You’ve been through enough dramatic holidays. Drunken episodes, loved ones high at the dinner table, fights ensue, cheer is flattened, and hardly anyone notices the delicious food. When a loved one enters recovery, hope is restored for a thankful, peaceful, and joyful family holiday celebration. Holidays are not without their challenges for our loved ones in recovery. Imbibing in holiday cheer can be triggering in the early vulnerable months of sobriety. A trigger is something that encourages the brain to fantasize, crave, or obsess about experiencing the euphoric sensation of intoxication.
A Brief Understanding of the Brain
Though the intoxicated dramatics are likely to subside, your loved one may be wrought with new emotion. Alcoholism and addiction are disorders of the brain. Understanding the neuroscience of why the holidays can be triggering for loved ones in early recovery will equip you with the extra empathy and compassion you will need. Substances like drugs and alcohol create an extra heavy production of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Neurotransmitters are small signals in the brain which relay messages to other areas. Dopamine is the pleasure communicator which largely interacts with the reward center of the brain. Years of abusing substances on a regular and consistent basis retrains the brain to prefer feeling pleasure. That pleasurable feeling becomes deeply associated with the substances of choice. Seeing others enjoy alcoholic beverages can make the brain feel uneasy and cause uncomfortable emotions. Feeling other emotions like gratitude, thankfulness, and enjoying family can also be uncomfortable at first.
How to Support Your Loved One
Understand that your loved one will need love, support, and encouragement during the holidays. If they need to step out of the room to cry, journal, call their 12 step sponsor, or a peer in recovery, know that they are doing a great job at staying sober. They are taking the steps they have learned to take to work through a challenging situation. Remind them of the phenomenal job they are doing, how far they have come, and how proud you are of them.
Having Fun During the Holidays
Here are some quick tips for making the Holidays fun for your loved one in recovery:
- Having a “dry” Holiday dinner drinking non-alcoholic beverages
- Inviting the loved one to choose a dish or plan the meal and participate in meal preparation
- Encourage them to share any prayers they have learned in recovery
- Create games for the dinner table and after dinner downtime
- Advise visiting family members to sensitively treat your loved one: don’t ask why they aren’t drinking or if they could just have one.
- Keep lots of candy, chocolate, and treats around. Eating sweets can help curb small cravings.
- Remember to celebrate life– you are grateful your loved one is here to celebrate the holidays and their new sober life.