On December 24, 2013, I woke up at 5 AM still wasted from the night before. I proceeded to have a panic attack so severe I considered checking myself into a hospital. I had quit drinking the previous summer but relapsed over the holidays, and spent Christmas Eve having regrettable sex in a karaoke bar bathroom before losing all my shopping bags filled with Christmas presents. In my alcohol-induced early-morning panic, I figured I'd rather spend Christmas in a hospital bed than face my family looking while looking like shit and without presents. As bad as that moment was, it's not unique: Many recovering alcoholics face similar threats of relapse come holiday season.
Relapse in general is common. The Journal of the American Medical Association has put the relapse rate for drug addiction at 40 to 60 percent; stress and being around the drug are common causes. Stress increases over the holidays, as does exposure to alcohol due to the plethora of get-togethers. The office holiday gatherings, the ugly Christmas sweater party, simply getting through several days with family —all can potentially trigger relapse.
For those who aren't in recovery, it can be hard to understand why someone can't just have "one glass of champagne" for a New Year's Eve toast, a cup of family eggnog on Christmas Eve, or a beer with your high school buddies the night before Thanksgiving. "There's nothing wrong with having a glass of wine to celebrate with friends," I remember being told by a loved one around Thanksgiving. At the time I was newly sober, completely uncomfortable in AA, and unaware there were other recovery options, I happily agreed. That night, everything was fine. But it didn't end there. A few weeks later I found myself in another snowy city with strangers choking down a tequila worm and puking it back up into a kitchen pan. Then there was that lurid Christmas Eve morning back in New York, after which I took the train to my family and continued my journey of recovery—pushing through the self-hatred and hangover. It was brutal. But today, I no longer drink, and have found my way through alternative recovery outside the 12-step system.
While I've thankfully made it this far through the holidays, this time of year often involves a struggle with sobriety. "There are a lot of messages over the holidays from the media, and family, and friends, that alcohol is part of the celebration," says Susan E. Collins, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Washington who researches relapse prevention. "It can be particularly hard, especially if someone is early on in their sobriety."
"It's really important to be extra compassionate with yourself over the holidays," Collins adds. "What we know from research is that relapse can be a part of recovery. We're all human and sometimes we do have slip-ups. But the idea is if you can learn from that slip and apply that knowledge in the future. You can get back on board with your goals and move forward."
I recently spoke to three people in various stages and methods of recovery to dig into the dark memories of holiday relapse, and seek wisdom on how they plan to make it through this year.
Male, Age 32
Two Years Sober
VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about your sobriety?
Subject One: I go to Refuge Recovery in conjunction with Alcoholics Anonymous. I love AA. I was brought up in AA; my mom goes to AA. The last time I used was September 27, 2013. I'm an alcoholic and I started drinking when I was 12. I got into coke, beer, bars. I got construction, met a girl, and curbed my use for a while. But once I got hurt on the job, I got introduced to opiates.
That'll do it. How'd you get into recovery?
My uncle 12-stepped me, as they say, when I was about 22. He took me to my first meeting in the Bronx. I walked in and sat down and I struggled for a long time. But I stuck with it—it's always been there in my life.
So you had a holiday relapse?
So many of them. Thanksgiving was always a big one for me. Because the night before Thanksgiving you go home and you see all your friends and you want to show off how well you're doing. I would drink a lot and do drugs—usually coke. I'd wake up the next morning extremely hungover. Usually around this time of year, I'd relapse, spend all my money, and wouldn't be able to afford Christmas presents. I remember going home to spend Christmas with the family and needing to have heroin on me so I wouldn't get sick from withdrawal. I also remember a couple years where I wouldn't have heroin on me and would be sick—totally miserable experiences. You're supposed to be there enjoying time with the family, and it's just tragic because they know why you don't have any presents for anybody and you're just vacant. You don't want to be around anybody; you just want to get your dope fix.
How has this year been? You've made it through Thanksgiving.
I didn't go the year before. I went to alcathon [a marathon holiday meeting] instead. I stayed with some sober people and did it that way. This year, however, I came home. I was in a good place and I made sure I had talked to my sponsor beforehand and had a plan. At this point, I'm open about where I'm at with my parents. My brother and my dad still drink, but they drink in the basement. I don't complain about it because it's not in front of my face. I just kind of made peace with myself and where I'm at. It was better this past Thanksgiving.
Did it make your mom happy to see you sober this year?
Yeah, she teared up a couple times. They could see that I'm OK and I'm happy and I'm stable. They see the progress, so that makes them happy and more relaxed. Now Christmas is coming up and I don't feel like such a scumbag.
Male, Age 39
Two Years Sober
VICE: Will you tell me a little about your sobriety?
Subject Two: I started using drugs and alcohol daily by the time I was about 14. The longest I've been sober in a single stretch was six years. My drug of choice just by ease of usability is, of course, alcohol. I always laugh when people say that pot is the gateway drug because alcohol totally is. Alcohol is so insidious. Everywhere you turn it's being glamorized. If you're in AA, they only consider you to be "sober" if you're not using any type of intoxicants whatsoever. But I actually found that cannabis was a big part of my recovery from alcohol. I'm not "in the program" anymore because my spiritual proclivities are not necessarily in line with those of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Will you tell me about your holiday relapse?
Absolutely—it was actually my last relapse, which was two years ago. I was a newlywed and my wife was pregnant with our first child. That certainly added to the stress and there's so much that can go wrong for the holidays, especially for addicts. I'm sure you've heard the pithy aphorism that they throw around at AA where they talk about how alcoholism is a disease of isolation. There are a lot of stupid sayings that they use, but I really do believe that. I think that most of us who are addicts or alcoholics are painfully introverted at our core. The holidays force you in a position where you have to not only interact, but also feign joviality. I think if you're painfully introverted, especially in this society, it's the perfect recipe for disaster.
So what happened?
I was being confronted with not just the normal holiday stress, but I also had a very pregnant wife. Foolishly enough, I was a truck driver and had left the job just because I wanted to be at home. So I wrote this spoof resume and put it on Craigslist, and it was this absurd thing. I just wanted any job. I got a phone call from a wine and spirits distributor, and I took the job like an idiot. It worked relatively well for a few months, and then eventually everything just collapsed on me and I caved.
I went out one night and got absolutely trashed with my boss. Don't get drunk with your boss, even if you're not an alcoholic. It's just a bad idea. When I came home, it was obvious that I was drunk. My wife kicked me out of my house the next morning after driving me to the repair shop where my car was. My son was a newborn at the time, less than two months old. He was in the backseat of the car when she drove away, and that was probably the darkest moment of my life. After that, I did what any person would do: I went straight to the bar. The next three days are still just a blur to me.
How are things this year? Making it through?
This year has been actually great. My son is actually a person now. When he was a baby he was just this shrieking vortex of need. He's hysterical, he's just charming as shit. So seeing him able to enjoy the holidays is awesome. I don't want to fuck that up, and I certainly don't want to have him see my in the condition that I've been in in the past.
What advice would you give to others in recovery on making it through the holidays?
Have a friend or confidant, and I would urge people not to feel guilty about leaning very heavily on the confidant throughout the holidays. I think using some of the [memories of] blackness that drove you to addiction is a huge thing, at least for me. I just always think about how disappointed I've made my family and my wife, and the potential I have to be a disappointment to my son. That really keeps my head where it needs to be.
Also, overeat! If you have an addictive personality and there's a cheese plate just eat the fucking whole thing. I will fuck up like a pound of fudge so I don't consume anything else.
Female, Age 26
Five Months Sober
VICE: Will you tell me about your relapse last year?
Subject Three: There's a lot of mental illness in AA, and a lot of people that are not high-functioning. AA sort of increasingly became a place where these sorts of cracks in the foundation of what I thought sobriety was ended up. I always thought I had an incredibly higher [rock bottom] than other people, so the language in my head, the chorus of voices, was always, "I'm not as bad as the others."
I think it was December 18 and I convinced myself on the way to my boyfriend's house that I wanted to drink again. I didn't want to be sober anymore, and I really didn't want to be sober during the holidays. We traveled to his family's house by bus. Part of my old drinking habits was that I loved drinking while I was traveling. It was one of my favorite things to get a book and have a glass of wine. But this was a fucking Greyhound. I was on the bus until like three or four in the afternoon and no one else was drinking, obviously. I poured it into this plastic cup, and, of course, the cup had a crack in it so wine started to leak out onto my clothes. I was crazy nervous that I was going to show up at like five o'clock smelling like wine. And it just kind of hit me that none of this was really manageable, or normal. It was pretty stupid.
What's your plan this year? You've made it through Thanksgiving.
My family very nicely did a sober Thanksgiving. What am I doing differently this year? Really listening if I have the emotional wherewithal to go to a party. If I feel like drinking, I won't go. It's incredibly easier this time around. I know it's totally fine to be a non-drinking person during the holidays.
Absolutely. What advice would you have for friends and relatives of people in recovery who are spending the holidays with them?
I think you should always ask, "How are you doing today?" You don't ask, "How are you doing?" I think it's a really difficult question to answer in recovery. I think people just need to hear something like, "I think it's really cool what you're doing, and that's difficult, but it's a really cool choice for you"... if it is a good choice for them. I think positive reinforcement of value systems, as well as checking in, being supportive, and listening. I think it's really great and incredible when people don't drink around you, but of course that's kind of a lot to ask for when you're making an individual choice.
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