Learning the “Attitude of Gratitude” for the Holidays

Often, the holidays are laden with unrealistic expectations that can add stress and threaten sobriety. Maybe this year we’ll get through a family meal without fighting. Maybe this year, Uncle Ted won’t get drunk. Maybe this year, mom won’t pressure me to eat and eat and eat.

Television specials broadcast idealistic portraits of happy and harmonious families gathered together in the spirit of love and charity. We forget that these are actors who get paid well to emulate domestic tranquility. When our experience doesn’t match their portrayal, we risk feeling let down, anxious, depressed, or lonely. Worse yet, we might be tempted to take a drink, medicate our worries, overeat, or engage in some other unhealthy behavior to dull our misery or emptiness.

People in Twelve Step mutual-help groups learn to adopt an “attitude of gratitude,” an openness of heart and mind that allows them to notice and appreciate the gifts they are given each day.

Chief among these is the gift of recovery. These presents – be they a soft winter’s snow, the excited smile of a child on Christmas morning, the honest exchange of feelings at an AA meeting, or another day of abstinence – make it easier to give unconditionally, without expecting anything in return. In this way gratitude doesn’t become something reserved for a holiday present exchange. It is a way of being each day, every day.

Annie Dillard once wrote that “each day is a god.” Recovering people learn to live in the moment, and they learn to trust that a Higher Power (which could mean God, a sacred spirit, nature, or the energy of their mutual-help group, etc.) lives with them each day.

It is easy to lose sight of our spiritual grounding in the glitter and commercialism of the holidays. Viewing each day as God-filled and thinking “holy days” instead of “holidays” could keep us better connected to our Higher Power when we most need that connection.

And as lovely as some traditions may be, we do not have to be held captive by holiday routines that may make us miserable or threaten recovery. Like Byrd Baylor, we can be in charge of our own celebrations. We can adopt new traditions such as serving meals for the homeless on Christmas or hosting an alcohol-free party. We can even opt out of a tension-filled family gathering and meet with friends instead or go to a mutual-help meeting.

We can reduce the pressure of gift exchanges by creating new and fun practices. Friends could agree that no one spends more than $5 on a gift and that the gift has to come from a second-hand store. Families could choose to donate money to a charity instead of giving expensive gifts to each other. Our “New Year” could become our own or a loved one’s sobriety anniversary instead of January 1.

Call it a paradigm shift; call it an opportunity. Instead of thinking of a holiday period, how about imagining 365 “holy days” each ripe with the possibility of celebration, each day a precious gift to be treasured and shared?

Reprinted by permission of the Hazelden Foundation.

About the Authors

Renascent Alumni
Members of Renascent's alumni community carry the message by sharing their experiences and perspectives on addiction and recovery. To contribute your alumni perspective, please email alumni@renascent.ca.