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Recovery and the holidays

This article by Dr. Peter Provet, president and CEO of Odyssey House, originally appeared as a guest post on the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s “Pushing Back” blog in 2009.

For individuals with substance use disorders, the Holiday Season brings ambivalent feelings, at best. Memories of past disappointment, pain, and emptiness – and the self-destructive attempts at self-medicating them – are close at hand. Anger towards others and guilt for one’s own failures drive the addict to try to forget. The “party,” followed by subsequent “runs” and “binges,” are largely the addict’s attempt to forget, to erase a painful past, while pretending that momentary intoxication will cure years of emotional and physical suffering.
Like so many psychological defenses, however, “forgetting” the past – sweeping it under the rug – is ineffective. Without insight, resolution, and closure, the addict’s destiny is to repeat: to repeat patterns of maladaptive behaviors fueled by wish fulfillment and the press for instant gratification.
The addict in treatment learns and relearns this day after day. At Odyssey House, we liken treatment to constantly holding a mirror up to the addict’s face. It is through seeing oneself deeply – one’s attitudes, personality style, motives, social skills, work ethic, family responsibilities – that renewed memories can be evolved, a new sense of self forged, and hope for the future restored.
Treatment does work, though it is hard work. First and foremost it takes commitment, as recovery is a lifelong task.
Just as the Holidays are a time of increased relapse, they can also be a time of resolution and resolve. Individual addicts can commit or recommit to a sober life and families can participate in that commitment. Just as every addict has gone through a long course of struggle and compromise, so has the family.
The family has experienced great hardship and tried so many approaches to help their addicted loved one. Love, support, encouragement, anger, limit-setting and separation are just some of the common familial reactions to the addict. And just as the individual addict has lived on an emotional roller coaster, so too has the family. And just as the individual can not simply forget – obliterate – the past, neither can the family.
Families need to go through their own healing process and should, whenever feasible, be involved in their loved one’s treatment. Analogous to the addict’s process, the family must also seek resolution and closure. Respect for the addict’s commitment to sobriety and the recovery process is essential – however, it must be tempered with moderate expectations, where understandable skepticism only slowly gives way to optimism and confidence.
Throughout the Holiday Season at Odyssey House, we try our best to be mindful of these complex individual and family issues, all the while staying diligently hopeful. Celebrating the redemptive nature of the human spirit is as important in the world of recovery as it is anywhere.

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