Christmas in Recovery

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It’s some time now since Action on Addiction’s Kirby Gregory contributed to our first guide on helping people in early recovery get through Christmas. But the basic principles hold as true today as when they were first written.

Although it is a Christian festival, Christmas has a huge impact on all our society. Whether you are involved directly or not, there are many implications for a recovering person.

Alcohol is a major factor in the celebrations and many people who do not usually drink to excess find themselves going way beyond their normal limits. Recovering people must recognise that this can place them in a vulnerable position, that it might be safest to avoid environments with alcohol. This might entail choosing to spend as much of the time as possible with other recovering people.

Plan to attend specific mutual-aid meetings over the holiday period – make a written plan and stick to it, otherwise “the illusion of self-sufficiency can take hold”.

Learn to use the telephone before you are desperate to make a life-saving call – call people for a chat or to see how they are getting on.

If you are round alcohol, try to have at least one person around who understands your situation and is available to support you.

And be wary of old haunts – start a new history with others in recovery.

“Christmas can be a very difficult time for the general population as a whole, due to difficult family dynamics, lack of money, past trauma, grief and loss to name a few. If you add addiction to the mix, it can be a major trigger to a serious relapse,” stated a senior manager at the Bayberry Clinic.

People in early recovery are very vulnerable as they start the process of rebuilding relationships and family ties, working on self-esteem and confidence issues and creating a new network of support. Christmas can be a painful time for this group of people who can feel alone and isolated, particularly when family systems have yet to heal, where there is unresolved grief issues or when family members are still in active addiction.

It is often hard to “fit back in” to a family system or network of friends who might not understand the concept of abstinence and or made changes necessary to support recovery. It can feel like “everyone else in the world is happy and is drinking/using drugs except me” as alcohol is so prevalent in the “celebrations” whether it be in families, the workplace, socially or even in our favourite TV programmes such as soap operas, most of which centre round pubs.

It can be difficult to get away from alcohol and recreational drugs even when you stay at home and try hard – I can still remember sitting in the cinema in very early recovery and counting 13 advertisements for alcoholic drinks before the film started!

Part of recovery from addiction is about being proactive and prepared, devising strategies to deal with potential or presenting situations. A common sense and “safety conscious” approach is useful, focusing on positive action such as below.

Make a relapse-prevention plan for each day of the holiday period, to include daily fellowship meetings. Check your local area as there are usually extra meetings and social gatherings scheduled to help people who are struggling.

Plan activities such as exercise, walking, relaxation, thus avoiding the temptation to “veg out” alone at home  Plan, if possible, to be with other recovering people or people who support your recovery.

Have breaks from stressful situations by meeting friends for coffee, going for a walk, to the gym etc.
Make a list of people you can call if things get difficult – at least five names – and carry the list and your phone with you at all times.
Do service in the 12-step fellowships or volunteer to help other charities such as Helping the Homeless.
Do a daily gratitude list to help keep your spirits up.

Try to have everything you might need at home in advance to avoid wandering the streets looking for shops on the main holidays, as most of the open shops will be off-licenses. Try to include plenty of non-alcoholic drinks and healthy food which you enjoy.
Avoid isolation and listening to music which can trigger sadness or uncomfortable feelings
Avoid pubs, clubs, restaurants or other ‘wet’ places. Do not be tempted to “test yourself”.
Do not get into arguments, squabbles or unhealthy dynamics with friends or family members, especially if they have been drinking.

“Keep it in the day”. Each day of the festive season is just another 24 hours, so try not to give it any more power than that. Enjoy your Christmas and New Year, one day at a time.

1. Over the years, as our clients have become more diverse, so our approach to Christmas and New Year had to adapt. It is now probable that in each of our units there will be a group of clients for whom the celebration of Christmas is something they have never experienced and do not necessarily want to be involved in. We must be aware that for some of our clients Christmas can be a difficult time for different reasons.

2 We try to arrange every activity with a view to offering an alternative. This presents new challenges but we have found that, with open discussions with the client group, a good time can be had by all. This generally starts with discussions about decorating the house: does everywhere need to be decorated?

3. In the houses, we remove all religious references to the festivities, but make provision for everyone to be involved in faith-based activities of their choice, with the help of all local religious communities. We keep the emphasis in the houses on doing fun things together in recovery, inclusively. We focus on installation of hope with gratitude workshops, goals for the New Year and the spiritual elements of the programme.

4. Food is another important issue. With the diversity of clients, it is important that everyone has a special meal, and all the decisions round the food are made by the clients themselves.

5. We have always given clients presents at Christmas but, again with such a diverse mix of clients, we find it important to ensure that all clients will be happy to receive gifts from us.

6. For all clients, this can be a good time to look at family relationships. If a client wishes to see their family over the festive period, it might be less stressful to do it the week before Christmas. For others, the simple act of sending a card might be as far as they can go at this time; we provide time, space and facilities for clients to make their own cards if they wish, as personal allowances do not go far. For some, no contact can be made.

7.Whatever the relationship, it is important to allow enough time for each client to process their feelings before the festive period itself. This involves raising the issue as early as the beginning of November in the house itself, with each client having a personal plan for any potential problem areas well before time.

To encourage inclusivity in the group, we encourage clients to put on a ‘panto’ for the staff where they have permission to send us up as much as they want, which we have always found a good activity for bonding the clients together as a team. Without fail, it gives everyone a good laugh.

8. For the festive period itself, detailed planning is the most important element. Clients are encouraged to get involved in as many different activities as possible. We strive to provide as varied a mix as possible, from attendance at places of worship to communal games, from quiet walks to panto, ice skating, cinema trips, meditation and meetings. This is what could be called plan A. Plan B is to always have enough extra resources available to deal with any other events. The preparation for all this starts now.

“Christmas can be a difficult time to be in treatment. Women might be separated from children and families and this can create overwhelming feelings of guilt or loss,” explains Mo Dunn, CEO of Hebron Trust.

We are a small community of women and each year the client group is made up differently – but we have developed a strategy to set up ‘building blocks’ for future Christmases.

In the lead up to Christmas, counsellors begin to identify the personal issues their clients might experience at this time of year. Group work is then facilitated in which women are encouraged to voice their personal responses to being in treatment at Christmas.

“We will then deliver a programme which attempts to meet the needs of the current client group. It may be that for some decorating the house for Christmas is both desirable and therapeutic, whereas for others it could induce painful reminders of past events. We as a community will come to a compromise, such as the length of time decorations are displayed and who might be involved in the process. Our aim is for staff to be sensitive to the residents’ needs and for residents to be sensitive to each other.

“Structure and routine are fundamental in Hebron’s programme as both contribute to a safe and comfortable environment. For us, the daily programme will continue with some exceptions to allow for seasonal celebration. So groups run as normal but the content can vary to be relevant to the time of year.

“The Trust provides opportunities for women to attend special outing events such as pantomimes or church services should they choose to. Some women choose to pursue their own ideas for celebrating Christmas; they might want to be involved in special art work or other creativity and this is encouraged. One year, several women raised money for charity by carol singing at a local shopping centre.

“Christmas day itself is celebrated with a traditional dinner cooked by staff for the residents. Gifts are given to all. The overall atmosphere is one of a low key ‘family’ celebration where staff work to ensure that individual needs are met for each individual’s response to Christmas. The day is staffed by regular day staff equipped to deal with any emotional crisis which might arise.

Between Christmas and New Year, it is important that the programme continues to run as normal. This provides stability and familiar routine with groups that focus on new beginnings and the hope of sustained recovery in the future. We celebrate New Year’s eve by providing an opportunity to see the New Year in together.”

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