.

1.) Managing your expectations of others is paramount in order to effectively avoid resentment. Because you are new to sobriety (and reality), you have yet to define what are appropriate expectations of others. Here is a rule of thumb: If someone in your family has managed to get on your nerves every year for as long as you can remember…chances are they will again this year. If your father is a Grinch, chances are he hasn’t changed since last year. If your mother seems to always take a jab at your wife’s holiday turkey, thereby causing drama, she will again. Expect it. Recognize the patterns in others’ behavior. If there is a pattern there that troubles you, be prepared for it. When it troubles you this year, at least you knew it was coming. Laugh it off. And revel in the fact that it didn’t trouble you to the point of wanting to numb it.

2.) Managing your expectations of yourself is more difficult. Now that you are sober, you may have unrealistic expectations that you can now handle all the situations, emotions, and responsibilities that you couldn’t in the past. In fact, you think you OWE it to everyone – to show them the new you – the quality person that was there all along, only distorted by drugs and alcohol. Now the real you is back. This way of thinking is like leading yourself into the enemy’s bunker unarmed.

In fact, now is the time to lay low. Don’t do too much. Recuperate. Survive and live to fight another day. Give yourself permission to skip events, take breaks, go to 12-step meetings at inconvenient times, and forgive yourself when you are an emotional wreck or you feel as though you can’t handle “it.” This is normal and natural. Just get through it as best you can right now. Know that it will be easier next year.

3.) Managing others’ expectations of you is a bit misleading because you cannot manage others’ expectations of you. It is beyond your control. You can, however, control your reactions to others’ expectations. You can minimize the “pressure to perform,” or to be the “new and improved you” as detailed above. You can communicate your feelings, experiences, needs, and boundaries. But you can never be everything to everybody. Nobody can.

Most importantly, you can be empathetic to others’ misunderstandings about where you have been and what you are going through. Or of their concern that you might slip. In fact, be thankful. Many of us had to fight this battle alone and got sober without a support system. By just trying to relate to you the best way they can, however limited or inadequate that may be, your loved ones are conveying their support in your plight for sobriety. That support is invaluable.

(to be continued in Part 3)

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