“Sooner or later the question comes up in every medical student’s career. How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? Different instructors answer the question in different ways, but cut to its base level, the answer is always another question: How badly does the patient want to survive?”
– Stephen King
Not a bad one-rule axiom for life, to be sure, but, then again, Stephen King has never had to endure dinner with your family, now, has he? That having been said, how exactly does one survive Thanksgiving with the people who have not only seen you at your worst but, in some cases, contributed to you being at your worst?
“Really?”, Grandpa will whisper while offering you a glass of wine, “You can’t have just one?”
“Um… NO, Grandpa, actually, I can’t. Not unless you’re hoping a team of First Responders will show up in a couple of hours to cut the turkey while I set fire to the house.”
Because, for all of us, staying clean and sober is literally a matter of life and death. We don’t walk gently into that long night; our souls shriek and scream – guns blazing – as we self-destruct in any number of ways, all along knowing that dying was never our intention when sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner with our families; we just wanted to fulfill an obligation and catch up with our loved ones and leave with both our recovery — and our sanity — intact.
Well, here are 5 ways to make sure that happens:
- HAVE AN EXIT PLAN – As we grow up, we learn how to tolerate difficult situations. But the Serenity Prayer teaches us to ask for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Well, guess what? A lot of us will often times remain in situations that we can change. YOU are responsible for your own well-being. There isn’t a law that says that, if things get too challenging or too difficult to withstand, that you can’t simply (gracefully) leave. And we say this because so many of us come from families with very strong traditions – we’re expected to stay for everything. But what if, in your recovery, you decided to grow all the way up and create your own tradition? What if stepping away for a few minutes to meditate or call your sponsor or touch base with another clean and sober member of your support group isn’t enough? Why can’t you just leave? Well, the simple truth is, you can. It’s okay to show up and give big hugs and kiss the babies and laugh at a few jokes, but it is also okay to fold in a feel-good movie at an afternoon matinee at a nearby theater to give yourself a break; or slip away for a bit of Christmas shopping with that one relative you can actually stand who really gets how hard things are for you; and it is absolutely okay to just leave and go home and be with the people who love and support you and your recovery. No one says you have to stay. Have an exit plan. Because, God only knows, you’ll probably still have to come back in a month and do it all over again for the holidays.
- AVOID EMOTIONAL EATING – It’s called Comfort Food for a reason. Not everyone eats to satisfy physical hunger. We will often turn to food for comfort – to relieve stress (stress eating), or to reward ourselves (where food becomes a way to feel good about not drinking or using drugs) – and it is on occasions like this where we will use food to fill emotional needs instead of our stomachs. During the holidays, eating can become your primary coping mechanism, and when it does, it can sometimes lead to your feeling bad about yourself; you wind up beating yourself up for eating too much or – even worse – for eating too much bad food. All you need to know when it comes to matters such as these is that emotional hunger can’t be filled with food. You already have healthier ways to deal with your emotions. You’ve already used them to arrest your addiction. Use them here. Take a moment for yourself and call a sober friend, or go for a walk. If there are children around, build a snowman and help yourself rediscover your sense of wonder. Whatever the case may be, we can assure you, mindless eating can sometimes lead to feelings of regret, guilt or shame, which – in turn – can sometimes lead to a relapse. Pay attention to your body. Pay attention to your feelings. Know your emotional triggers These are the keys to a happy, healthy Thanksgiving Dinner!
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE THE LIFE OF THE PARTY – So many of us are “people pleasers”, meaning we invest a lot of energy into pretending everything is okay so that we don’t have to “be” with uncomfortable conversations. No one is expecting you to put on a clown face and smile all the time when you’re with family. As a matter of fact, you can use this time to help them really get to know you as the sober men and women you’re becoming. When someone asks you how you’re doing, why not interpret that as an invitation to be honest? There’s no need to spiritually vomit all over your family and friends, but letting the people who care about you know that this is all new to you and kind of uncomfortable may find you saddled with new allies you didn’t think were even in your corner. Ask for help. Risk vulnerability. Trust that the people who love you want to love you even more. And step outside of your comfort zone, if only to see that you are only as strong as you will let yourself be. Let THAT sink in for a moment. Feels good, doesn’t it? Leave the clown makeup at home and just be You. Everything you came to recovery looking FOR you came here looking WITH. You have always been enough. Live in that truth for a while and see what happens!
- BE OF SERVICE – This one’s an oldie but goodie! Sure it’s easy to sit around and complain about your situation and circumstance, but why not get out of your head and help out more instead? Thanksgiving doesn’t just “happen” – it’s a team effort! Help with the cooking. Volunteer to run out to the store for last-minute ingredients. Help with the dishes while the meal is being prepared (and after it’s eaten, LOL!). Change a diaper. Set the table. Be “a part of”. If you’re there, it’s because people wanted you there. Let history show that you participated in the festivities to the best of your ability. No one is asking you to do more than you’re capable of; they’re inviting you to help them meet you where you’re at. And the best way to do that is to join in with what is happening if you can and let the chips fall where they may – and if you find yourself cracking a smile or laughing out loud every now again, go ahead and allow it! You deserve to be happy! You’ve fought so hard to be at this stage in your life, enjoy it!
- BE GRATEFUL – An attitude of gratitude is our first and best defense against the “holiday blahs”. If it gets too hectic or if you’re feeling overwhelmed or uncomfortable or unsure, remember to be grateful you’ve gotten this far. You’re doing GREAT. You’ve already walked through the nightmare of your alcoholism and/or your drug addiction. You’ve already made that triumphant decision to stand on your own two feet and take care of yourself be the men and women you’ve always known you could be. So, all of this? This is the easy part. This is the part where you get to show off your bruises and let the world know that you’re not done fighting and that you’re still in the game. Be grateful for who you are. Be grateful and know that – no matter how challenging family can be – in the end, all that will have ever mattered is what was True and Truly Felt: And that truth is that you are the men and the women who decided to Survive.