To paraphrase another U.S. icon, the one and only Dolly Parton, here it comes again.
Sneaking up on you, just like Christmas, and then, before you know it… Boom! It’s here.
Thanksgiving – that age-old American tradition, synonymous with turkey, pilgrims, pumpkin pie, and getting stuck in the longest traffic jam you’ve ever encountered. In your life. Ever.
It is also synonymous with the potential emotional minefield that is the family gathering, where members of the family you have successfully spent a whole year avoiding are suddenly sat beside you as you tuck into the biggest feast of your life for a meal that will be nearly as long as that traffic jam.
However, for the recovering drug addict or the recovering alcoholic, it’s not nearly as amusing as this introduction is initially intended to be. For someone in recovery, it is definitely a “potential emotional minefield,” and as much as you are surrounded by family and good food, you are also surrounded by possible relapse triggers – the one thing you have also successfully spent your recovery avoiding.
“I celebrated Thanksgiving the old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast…and then I killed them and took their land.” – Jon Stewart, U.S. comedian, writer, producer and television host
All of the coping mechanisms and other tools you have learned during your recovery, whether they’re from the detox/rehab you attended or from support group meetings, such as AA or NA, will be put to the test here, at the family table.
You’ll certainly need to keep your wits about you as, sadly, others are losing theirs.
We are going to look at the 5 most common relapse triggers you’ll come face-to-face with this Thanksgiving, and explain how you can successfully avoid them or flat-out deal with them in ways that will ensure your recovery continues to grow and become stronger, and not be put in peril.
Why Do We Celebrate Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving, as with other traditions around the world such as the Christian Harvest Festival, celebrates the time of harvest, when the ground offers up its crops to the farmers. Usually observed on the 4th. Thursday of November, Thanksgiving, as celebrated in the U.S. and Canada, involves sharing a turkey feast, accompanied with cranberries and sweet potatoes, and finished off with pumpkin pie, with your family and friends.
This traditional day emanates historically from the Christian Pilgrim father’s first harvest in the New World back in 1621, an event that modern U.S. citizens refer to as the “First Thanksgiving.” According to texts written by one Edward Winslow, a known Pilgrim colonist, the event lasted 3 days (yes, 3 whole days), and was celebrated with around 90 resident Native Americans known as the Wampanoag people.
Thanksgiving was celebrated rather intermittently from then onwards (Thomas Jefferson wasn’t a fan, apparently, unlike George Washington, who’d originally proclaimed it a national celebration) until Abraham Lincoln made the day an official federal holiday in 1863.
And so here we are now, soon to be catapulted headfirst into all that turkey and pumpkin pie.
Thanksgiving: A Day of Thanks or A Day To Be Feared?
For many people, their memories of Thanksgiving are fond ones, grand family occasions where the polaroid camera sits at the table as well, of times slightly drunk on a more expensive bottle of wine purchased especially for the meal, and of getting together with your nearest and dearest.
However, for many recovering drug addicts and recovering alcoholics, Thanksgiving can be a somewhat fearful experience, one where you just wish it to be over as soon as possible, with unwanted stress, tensions, and historical resentments also present at the table, with slightly inebriated relatives offering a glass of wine or something else – with the words, “Come on, just one wouldn’t hurt, would it?”
For many of those in recovery, Thanksgiving may never have been a pleasant time, and your memories are of using or drinking simply to get through the day – yes, the addict’s experience. Family get-togethers now may well still include overindulgence with food, alcohol or other substances – consumed by others. Maybe it should be a day to be feared?
There could be other factors at play too, and not insignificant ones at that. Addiction is often accompanied by another disorder, such as depression, anxiety or a mental health disorder. For those suffering from a co-occurring disorder (where there is the presence of addiction and another mental disorder), holidays such as Thanksgiving can be a time of loneliness and feelings of isolation, even when they are with others, which will intensify any triggers they encounter.
Unsurprisingly, many of those recovering from a co-occurring disorder find family gatherings a truly fearful prospect. However, it doesn’t have to be. And neither do other days or times of traditional celebration spent with family, like Christmas, Independence Day, or family birthdays. Read on…
Relapse Triggers: Acknowledging These Fears
As much as we hope that, as recovering addicts and alcoholics, we are prepared for events like these, the actual reality can be somewhat different. However, with careful preparation, those in recovery can actually relax a little, and even enjoy the event for what it is – a big family gathering. If you can’t see the prospect of any enjoyment there, just console yourself with the fact that it will last less than a day…
Remember, any uncomfortable feelings or emotions that you experience over Thanksgiving will pass, just like any cravings you have previously overcome. Nothing that comes up on this day is worth the very thing you hold so dear and which keeps you healthy – your recovery.
So, to begin with, you need to understand what relapse triggers you are likely to encounter during Thanksgiving. By doing this, you can acknowledge your fears and successfully overcome them.
The 5 Most Common Relapse Triggers at Thanksgiving
Relapse triggers are exactly that – something powerful enough that it triggers a recovering addict or alcoholic to return to their previous addictive behavior, known as a relapse. These triggers are usually categorized into something either emotional, mental, or environmental. Additionally, there are some triggers that are unique to an individual – those that can be easily overlooked. This is why it is so important for those in recovery to know and understand exactly what can be capable of triggering them into a relapse.
At Thanksgiving (and at other times of traditional celebration), the 5 most common relapse triggers for those in recovery from substance abuse are:
- Stress: Regarded as the most dangerous of triggers for the recovering addict, many return to their substance of choice as a coping mechanism.
- People or Places Associated with Addictive Behavior: People who shared your addiction and are still using or drinking are potential triggers. Even family members can be a trigger, if they were part of the group of people just described, or simply because they may make you feel vulnerable like a child.
- Difficult or Negative Emotions: Emotions that we have trouble dealing with effectively can be triggers towards relapse, as they may have been initial triggers to addiction in the first place.
- Sensing Your Substance of Choice: Seeing or smelling your substance of choice can be regarded as a relapse trigger, and can be difficult to overcome in early recovery.
- Times of Celebration: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Independence Day, family or friends’ birthdays – any time of celebration should be seen as a threat to your recovery.
Proactive Strategies to Overcoming Your Relapse Triggers
If you want to control those triggers to relapse when they rear their ugly head at you, you need to have proven strategies in place in order for you to overcome them. Sourced from addiction treatment specialists, here are the strategies you need to adopt now as an intrinsic part of your recovery process:
- Preparation: Failing to prepare when you’re in recovery really is preparing to fail. This lack of preparation makes a relapse statistically more probable. Here are the best ways to put you on the other side of those statistics, as recommended to those who have undergone a professional rehab:
- Keep a Journal: If you don’t already keep a journal, it’s never too late. Start one now. Write about the people or things that make you feel stressed or tense. Think about your own triggers – make a simple list. Acknowledging them makes you more prepared.
- The Importance of Your Support Network: Get in touch with all the members of your support network, and make them aware you are attending a Thanksgiving celebration. Check if they’re available should you need help. Keeping other sober people close by can be a huge comfort and raise your confidence about the event.
- Invite a Friend: Why not take this one step further and actually invite a sober friend to attend too. As they say, there is strength in numbers.
- Help Others: One of the best ways that recovering addicts can stay sober over Thanksgiving is to help others in recovery. Helping others is a great way to actually help yourself.
- Being Around Addictive Substances: There is always the strong possibility that addictive substances will be present at the gathering. Alcohol, certainly, is one, and drugs like marijuana (or worse) could be there also. Family members or friends that may not be supportive of your recovery may well be present, so prepare yourself:
- Leave Early: If you know addictive substances will be present, leave early, and certainly before the heavy drinking or substance misuse begins.
- Resist & Respond: You do not have to go into a long rambling speech about why you are in recovery – simply respond to others who offer you substances that you no longer drink or use.
- Understanding Family Dynamics: Tense family dynamics are easily the most common stress-related issues for people in recovery. Depending upon your specific situation, there are a number of coping strategies you can use to deal with difficult family conversations that will minimize any stress:
- You can only control yourself: You certainly can’t control the behavior of others. Don’t even bother trying, especially with family. If things become tense, use de-escalating statements that acknowledge their side, such as “I’m sorry you feel that way. We can talk another time and just enjoy today?”
- Leave when you need to: If things really do become too uncomfortable, just leave. It really is as simple as that. Make polite excuses and leave as quietly as you can.
- Bring a sober friend: As already mentioned, if you’re concerned about your family, invite a sober friend to be with you.
Remember, difficult or negative emotions can trigger the resumption of your addictive behavior. Your ongoing recovery is far more important.
- Lastly, what if I am not invited to Thanksgiving Day? This could be a very valid question for some recovering addicts, who are either no longer part of their family, or because of distance, or maybe for some other reason. If loneliness is a relapse trigger for you, do one of the following:
- Connect with sober friends
- Find a recovery event
- Host your own sober Thanksgiving celebration
- Volunteer somewhere
Sobriety is Your Top Priority: Evergreen Can Help
For those in recovery, staying sober must be your only goal when faced with an event like Thanksgiving. Wake up and all is still good. Remember, everyone will soon get over it even if you just make a brief appearance and leave early. However, what happens if you don’t wake up sober? Very few people make it through a successful without a relapse, so you shouldn’t feel like you have failed in any way. Recovery is a journey, and sometimes you’ll stumble.
Evergreen at Northpoint is here to help. We certainly hope you do remain sober during times like Thanksgiving, but you should always remember that we are here to help. We offer an excellent outpatient rehab program that will get you back on track, and get you back on the road to recovery.