Happy Thanksgiving! That is a greeting that many people in recovery heard recently. For some, it was, in fact, a pleasurable time, albeit risky for their recovery. For a subset of people in early recovery from substance use disorders, however, the holiday season is a particularly difficult time. I am referring to those who had experiences with verbal, physical, or sexual abuse during the years that they were growing up. My patients frequently grew up in homes where these experiences were more likely to occur because their parents or siblings were in active addiction.
Most often, those painful experiences are not psychologically processed at the time that they are experienced because the victim does not have the psychological wherewithal and family members are either complicit or unaware. Instead, the memories of the experience are buried involuntarily through the operation of psychological defense mechanisms. As the person matures and begins to use psychoactive substances, these substances can act to reinforce the defenses, especially if they are used addictively. The unprocessed memories can maintain their intensity indefinitely.
When a person begins the recovery process and stops using those substances, the painful memories can begin to re-emerge in a way that not only causes distress but also can threaten recovery. This is where the “holiday woes” can become an issue in three ways. The first is that unpleasant memories of past holidays can be triggered, especially if the perpetrators of past painful experiences reappear when families reconvene for the holidays. Second, the perpetrators may repeat in the present a version of past abusive behavior. Third, alcohol and other substances are commonly used at holiday gatherings, sometimes excessively.
This all occurs in a cultural context in which the expectation is that this is a joyous, celebratory time of year that everyone should be enjoying. If one is not having a good time, that person is not only unhappy but is also left feeling out of step and lonely. With all of this going on inside and outside of oneself, seeking relief through the use of substances can become very tempting.
How can one protect oneself from relapsing under these circumstances? The first way is to have a strong connection to the recovery support community. Although 12-Step meetings are not designed to process these early life experiences, members of the Fellowship are certainly familiar with them and can be an important source of support. Secondly, psychotherapy with a trauma-sensitive therapist can be extremely helpful in reducing the danger to recovery that these buried memories can present. A realistic goal is to maintain sobriety through the first holiday season so that subsequent ones can be enjoyed.