Tom’s story: My first festive season without alcohol
‘I looked at New Year’s events and we broke each one down and made a plan’
‘My support network helped me to identify my triggers and behaviours that would be part of my old addictive rituals.’
Doing anything for the first time can be a truly daunting experience. My first days in school, college and learning to drive are all times I can remember my anxiety and stress levels rising to frightening levels.
Yet all of these seemed very easy when I was faced with the prospect of my first Christmas season in recovery. After decades of living an isolated life of addiction, I was nothing short of terrified to see the first Christmas advertisements on TV.
I was armed with an endless supply of reasons why this was going to be impossible for me; memories of disastrous Christmases past haunted me and as I counted down the days my anxiety increased by the minute.
Although I was attending several fellowship meetings every week and continuing a care programme, I still believed I could in some way figure all this out by myself.
I have spent my entire life believing that opening up to others and becoming vulnerable was an instant sign of weakness and it was this thinking that kept me trapped in the ever tightening downward spiral of destruction. The main reason that I believed I would never survive the festive season was I had been ignoring the greatest gift that awaits anyone recovering from addiction – connection with those who understand me.
Once I found the courage to speak about the fears and anxiety that was crippling me, the response was overwhelming. My sponsor, long-term fellowship members and counsellors helped me break down this unmanageable holiday period into day-by-day recovery plans. They allowed me to lean into their experience and were there to support and encourage me when I was not sure what to do next.
They helped me to identify my triggers and behaviours that would be part of my old addictive rituals. From New Year’s parties to family events we broke each one down and looked at its importance, its location and duration. If it wasn’t vitally important for me to be there or I felt I wasn’t strong enough I wouldn’t attend, choosing to meet a fellowship friend for coffee or attend a meeting.
This would allow me to ground myself and renew my focus on recovery, rather than isolating and allowing resentment to find a way to grip me once again.
For the social occasions I needed to attend we developed a plan for each one. These plans usually start off with some prayer and meditation or a walk in nature to begin the day as grounded as possible. I would attend a fellowship meeting because this would allow me to share my anxiety and reaffirm connection with others in recovery.
Checking-in with my sponsor and those friends on the phone became the backbone of each of these social situations. The routine of calling people before, during and after each occasion, proved to be of incredible benefit to me.
Simply knowing that someone was expecting calls from me at designated times allowed me to take responsibility for my own peace of mind and during these calls we would assess how I was feeling and make a plan until our next call was due.
If I was beginning to feel tired or overwhelmed it was time to leave. Something that I completely underestimated was the energy that social anxiety demands and how addiction can try to capitalise on it. The days following each of these occasions I often found myself extremely tired and, as a result, my addiction would try to plant ideas in my mind that were part of old and unhealthy behaviours. Therefore staying connected with recovery and grounded as possible was vitally important.
This is when my support network was there to guide me once again. The first few times I called people during these days, I felt silly and as if I was a burden on others, but the reality was different. The people I spoke with knew the pain of addiction and danger of isolation and were there for me with incredible understanding and compassion.
That Christmas and New Year seemed so impossible at the time and now it seems like a distant memory, yet I have used the same plans for every event and occasion since and I have been in the privileged position to be there for others putting their recovery plans in place too.
Advice for individuals and families
The Rutland Centre (rutlandcentre.ie), an addiction rehabilitation centre and registered charity, has launched an advice guide Recovery is Precious, Protect it this Christmas to support individuals and their families struggling with addiction. Advice includes the following:
Prepare yourself for the days ahead
- Plan your meetings and stay focused
- Plan your social occasions so that are enjoyable but don’t involve alcohol
- Practice relaxation skills such as mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises
- Surround yourself with positive people committed to your recovery
- Understand your triggers and warning signs such as feelings, behaviours, attitudes and thinking
Remember your recovery responses
- Stay in touch through meetings, sponsors, continuing care, recovery friends.
- Write down your thoughts and feelings
- Get enough sleep
- Eat healthily
- Tell someone what is going on
Have you a loved one in recovery?
- Talk to them and encourage them to attend meetings, to reach out to their recovery network.
- Help them avoid occasions where they may be uncomfortable.
- Look after yourself, if necessary detach with love and don’t forget to attend your own meetings.