I wonder how many people reading this pre-Christmas blog are thinking about giving up their clean time to “enjoy” a few drinks over the holidays?
I wrote, “enjoy” in quotes because when the disease speaks to us it tends to create advertising strategies that would rival the Mad Men of Madison Avenue. For example, a couple years ago I was passing a park in New York City when the smell of weed hit me and a voice in my head responded with, “That smells RELAXING”. It was such an absurd adjective to describe weed that I recognized it as an impulsive ploy by the disease to try to get me to relapse. In fact, immediately following the word “relaxing” came “All you have to do is walk into that park and take a hit off that joint and you won’t have to write a recovery book and you can walk away from all the pressures that come with being self-employed“. Of course there is more to the story – it was the 4th of July and I hadn’t made plans so I was feeling sorry for myself and a little lonely. I was exhausted and hadn’t had a day off in ages and I did have a lot of writing deadline pressure – in a sense, it was a perfect storm of ongoing stress and HALT for the disease to gain a bit of a voice again (after 23 years clean). This is what is meant when we tell newcomers to respect the power of the disease – it’s always looking for a way to regain control. I loved heroin but if it takes weed to get me back to heroin, then the relapse-strategy of the disease will use weed. If you were a meth addict, a glass of wine will appear harmless by comparison (in the strategy of the disease mind). Pay attention to the way you think about drugs and alcohol this holiday season. The subtle use of language in your head is a trick the disease will try to use to gain traction. It’s part of the disease’s seduction.
It might use the color of wine or the rarely used holiday cocktail glasses you see at a party to get your attention or the jolly bar scene that appears through the window as you pass by on a snowy night. Rarely will the disease let you equate Christmas “cheer” with a syringe or a crack pipe. Instead, it will suggest partaking in the midnight champagne toast on New Years, or spiked eggnog on Christmas. Maybe it will start by tricking you into eating a dessert that you already know is dosed with rum. Recovering addicts and alcoholics can’t afford to get amnesia over the holidays. We must be alert to our actions and tell on the bargaining voice that assures us that we “are not in danger”.
Amnesia is how relapse begins.
I am currently with someone who is in withdrawal from Suboxone. When she started to use pills after several years clean, she’d convinced herself that the emotional pain and discomfort she was experiencing (over romantic disappointment) was greater than the pain of opiate withdrawal. Another way amnesia plays into relapse is that it distorts the hellish process we went through before we were ever able to summon the courage to get through detox. You know – the voice that says “It’s okay to drink throughout the holidays because you can get sober again in the New Year”. We forget all the times we tried to get clean but couldn’t make it 48 hours before giving up.
This holiday blog is meant as a reality check for anyone who is bargaining with himself or herself over whether or not to drink or get high this holiday season.
Yesterday was my friend’s first day off of 2 mgs of Suboxone (which, by the way, she got down to through an outpatient detox of 6 weeks. This involved a weekly taper which was equal to low level withdrawal misery). Last night she continually shifted from the bed to the floor, to the tub, to blankets, to no blankets while she went from sweating to freezing. It brought it back home to me – that horrible sensation of being so uncomfortable in your bones that no position allows for sleep. I could hear her moan, whimper, and weep all night long. There’s no way through it except through it – and by late tonight the worst will be over. Hopefully by Christmas she is through the physical withdrawal because we’ll be able to address the anxiety and depression that always follows detox by going to meetings and using stress reduction tools. A year ago when she relapsed, she really believed her emotional pain was so great that the only thing that could relieve it was a narcotic. Watching her pay the price for this error of judgment last night was heartbreaking. Alone with our mind, our disease will always suggest that life is more painful than active addiction. This is the amnesia I speak of. This is the lie.
Cravings always come about as a result of feelings and lack of self-care. When I talk about holidays being trigger times, I don’t mean that they will come in obvious ways. Instead, they’ll appear as an advertising campaign equating joy and community, intimacy and alcohol OR they will be in response to feelings of insecurity around specific people we have a history with, or in response to the void we feel around the grief of people who are no longer here. Cravings will kick up around loneliness, grief, disappointment, insecurity, hopelessness, and future fears. It will appear as nostalgia for a time when drugs and alcohol worked to bring relief and intensify good times, nostalgia for youth and innocence. The cravings will not be obvious connect-the-dots stuff. It might be a certain smell, or a body memory, or self pity that gets a voice in your head rationalizing how you can control it this time, stop when you want, use one drug and avoid others.
You do not have to be the victim of addict amnesia. There are tools to address every feeling, a fellowship and a community of people in your support network to share your deepest fears with, preventative actions and exit strategies you can put into place before stepping into environments where there are people drinking and using this holiday season. And most of all – minimize your time alone no matter how long you have been sober. Even if you insist that holidays have no power of you, the disease knows where you are vulnerable. It will manufacture a pro-alcohol advertising campaign in your thoughts while creating amnesia so that it’s impossible to get a reality check on what is truly at stake if you relapse.
Have a safe and happy holiday. Reach out. Volunteer. Don’t be alone.