By Virgil Roberson, L.P., M. Div., NCPsyA, Executive Director
If you struggle with addiction, the holidays can be a minefield, triggering the negative behaviors you’ve been working hard to avoid. Add our ongoing public health crisis, with the sharp spike in cases of coronavirus, and the dangers multiply.
In ordinary times, the myriad sights and sounds, the traditions and expectations of the holidays can arouse powerful emotions. This year a sense of loss arising from public health restrictions, and the need to limit or forego many celebrations, as well as personal losses suffered because of the pandemic, might prove to be overwhelming.
Last March, Dr. Tim K. Brennan, Director of the Addiction Institute at Mount Sinai West was quoted in The New York Times: “I’m hard-pressed to think of a bigger relapse trigger than what we’re going through now as a country.”
The increased stress and anxiety can provoke patterns of behavior that have not served you well in the past: too much alcohol consumption, over eating, gambling, excessive shopping, or acting out in whatever form it takes for you—all intended to put you in control while actually robbing you of personal agency.
Can you get through the holidays without a meltdown? Yes, but it helps to be prepared.
The process involves three stages: awareness, acceptance, and action.
First, take some time to acknowledge how difficult this time of year might be. The holidays fill our senses with lights and decorations, baking cookies and scented greenery, music and singing. All of these can remind us of how the holidays have been in the past and won’t be this year. Losses are often felt more keenly, no matter how long ago they occurred.
The holidays also come packed with expectations—of ourselves and others. When those expectations aren’t met, which almost inevitably happens, we often allow resentment to take hold. Expectations become the match that lights the fuse of addictive-related behavior.
People struggling with addiction often react poorly to authority figures. A store clerk asking a customer to wear a mask might provoke a negative over-reaction. A parent re-asserting authority over a 20-something son now living at home might initiate an escalating confrontation.
It’s important to recognize the triggers that get you into trouble. They may be feelings of self-pity, which lead to the twisted logic that if Uncle Joe can drink excessively, why can’t I? Or if Cousin Mary can go back for a third helping, I can too. Or you may fall into a pattern of comparing yourself with others at the company Zoom party or within your extended family; coming up short, you fall into despair.
You may become vulnerable to an unhelpful thought pattern. As J.F. Benoist describes in his book Addicted to the Monkey Mind, If “we’ve learned to look outside ourselves for the cause of our problems…[then] when we get upset, we blame others and outside circumstances. We get caught up believing that what others think of us, and what happens to us, are what dictate our experience.”
A danger sign might be an increase in “cross addictive” behaviors. Maybe you’re suddenly smoking again or behaving in inappropriate ways—ignoring public health requests by attending large parties, sex-texting during Zoom meetings, or isolating yourself night after night while secretly drinking, gambling, or watching pornography. Such a loss of judgement and self-control are clues to impending trouble.
A study released by the Rand Corporation at the end of September reported that American adults have sharply increased their consumption of alcohol during the pandemic, with women increasing their heavy drinking episodes (four or more drinks within a couple of hours) by 41%.
This national survey found that the overall frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14%–including 19% among all adults aged 30 to 59, 17% among women, and 10% among non-Hispanic white adults.
In addition to a range of negative physical health associations, excessive alcohol use may lead to, or worsen, existing mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression, which may themselves be increasing during Covid-19.
A recent New York Times article, “Building Emotional Safety Nets for Men,” described two men in different cities who, three months into the pandemic, were struggling. One man “experienced a depth of sadness and depression he had never before known, his alcohol consumption spiked, and he began having suicidal thoughts.” The second man found himself weeping every time he went into a grocery store, because the “panic and anxiety he read on other shoppers’ faces mirrored back his own.”
Shame—whether recognized or not– is often the emotion underlying all these feelings. Something missing, something needed long ago and never received, can make you feel bad about yourself. Bad enough that you’re compelled to act in an addictive way—anything to mask that shame and attempt to regain the control that shame has taken away. But shame can be acknowledged, and it doesn’t have to rule.
So, first learn to recognize your particular warning signs and triggers. And be aware of the difficulties that the holidays during this pandemic pose for you.
It’s important to know your own boundaries so you don’t collude with the idea that you have to act out on your feelings; learn what you can handle and what you can’t. You might choose to set the terms for a family member who wants to visit, saying, “You’re welcome to come, but I ask that you not drink while you’re in my home because I have trouble handling that; and I ask that you get a negative Covid test before you arrive.”
It helps to decide ahead of time what limits you’ll set for yourself and how you’ll handle situations that you anticipate. This is hard work! It’s difficult to resist peer pressure, which can be intense. It’s tough to risk criticism when you’re yearning for acceptance. But it’s healthy to map out in advance where your boundaries lie and what you’ll do if circumstances threaten to spin out of control. Act with the intention of remaining in charge of your behavior instead of letting others dictate it.
It’s also important to accept your feelings, however uncomfortable they make you. Acknowledge your fears, doubts, even your anger. These feelings won’t hurt you, but what you do with them can create situations you can’t undo later.
Then, decide what action to take. Ask yourself what you want and how you can achieve it.
If you find yourself in a situation that threatens to overwhelm you, you might reassert control by:
- Taking a big breath, then another. Slow down enough to become conscious of your breathing, your feelings, your body.
- Going to a place where you can cool down: slip away to your room or go for a walk, where nature can soothe you or the urban streets can distract you. Identify your feelings and get out of your own head by becoming aware of what’s going on around you.
- Seeking out a virtual AA or Al-Anon meeting; even during Covid, there’s almost always one available online. People in Twelve Step Programs, including official “sponsors” from those groups, can help you get through a tough moment. You might feel more comfortable with a clergyperson or therapist, who might connect you to someone who’s been in a similar situation. Or you might arrange in advance for a friend to be “on call.” It needn’t be your best friend, just someone who can act in your own best interest—by helping you escape a tenuous situation or by lending a listening ear.
- Practicing self-care. Ask yourself: what am I wishing I had, and can I give that to myself? Chances are, what you really want, deep down, will feed you, rather than your addiction.
- Cultivating gratitude: be aware of and appreciate what you do have instead of resenting what you don’t have. Viewing your circumstances from an attitude of gratitude is bound to brighten your outlook.
All these suggestions are intended to help you become aware of your feelings, your triggers, and your boundaries; to accept your feelings and the situation as they are; and to act not in reaction but to reassert control. Control the things you can, let go of those you can’t, and show that you have the wisdom to know the difference.
With these tools in hand and the commitment you’ve worked hard to maintain during this most challenging year, you can enjoy the holidays with good mental health, filling your heart and soul with the love and good will that will leave you richly satisfied.