Getting sober is no small feat, and staying sober takes incredible strength, determination and dedication. It also takes support from loved ones, especially during the holidays, where relapse can be a constant threat to an individual in recovery. “One of the main reasons relapse is more common during the holidays is they can bring up a lot of emotions, both positive and negative,” says Chris O’Reilly, Clinical Director of My First Year of Recovery at Caron Treatment Centers. “People are more prone to relapse because they can be uncomfortable with these feelings and may not know how to cope with them. Often they use a chemical, like alcohol or drugs, to numb their uncomfortable feelings or try to change them.” We asked O'Reilly to talk more about some of the triggers that can cause relapse for those in recovery, and what family members can do to help avoid them and cope with the emotions they can provoke.
Triggers associated with relapse during the holidays
Common triggers include emotional pressure and unrealistic expectations. Reconnecting with old friends and family during the holidays can stir up heavy emotions and also instigate unrealistic expectations. “People in recovery set boundaries and practice self-care. They may stay away from places during the year where people are drinking or abusing substances, but during the holidays they may feel obligations that derail their plans. They may feel ‘these are my family members,’ or ‘I haven’t seen this person in a long time,’ so they go to a bar or celebration and they take a risk. Part of that trigger is just being around alcohol or drugs.”
Avoiding the triggers
There are tactics for those in recovery can use to avoid those outside triggers, which include increasing communication with the people supportive of their recovery, such as their sponsor. O’Reilly also suggests something he calls “sandwiching” - “If you’re heading to a holiday party where there will be drinking or you’re seeing someone you know will bring up strong emotions, you can call your sponsor or go to a meeting beforehand, then plan to have coffee with your sponsor or a supportive friend after. You prepare for the event and then process the experience. You don’t want to have an experience during the holidays that’s difficult, and then be by yourself. Planning is key.”
As the friend or family member of a recovering addict, there are some things you can keep in mind when planning holiday events, and some red flags to be mindful of when attending.
Be as supportive during the holidays as you are all year ‘round
“Some families struggle with keeping the holidays alcohol-free because they feel that during this season, things should be different,” says O’Reilly. “But if they want to support their loved one, they should plan on having alcohol-free and recovery-friendly celebrations. It may be the holidays, but they need to remember that recovery is all-important, and ongoing.”
Communication during the holidays is important to help support recovery
“People really need to know what those in recovery are struggling with, what they’re feeling. It’s almost as if you need to work overtime with your recovery knowledge because the holidays can bring up a ton of emotions and stress, and even good stress can be a problem. New Year’s Eve is an example. People in recovery may not know what to do with the happy emotions, either, and so they take a risk.”
Warning signs of potential relapse
No one wants to see their loved one, who has worked so hard to get sober and stay sober, face a relapse. But, it does happen and since the holidays include common triggers for relapse, O’Reilly explains there are some warning signs to look for.
“One big sign is isolation. When your loved one is less transparent, less available, and quieter or pulls away, those behaviors can signify several other things, such as self-care, but on the other hand, it could be a warning sign that they are struggling in recovery. If you can’t get a sense about what’s going on with them, they may be at high-risk for relapse. One basic warning sign is if alcohol goes missing. In addition, if a family member sees that the person is “up for anything” or has no boundaries, that’s something to be concerned about.”
Length of time in recovery doesn’t indicate how successful one will be when facing triggers
O’Reilly says it isn’t how long a person has been in recovery that dictates how successful they will be in stressful or emotional situations around the holidays, but instead how much work is done in recovery. “I’ve met people ten year sober who are not stable because they haven’t done the work required, such as staying connected with others in recovery and growing spiritually and emotionally. Some people just stop drinking versus actually doing the work. Recovery is easiest for people who work hard on changing their lives and it’s a lot more than just not drinking and taking drugs—it’s about spirituality, self-care and boundaries, having healthier relationships and being self-aware.”
Caron Treatment Centers is a nationally recognized non-profit provider of alcohol and drug addiction treatment. With nearly 60 years in the field, Caron is one of the oldest and largest drug and alcohol addiction treatment center organizations offering primary, relapse and longer-term treatment for adolescents, young adults, adults, boomers and older adults, as well as families affected by the disease of addiction.