Alcoholism and Holidays

Alcoholism and holidaysI could have titled this recovery and holidays rather that alcoholism and holidays, but I believe we all need to come to terms with the word “alcoholism”and “alcoholic”. Alcoholism is perceived as a harsh word that some prefer to soften with terms like Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Regardless what we call it, the reality’s the same. I’m okay really with using a different term as long as it doesn’t change the way people perceive the seriousness of the disease. Yes, alcoholism, or AUD, is a serious, debilitating. progressive and deadly brain disease. Recovering alcoholics have to make adjustments, and one adjustment in early recovery is how to deal with holidays and all the attendant festivities.

It seems like a downer when a newly recovering alcoholic comes up on a holiday like Christmas and invitations to parties arrive. What to do? Go and drink a soda that looks like a mixed drink? Tell the host that you aren’t drinking? Don’t go? Make a pledge to yourself or your spouse, partner or friend who might be going with you to leave if you get uncomfortable? Each individual has to make their own choices, of course, but it’s much better to get advice from someone in long term recovery who’s dealt with alcoholism and holidays a few times, or many times.

If the recovering alcoholic is going to AA, they suggest that newcomers get a sponsor, someone who’s been in recovery for awhile and knows the pitfalls. No one has to recover alone. There are many people who can and will support you in recovery — the recovering alcoholic has to seek them out and ask for advice and support. It’s difficult for most people to admit they have such a serious problem they have to ask for help, but there’s no shame in asking for help. If you don’t know anything about real estate, you find someone who does. If you want to learn a new language, you seek out people and methods to teach that language.

Alcoholism and holidays are tricky. There’s unnecessary stress during the holiday season — it doesn’t have to be that way. If a person in early recovery chooses to avoid parties with heavy drinking, then that’s probably a good choice. There will be other holidays, and when that person is strong in recovery and the desire to drink has gone away, a recovered alcoholic can do anything others can do, except drink alcohol without consequences.

Addiction Recovery — Relapse Triggers


Stop and think

In treatment clients identify their relapse triggers and develop plans to deal with these triggers. What is a relapse trigger? Here’s a definition from Psychology Today:

A trigger can be thought of as anything that brings back thoughts, feelings, and memories that have to do with addiction (like a computer reminding a sex addict (link is external) of porn). In addiction research, these are often simply called cues. The word comes from learning research in which a reward (or punishment) is paired with something (the cue). For instance, in Pavlov (link is external)‘s classic experiment, a dog heard a bell ring right before it would get served its daily portion of meat. The dog quickly learned to associate the bell with food, and would begin salivating as soon as the bell would ring, even before the food was presented. In this case, the bell was the cue, and food the reward it was paired with. The story in drug addiction is similar. I’m sure many of you can relate to the overwhelming memories and emotions that seem to come out of nowhere when you hear music you used to get high to or pass a street where you used to buy drugs (or sex). Each of those examples is a trigger that is simply bringing about a similar reaction to Pavlov’s dog’s salivation. Seeing these things, or hearing them, creates an immediate response to the reward that it was paired with, the drug!

As we go through life we develop value-judgments. When I first tasted ice cream, I developed a value-judgment that ice cream is good. If I see a commercial for ice cream, I immediately think about how good ice cream tastes. This response to the ice cream commercial seems to be automatic, as if I saw the ice cream then automatically had a pleasurable feeling, but actually there was another step. My mind went back to the first impression I developed regarding ice cream, the value-judgment that ice cream is good. In recovery, the process must be slowed down so that when there is a trigger that causes craving for the drug, the recovering person thinks it through and re-evaluates.

Most alcoholics once had enjoyable experiences with alcohol, especially in the beginning, so they developed a value judgment that alcohol is good. With alcohol the value-judgment is even stronger because alcohol affects the pleasure center in the brain. We might like ice cream, but we really crave sex and food (in general), and drugs in some brains when drugs, including alcohol, are introduced.

In treatment, clients have to re-evaluate their relationship to alcohol and other drugs. The process of treatment is a way to change the value-judgment to meet the new reality of addiction and consequences from drug use. This can be a long process — ask anyone who goes on a diet, or decides to start an exercise program  rather than lying around watching TV. It’s difficult to change value-judgments we’ve held deeply for years, sometimes decades. In recovery, though, these value-judgments must be changed or the triggers will lead to relapse and more consequences.