There are packages to buy, food to make, parties to attend, and cards to write. We'll put on jolly smiles and wear red and gold. Our stockings will be hung with cheer. Our children will sleep tidily in their beds. Our family gatherings will be just as festive and fun as on TV.
The holidays are never so perfect, but amid all the songs, movies, and commercials, we can't help but dream. These expectations and societal pressures make the holidays especially hard for people in recovery or struggling for self-care.
After all, conditions like alcoholism, eating disorders, addiction, and even mental health issues often stem from our relationship with control. The holiday chaos and emotions can sometimes be enough to throw us back into unhealthy habits or addictive behaviors.
"Everyone is sensitive to these holiday challenges, but if you are in active addiction or even addiction recovery, you may feel more sensitive towards them than most," Addiction Treatment magazine warned last year. "In many cases, it was an inability to cope with these kinds of pressures which led to drug use (or other addictions) in the first place."
Some struggle with the exposure to food and alcohol during Christmastime, when eating and drinking become a way to celebrate. Caught up in the spirit of indulgence, we hear a voice—maybe someone else's, maybe our own—calling us back. We're tempted to pour a glass of wine. We shame ourselves away from the Christmas cookies.
Plus, holiday gatherings put us in difficult situations—faced with painful memories, past relationships, and other sources of anxiety. As a psychologist who treats eating disorders wrote:
Activities during this time of year can involve family members and friends in intense and often emotional ways. Unfortunately those with eating disorders can find it terrifying to be emotionally close with other people. In such situations they may feel vulnerable and unsafe, and then revert to their eating disorder to restore a sense of control and self-protection.
It is possible to bear the onslaught of the holidays and stay sober. It is possible to withstand the gluttony of food and alcohol while also taking care of your body.
It is possible to be supportive and helpful to your loved one who might be struggling, without forgoing the traditional Christmas hoopla.
But it takes work. As the holiday season approaches, I find it helps to identify your biggest concerns. What are you hungry for? Is it more stuff, more food, more numbness to not feel the pain of the memories of holidays gone by? Or the pain of aging or the pain of loss?