I posted two blogs already about the holidays but the amount of email and conversations I have lately seem to keep going back to this subject. Here is what I noticed: people who have been clean and sober for a period of time (18 months or more) have a built in memory of the sneakiness of the disease at this time of year so they have upped their recovery time, maybe by going to more meetings or by making extra effort to connect with their sponsor and support group. They are not living in fear of the holidays – they are simply taking the actions needed for a smoother ride through the month. Almost everyone I know who has less than a year down to early days in recovery do not seem to think the holidays are going to be an issue for them. Some have even thought it out logically and are convinced that all this ‘high alert” stuff program people keep talking about will not apply to them.
I don’t fault the newcomers for it. From their point of view, they are being honest in how they feel. What they don’t seem to have yet is an awareness of how the disease of addiction continues to lurk, waiting for an opportunity to strike. Before I got clean, the insanity in my thinking and the level of stress I experienced was intense and only seemed to hit a level of calm and clear thinking after I used. Part of this was because the stress of withdrawal was removed by using but since the disease lives in the obsession/compulsion part of my mind it would come up again even while I was high – to get more, to say that amount wasn’t enough or it wasn’t strong enough – get more. Basically, the disease really only ever had one thing to say “MORE” and the rest of me – body spirit and mind – was enslaved to make it happen. Trying to exert control over it “I’ll get more tonight” resulted in a subtle level of mental agony and physical discomfort until the whole idea of getting more “tonight” turned into “getting more within the hour”. I’m sure we all know what it was like to be controlled by the disease, cave in to the compulsion and obsession by putting everything we wanted to do second to feeding the disease. When we first stop using, we are so amazed to look back at how completely enslaved we had been. We recognize how – despite our intelligence – the disease was more powerful. So we get clean and around the holidays, a sort of amnesia comes over us in early recovery. We can’t seem to connect with how powerless we had been. We feel like the disease is in the past (if it even is a disease) because we’ve been free from that level of obsession and compulsion for a while. In fact, most days, we feel all right.
“What’s this holiday panic we hear about in meetings?” This is how the disease works – newcomers often hear the experience of old-timers as if we are all panic-stricken about the holidays, living in fear of using. Meanwhile, this “panic” is not happening. People with clean time are simply stating that this is the time of year to be vigilant because the disease is “cunning powerful and baffling” and is capable of sneaking in and gaining a foothold if we are complacent about recovery. We say this because we have years of experience going through various feelings, early recovery emotional rollercoasters, core issue trauma and pain surfacing out of nowhere at this time of year and we have watched many people relapse. Old-timers are not biting their nails anticipating crisis. Instead we acknowledge the power of the disease and do what we have been told so that we can stay one step ahead of it – so it can be a smooth sailing holiday season. But – the newcomer doesn’t hear this – the newcomer hears fear but since they don’t feel the fear themselves this must not apply to them. This warning must be meant for someone else who is new at the meeting. Not them. But this line of thinking is precisely how the disease gains foothold, making them believe they are the exception to the rule. Closing their mind to recovery tools that will strengthen and protect them.
What I know as an addict with 23 years clean who has watched numerous friends with 20 years relapse, is that when it comes to the disease, we are never fully free of it. It lurks in the shadows of our Being waiting for ways to make the “program” experience of others no longer apply to us, as if we are cured. Someone’s advice on jobs, dating, or financial matters – it really may not apply to me. But their experience with recovery usually does. I am not immune to relapse but as long as I continue to take actions the disease can not blind me and move me away from recovery, there’s a good chance I will stay clean.
This time of year – if you are new to recovery and you hear people sharing about their struggles during the holiday season recognize that this sharing is recovery in action. If you feel fine but notice yourself attending less meetings, feeling like you are “over” some of your friendships with people you’ve met at meetings and decide it’s time to clean house on your cell phone, you start spending a lot of time alone because it feels better than being with others – beware. Take the opposite action to what your head is telling you is true.
If you are new and starting to feel like this recovery job takes up too much time and you miss the simplicity of your life before you got clean – this sort of thinking will put you in a dangerous place this month. Even if it’s true you that miss your old life and old friends and hate going to so many meetings – do yourself a favor, put in the extra time this holiday season and trust me – it won’t always be like this. Being self reliant shouldn’t come so early in recovery. Remember – your best thinking is why you ended up in meetings in the first place. This holiday season, keep and open mind and let experience members guide you. This is not the time to do it alone.