By Dr. Howard Samuels, Author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
7 Spiritual Tips for Staying Sane Through The Holidays
The holidays are a time to connect with others. So why can it be so hard for people in recovery to maintain emotional sobriety in relationships…especially during times of good cheer? Here are some practical ways that you can make your holidays in addiction recovery special this season. After reading, we invite your ideas and feedback about being a person in recovery in the comments section at the end. We try to answer all comments with a personal reply!
1. THE REASON FOR THE SEASON
I don’t care what religious denomination you call your own, the Holidays are always about giving and giving back, which — if you really think about it — is the cornerstone of every thriving belief system. For me, giving has a very specific look. It starts with hour after hour spent poring over the gift lists my wife and I have compiled, followed by standing in line after line at toy stores, department stores, and jewelry shops all over the city before culminating in a midnight attempt to get all of my kids’ gifts assembled while they sleep (my children still believe in Santa Claus, and I support the lie by ingesting cup after cup of hot coffee while grunting at poorly drawn assembly instructions).
But it all begins with me remembering my first Christmas home for the holidays; I had been in rehab for a year and came home penniless with no gifts. The only thing I had to offer my family was a handwritten letter, asking them to forgive my transgressions and walk with me as I undertook my arduous journey out from the nightmare of addiction and back into the waking world. Needless to say, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house (my own included), but the love and support they gave me have helped me to remember, down through the years, that, whether it be toys, baubles or Love, the real gift is in the giving, not the receiving.
2. HAVE AN ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
It’s easy to lose sight of the important things in life. I mean, if you turn on the television, you are bombarded with commercials that tell you that only This Product or That Product can make you happy. But, the sad truth is, although things are nice, they aren’t what you need to feel good about yourself; and they certainly aren’t what you need to feel happy.
Case in point? I have a friend who discovered several malignant lumps in her right breast. It was a horrifying discovery, to say the least, but it was compounded by the doctor saying that the breast had to go. Her insurance, the doctor reported, would cover the cost of a double mastectomy, and — if she opted to lose both breasts — plastic surgery would afford her two new breasts that would never sag with age.
Still, I couldn’t bring myself to buy into her optimism; I figured there had to be more to her dilemma than just a round of chemo and some plastic surgery. When we were alone, I asked her if she were frightened. “I’m scared out of my mind”, she said, “but I’ve got two toddlers to raise. They can take my breasts if it means I’ll live to see them graduate and get married. They can take my breasts if I get to stay and love them. It’s such a small price to pay for staying alive”.
We talked a little more, but after she was gone, I thought about my own burgeoning family and my heart broke with gratitude at the sounds of my children’s laughter. “You okay, sweetie?” my wife will sometimes ask when she sees me adoring our kids. And I usually take her hand in mine and kiss her gently on the cheek. “I’m fine”, I tell her, but I’m not.
A lot of the time, I’m scared. I don’t want to lose any of them. Because for me, it’s family. That’s what I’m most grateful for. And, I think that’s the work you need most to do when the holidays get you down in the dumps; you need to find a quiet place and figure out what You are most grateful for, and hold onto it whatever it is, even if it’s just the knowledge of where to find food when you’re hungry, because I’ve been there, too. The holidays are more than just Santa Clause and Menorrahs. The holidays are about finding your center in the eye of the storm, and the quickest means to that end is always Gratitude.
3. NEVER FORGET THEIR NAMES
This one is one of my favorites. It’s part of a quote made by President John F. Kennedy that reads, “Forgive your Enemies, but never forget their Names”, and it’s a great one for people dreading the trip home for the holidays. Because, you see, the lie we were spoon-fed while we were growing up was that families needed to be and act a certain way and, when ours did not, we felt short-changed or betrayed.
No one told us that FATHER KNOWS BEST was just a television show and that THE COSBY SHOW was actually just a bunch of writers sitting in a room playing make-believe. We saw these things and, although we found them entertaining, the truth of the matter is a lot of what we were exposed to did little more than amplify how dysfunctional our families really were. And I haven’t even touched upon the traumatic and emotionally draining experience of juggling the in-laws!
Ha! Ha! Ha!
The fact remains that our parents weren’t given owner’s manuals when we were born — they didn’t know what they were doing — they were just men and women who found themselves saddled with children (tiny people, actually) that society demanded they care for in a specific way. Can you imagine the pressure? And, if not, then try to imagine raising your own children without the advent of play-dates and the many support systems we’ve integrated into our culture today and you’ll see how easy it is to forgive our parents for being insensitive. They didn’t know what they were doing. Hell, a lot of what they did to us had already been done to them; they didn’t have any resources.
The trick to forgiving your family lies in acknowledging, first and foremost, that you are an adult now, and that you are capable of making your own decisions that have nothing to do with the insanity you grew up around. We call this individuation, and it happens when you develop the ego-strength to withstand exposure to other people without letting that exposure affect the core of your decision-making process. Is your dad domineering or controlling? Is your mother passive-aggressive? So what? In and Of Yourself, you are perfect, and everything is unfolding as it should. Liking your relatives and forgiving them go hand in hand.
4. CELEBRATE YOUR TRUTH
I have a friend named Wayne who had an awful life. He was maybe 12 years old when, looking around the dinner table, he finally did the math that estranged him from his family. You see, Wayne had four older brothers, each a year apart, and Wayne was born four years after the last. He knew immediately that he wasn’t supposed to be there; he knew immediately that he was an accident. Even worse, he knew that everyone in that household hated and resented his existence. By the time hand-me-downs got to him, they were ragged and torn, so Wayne always got new clothes, which he knew his brothers resented. And the food and clothes didn’t grow on trees, so he knew his father resented the extra mouth to feed and clothe. His mother had already raised four boys, so he knew that she secretly resented being tied down to this one last child; that she wanted to be out with her friends doing whatever she wanted . . . a
And, so, Wayne began to run away from home. Eventually, as these things often pan out, Wayne wound up in the foster care system and was bounced around from family to family as he delved deeper and deeper into a life of crime and drug addiction. By the time he was arrested, he was living in a broken down Pinto automobile and selling drugs to stay alive. But, he turned his life around in prison, and when he was released at the age of 26, he made it a point to go home and let his family know that he had turned out okay.
And, WOW, were they glad to see him.
It was a huge Sunday dinner, a tradition he remembered from his childhood, only this time his siblings were there with their own wives and children. And, as was the custom when dinner was over, all of the men moved into the family room to watch the game while the women tended to the children and the happy gossip from the neighborhood. Disenfranchised, but determined to “be of service”, Wayne set off to do the dinner dishes and his mother joined him in due time. “You wash and I’ll dry”, she gleefully instructed, “It’s just so good to have you home.”
Wayne let the silverware clatter into the sink and turned to her and explained that she didn’t have to bother; he could see through her act. He knew that he’d never been wanted because he’d done the math. He defiantly counted on his hand for her the one-year gaps between the births of his brothers and exaggerated the four year gap that had vexed him so when he was a boy. His mother surprised Wayne by bursting into tears. “It’s true your brothers were born one year apart, but what followed were four years of my suffering miscarriage after miscarriage; by the time you got here, you were very wanted. You were this family’s miracle.”
And that was when Wayne’s belief system finally caved in. He’d spent his whole life making decisions based on a truth that wasn’t even his, and it had led him down a path of misery and regret and lost time.
This — for me — always begs the question, “What have you accepted to be the truth that doesn’t serve your happiness? And what in your belief system is making you miserable?” Because that’s what lies do, you know. It’s always the lies we tell ourselves that hold us back. And it’s always our fear of investigating what the truth really is that keeps us chained to the lives that make us unhappy. Because the truth will always set you on the road to real happiness once you find the courage to investigate it and know it and share it with others. Spirituality is about feeling connected, and you will never feel connected to anyone as long as you’re living a lie.
5. APPRECIATE THE VALUE OF “ME” TIME
I was vacationing with my wife and kids in Hawaii and at some point in time, we left the kids with my brother and his wife and stepped out to get His and Her massages. The hotel we were staying at had a full service spa, and we felt it would have been remiss for us to have not at least tried to partake of the pamperings. My masseuse was a large, gracious woman who pointed out before beginning that I should try to relax first as she lit the candles in the sunlit room.
Now, I’m sure you could imagine how mortified I was to discover that I couldn’t relax — I simply had too much on my mind at the time — and it became a personal goal of mine for about three minutes to consciously relax my body before this woman laid her hands on me. It was awful. I’d become so tense in my day-to-day dealings that being “bunched-up” had become my natural state. I kept all of the stress in my life wrapped up tight in my muscles as my body struggled on a daily basis to somatically process the cacophony of emotions I experienced every day simply going through life on life’s terms.
Granted, after the massage, I was so relaxed my wife and I went back to our room and took a nap, but that massage was a wake-up call of sorts for me, because it taught me to pay more attention to what I was doing with my feelings.
The holidays are about reaching out and connecting with family and friends, but they’re also about preparing elaborate meals for guests and shopping for gifts and all the while still having to wake up each day and go out into the world to earn a living. But, for me, sometimes 15 minutes alone in my backyard watching the clouds drift lazily by, or 5 minutes driving in silence in a light rain with the metronome of my windshield wipers calming me down are enough to help me get centered and relaxed — BECAUSE I’M SOMEONE WHO FORGETS TO RELAX — and, I’ve discovered, so are a lot of You.
“Me” time is important, sure, but it is only effective if you use it to really focus on relaxing. I have a friend who takes cigarette breaks at work and devotes the entire time to feeding his anxiety by poring over the problems he has, and I want to tell you that isn’t what I’m talking about. When you’re giving yourself some “Me” time, use it to focus on your breathing and try to take deep breaths; and pay attention to how tightly wound you are.
Your body is like your soul and it needs to be unwound, too, from time to time. Let your spirit breathe. Let your body relax. And then, if you can trust yourself not to massage your anxiety, Let your mind wander. You’d be surprised how many beautiful places exist deep within you that you’ve forgotten to explore.
6. INVENT OPTIMISM
I’ll admit, I’m not good at processing bad drivers on the road. More often than not, I’ll have my kids in the car when someone decides to cut me off or make a left-hand turn from the right-hand lane and it’s enough to make me want to shout obscenities (but, like I said, my kids are often in the car, so I don’t).
Instead of reacting, my kids have become fond of inventing reasons for the interruption of my serenity. “He’s late for his son’s baseball game!”, my daughter will gleefully exclaim. Or, “He has to get to the hospital because his wife is having a baby!”, my son will report. My personal favorite, however, is hands-down, my youngest daughter’s, “SHE HAS TO GET TO THE BATHROOM AND SHE’S RUNNING OUT OF TIME!”
Ha! Ha! Ha!
These tiny glimpses into the lives of other people are a great way to diffuse frustration and anger with other people. Is the cashier at the check-out line sporting a bad attitude? She’s probably been on her feet for the past three hours and missed her 15-minute break because someone needed her help. Someone bump into you while walking past without excusing themselves? They could have just received some very bad news.
The point is, there are eight billion of us swarming all over the planet, and each and every one of us has stuff going on. Granted, we have social contracts that dictate how we should (and shouldn’t) relate to one another, but I think sometimes that simply WANTING to be a better person is enough to make a difference in anyone’s day. Because, at the end of the day, our lives are really all about the choices that we make.
I can CHOOSE to be an arrogant, narcissistic rage-a-holic, or I can CHOOSE to be a man who tries to set a strong example for his friends and loved ones, not necessarily by turning the other cheek when wronged, but by making a conscious decision as to whether or not retaliation is even necessary.
No one has ever thought to themselves, “I’m gonna get dressed up in my best clothes, go out and get into a fist-fight in a supermarket parking lot on my way to my best friend’s party” . . . but, people DO. And most of it comes from some perceived wrong that they feel warrants the kind of response that leads to discord and chaos.
For me, history HAS to show that I took into account the Other person’s story and, barring that, created a back-story that led to my having just a tiny bit more compassion for them than they maybe deserved, thus freeing me to get back to the things that really mattered — like playing with my kids.
7. LIGHTEN UP
I used to hate Holiday parties. I mean, to some extent, I still do, but they’re more bearable now that I’m married. And, I’ve got to tell you, we really do marry our opposite numbers. My wife is the outgoing “party-person” in our family; a social butterfly who creates a space amongst our friends that promotes laughter and connection. And it’s wonderful to watch because the truth is, even with a gun to my head, in the old days, I just couldn’t do it.
I used to be the guy who went to holiday parties and used them to underline the fact that I was single. It was a terrible existence. You shouldn’t go to parties to feel even More Alone than usual; parties are about people coming together to laugh and eat and exchange ideas. And I realized really early on that I couldn’t spend the rest of my life not knowing how to deal with social situations; I had to put my hand out and try to be the example I wanted to see.
I had to reach out to other people and discover what their unique experiences were, and do you know what I found out? I discovered that I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. Shouting over the holiday music and sipping egg nog with friends and business associates, I learned how to live in the moment and laugh at anecdotes and wives tales. I learned about other cultures and swapped opinions about current events. And, sure, until I met my wife, I (more often than not) left the parties alone. But, I went home feeling good about myself, and it helped keep me away from feeling sorry for myself; it kept me from feeling like a victim.
Holiday parties can be hard. But so was your first day at school, and — if we’re getting really honest here — a lot of our first dates. It’s hard to want people to like you and know that you never get a second chance at first impressions. But spirituality is about removing yourself from the equation. This way, you can focus on what the Other Person’s First Impression is. Because, when all is said and done, that’s what the holidays are really all about, aren’t they?
They’re about connecting with Other People.