Recovering Your Family Holidays with the 12-Step Method

by Christie Bates-MacKaskie

Whether you’ve been invited to a big family gathering, or ceremoniously uninvited due to old behaviour, working the 12 steps will help to keep you on track for a workable solution to the numerous challenges of the upcoming holiday season. By following these steps, you can better work toward your recovery instead of against it.

Step 1: Admit that you are powerless
It’s that time of year in which you’ll be hearing more and more about gratitude, both during meetings and elsewhere. No matter how much you protest that Christmas is just another day during the year, the truth is that expectations and emotions run higher than usual all the through New Year’s Day. And whether you live with family or not, any holiday inevitably brings up family issues.

It may seem as if everybody is doing too much, spending too much and/or wanting too much. As much as we may not want to face our families due to past hurts, jealousies, money problems, relationship statuses, work situations or shame over how we acted at the last family gathering, there’s simply no use trying to avoid the rush and create a way in which to handle the inevitable pressures sooner rather than later.

Step 2: Remember you came to give
Being restored to sanity during the holiday season boils down to one thing — giving of yourself and to others. If you go into situations wanting, you’re likely to come out wanting. But if you make it your goal to be of service to your family in whatever way you can, then your holiday will be a success no matter how anyone else behaves. So what if your brother can give your kids bigger gifts than you can? You’re not there to prove anything. Just teach your kids to celebrate their good fortune and say “thank you!” Your job is to give love unconditionally to whoever is willing and able to receive it.

Think of one or two relatives who have always wanted and wished for good things for you. Give them the gift of spending some sober time with them. Make a visit to that aunt or neighbour who always said you’d turn out all right. Send cards to people who used to worry about you, not only to thank them sincerely for their prayers, but also to let them know their prayers are being answered with your sobriety today. Then ask how their lives are progressing at present.

Step 3: Turn your life and your will over to care of others
Decide right now that you won’t make yourself go through the upcoming holidays alone, since too much alone time can put sobriety and serenity at serious risk. Make conscious plans to protect your recovery throughout the holiday season, whether it is by attending meetings at home or during your travels. Don’t worry that your friends and relatives will think it’s rude if you have to leave dinner early to go to a meeting. (If you really wanted to exhibit rude behaviour, then try relapsing in the middle of the children’s Christmas play!)

If you have a counsellor, go ahead and book your post-family-gathering appointment now. Make a daily phone appointment with your sponsor or another recovery friend. Call between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. every day, for instance, even if it’s just to check in and report that everything’s okay with you. In that way, you’ll have already formed a habit of calling and it will make it much easier to call when things aren’t going so well.

Step 4: Take Inventory
Make some notes of resentments or fears that always seem to come up around the holiday season. Jot down some holiday memories — both good and bad. Be honest with yourself about what you can and cannot do to change past transgressions. If dinner at your aunt’s house means being around a relative who abused you as a child, then come to terms with the reality that it won’t be possible to take your own kids there and hold onto your sanity at the same time.

If New Year’s Eve with your cousin always meant getting stoned in the past, then don’t let your addiction fool you into thinking that this year might be different. If you were dry and sober last year, but full of rage because you were overworking to pay for expensive gifts, then write those feelings down, too.

Also be sure to include a gratitude list as part of this year’s holiday inventory, which might include some or all of the following: you’re clean and sober; you can go to a public library and send free e-cards on the Internet to family and friends; you can look clearly at Christmas lights and appreciate their beauty; you’ve got an extended family in recovery; and you don’t have to face this holiday alone.

Step 5: Admit the exact nature of your troubles
Share your holiday inventory with a trusted sponsor, friend, or counsellor. This person can help you pinpoint what you need to do this year to make your holidays happier and brighter for all involved.

One sponsor challenged his friend to follow a “two-hour rule”. The person in recovery noticed that in years past, big family dinners became big family fights after a few hours. Therefore, the recovering addict attended a family gathering, but stayed no longer than two hours. That way, he gave his parents — and himself — a nice visit without getting overly tired and easily angered at others. A person outside our situation can usually see solutions like this more easily and clearly than we can.

Step 6: Recognize when you’re ready for change
Be willing to stay in touch with your family no matter the circumstances. Whatever your situation might be, communicate it to your loved ones. If you can’t be there in person with your kids or other relatives, let them know ahead of time. Then be sure you send a card or make a phone call on the big day. They need to hear that you love them, even when you fear that’s not enough.

One powerful gift of hope and outreach is to invite family members to talk about any hurt feelings they may have about past holidays. Then, simply be willing to listen. You don’t have to argue, explain or excuse. Just hear them out and understand how the world looks to them. Sometimes, all they want is to be able to tell you how your action or words hurt them. Then you all can move on with a clear conscience.

Step 7: Humbly ask for forgiveness
Let go of your ego during holiday get-togethers. This is a recovery period for you. If you had just gone through cancer treatment, you’d know to get your rest. It’s the same with recovery from addiction — your body, mind, and spirit need time to regroup. Let your sponsor or counsellor help you decide on priorities and be humble enough to let go of whatever is not a priority.

Remember to HALT when you are feeling Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. In those types of situations, powerful feelings can trigger a painful and often times emotional response in you, so before you act, take a deep breath and ask yourself how you can react differently this time. When you’re in a more relaxed state, you’ll be able to clearly see more options.

Step 8: Become willing to make amends to all…
You probably can’t get all your amends made during the course of one holiday season, but if you’re willing to make amends to everybody gradually and in turn, then you don’t have to be afraid of seeing anyone in particular. Rather than planning the expensive gift list your ego wants to in order to prove to everybody that you’re doing better, instead create an amends list and go over it with your sponsor.

Most of all, be willing to make amends through appreciation and compassion. No matter how bad things got in the past, there is some trait to appreciate in each person in your family, including the child who kept acting out until the addict got help and the person who nagged because he or she didn’t know what else to do. Everyone, including you, was simply trying his or her best to solve a problem that was just too big. Assume that everyone’s heart is in the right place, but it’s just the methods that need to change.

Step 9: …wherever possible
In making amends, your first responsibility is to your own household. You and the people you live with deserve a sober holiday. It’s tempting to try to rid ourselves of guilt by spending money we don’t have, but to live honestly within our means is the best gift we can give. See if the family can do something together to be of service to others. Your gift of a sane and sober holiday can bless people both inside and outside your home.

When we’ve spent much of our lives feeling worthless, it’s hard to believe that what people need the most is our time and attention. Maybe your child’s school has a dinner you can attend. Show up to watch him or her in the school’s holiday play. If you can’t be with your own children, make amends for that by volunteering to help at an organization that serves children, since they inevitably need lots of help during the holiday months.

Do you owe anyone money? Send what you can in a holiday card with a note of gratitude and a plan for paying the balance. Everyone can use unexpected money during the holidays and you’ll help to lighten your burden of guilt as you spread goodwill toward others.

Step 10: Be generous with your appreciation
Schedules get hectic and tempers get short during this “happiest of seasons.” That’s true for all people, not just those in recovery. Be quick and generous with both your appreciation and apologies, whether dealing with family or strangers. Avoid black-or-white thinking. Keep in mind that if someone snaps at you, it’s not the whole truth of how he or she feels about you — it’s just a rough moment.

Focus on the things you want to see increase. Even children get frazzled by all of the holiday excitement. If a child yells “I hate you!” even as he or she is obeying you, focus on the obedience and say, “Well, I’d be angry, too, but thanks for obeying anyway.” It will help to calm the atmosphere and keep your side of the disagreement clean.

Step 11: Prayer and meditation are vital
We say that the holidays are about spiritual values but, in practice, they often tend to compete with our time for spiritual growth. Don’t skimp on prayer, meditation, journaling and/or reading recovery literature, which will help you do your Higher Power’s will, not the almighty advertisers’ will, throughout the season.

Step 12: Carry this message with you
This step doesn’t mean trying to get all your family members into recovery, nor does it mean cramming your newfound spirituality down their throats. Instead, it means being the message and carrying it through the holidays in your sane and sober body. If you work the first 11 steps, this may be the year you’ll get to answer the question, “What’s with you this year? You seem so different!”


Reprinted from Recovery Solutions Magazine by permission.

About the Authors

Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.