Sometime around mid-October, holiday decorations begin to appear and commercials show on television. Newer, brighter, shinier... bigger, better, more! The holiday season begins, and lights and sounds fill the airwaves and the internet with images of laughing, smiling people, enjoying themselves, spending time and money with family and friends. As a consumer economy, we engage in massive retail participation during the three months between October and December.
Along with buying and spending comes an advertised atmosphere of joyful celebration that leaves many feeling that they are somehow missing the boat. Even outside the regular stressors of day to day life in recovery is added the illusion of happiness that others achieve during holidays. Every Hallmark commercial on television shows that we are supposed to be jubilant, loving, and fulfilled with family and good cheer. The holidays are a time that is already full; bordering on mania, with additional tasks of doing that are part and parcel of most of American's celebration of this season.
Recovering addicts have double stressors at this time of year. First, they must allow memories and feelings of past holidays, less than happy and jubilant, to arise and be processed. Then, to celebrate, trying hard to make their outsides look happy; while inside are feelings- raw, vulnerable, and scared that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. This is the kind of insecurity they turned to drugs to avoid! It is impossible to match the things they see advertised around them with what is going on in their life. Even if financially secure and able to participate in the monstrous accumulation of goods and services seen on TV, they will still feel that they fall short somehow, in providing the right combination of food, toys, gifts, and good cheer that make it all perfect, just like on TV.
What few of these addicts have ever done is to step outside the hubbub and chaos of the season to examine the truth (for them) of what the holidays actually mean. What makes celebration significant, other than material exchanges that always feel empty and hollow when over? What is it that they are signing on for? Do they really believe that those with the most toys wins? Or is it truly a time of quiet reflection that is so lost in the material reality of having consumer goods thrust at you constantly that it will never be filled with things?
Important questions to ask at the onset of the uncomfortable feelings that arise with the holidays is: "What do I want, truly want, to give and receive this year? What can I do to help and lift the people I love? Do I buy gifts? Do I want to go more deeply into a spiritual answer to this? Am I content with this? What do I believe?" These questions will allow everyone to find the path into and through this experience that suits them best. Because few could ask or answer these questions while actively participating in their addiction, it is important to redefine what they think they know about the holidays.
Making your celebrations personally fulfilling to you is the key to enjoying the season of holidays. If you have family and enjoy it with them, or if you are alone and donate your time to help others by working in soup kitchens, find meaning that fits and you will find holidays much happier.
Kelly McClanahan has an MSW in clinical social work, with a specialization in substance abuse treatment. Having worked in this field for over 20 years, she is currently working on her certification as an addictions' counselor.