Navigating the holidays

By Sarah Siegel

Consider them a time for growth: Reassess traditions, and be true to yourself and of service to others

Are your usual traditions no longer fulfilling? The Rev. Jacob Watson says it’s wise to create new ones

Shannon Fisher has built her life on a strong foundation of recovery and is committed to continued healing. But she’s quick to acknowledge that recovery can be challenging during the holidays, especially when strong emotions, unrealistic expectations, painful family dynamics and overwhelming memories crop up amid festivities.

That doesn’t mean people in recovery can’t find ways to thoroughly enjoy celebratory times. By having a plan in place and plugging into a support network, the holidays can become
a time of personal growth, filled with meaningful connections and plenty of opportunities to discover more about who we really are and what matters most to us.

“For years, I was disconnected from everyone and everything,” says Shannon, reflecting on what life was like in active addiction.

“And for so long, my only memories were of being alone in unsafe situations and missing out on life.”

Today, Shannon is anything but alone, spending much of her time working at the Portland Recovery Community Center to help nurture others as they forge their own paths in recovery. She knows how important that is, saying she wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for all the people in recovery who have shown her unending “compassion and acceptance.”

And, she says, it’s especially important to surround yourself with community like that at more stressful times, including the holidays. Like many people, Shannon leaves her familiar comforts behind when she travels home to Pennsylvania for Thanksgiving or Christmas each year and has made it a point to have safe people she can rely on and a plan for self care in place to support herself when away from her usual community.

“In recovery, we have the opportunity to form safe connections, whether that’s with supportive people who are available by phone, coping tools like taking a walk, praying or
meditating, or recovery meetings that are planned in advance,” she says, radiating a gentle, welcoming warmth.

Taking care of oneself, honoring one’s own truth, finding connection and being of service are very important for many people in recovery, and frequently even more so around the holidays. It’s one thing to know that, though, and another to put into practice, especially in early recovery.

“It’s different for everybody because the holidays can be triggering for many different reasons,” says Erik Olander, a Falmouth-based trauma therapist who specializes in addiction and helps people through the challenges of recovery. He notes that many people in recovery from addictions have experienced trauma at some point in their lives, and as a result, are prone to isolating and experiencing shame.

“Some people feel ashamed of themselves because they have a good family,” he says. “But for others, being around their family is a nightmare and very triggering.”

“Being alone on the holidays frequently piles on more shame because of societal norms, which make us believe we are supposed to be with our family, and everything is supposed to be hunky-dory,” he says. “The reality is that’s an unrealistic expectation to begin with and just plain untrue for most people.”

Like Shannon, Erik emphasizes the importance of connection during stressful times, when healing from addiction – both with our inner selves and with our communities. For people in recovery to
safely navigate the challenges of the holiday season, he highlights the value of leaning into whatever support we may already have in place and, much like Shannon, points out the
benefit of having at least a few, compassionate people in our lives who understand the recovery process and believe in our capacity to heal.

“We are pack animals with an inherent need for a tribe – no one is a lone wolf,” Erik says. “We are stronger with people than alone. Period.”

Erik also notes that being of service to others can be a wonderful way to find meaningful connections, and the holidays offer many opportunities to do so.

“Giving is another way to move out of isolation by focusing on others and their needs. While being out somewhere in the community and being of service may be the last thing that most people want to do, especially traumatized people, it can actually be something that’s super healing,” he says.

It’s often a balancing act during the holidays, though, when people want to be both thinking of others and staying on an authentic path of recovery and true to their own self-care needs.

For Shannon, it’s important to make time for both. She says giving back is a very important way to both celebrate the holidays and heal from addiction.

“The holidays are a blessing because I get to show up and make memories with the people I love. It’s not what I can get out of a situation, but what I can bring,” she says. “I can help prep, clean up, bring a grateful heart and attitude. We are all worthy of everything life has to offer us. The holidays are a great reminder that we are deserving of moving forward in our lives and in
our recovery. The best part is we are never alone. We are all taking a step at a time together in this life.”

Much like Shannon, many recovering people have found service work to be a cornerstone of their healing journey not only during the holiday season, but year round. By
supporting others within a specific recovery program, showing up for family and friends in a new way or offering services to a larger community, healing from addiction becomes something much more than solely finding relief from a chronic health condition, although that is certainly part of the package. Beyond this, recovery becomes a positive process of growth and transformation, both on the individual and collective level. It profoundly benefits everyone.

The Rev. Jacob Watson, founding abbot of the Chaplaincy Institute of Maine, is deeply committed to service work and helping others navigate all of the ups and downs that life brings. He offers a suggestion on how to combat the unrealistic and damaging expectations so many people have internalized about the holidays, especially when it comes to ones society imposes on us.

He says it can be valuable to use discernment around holiday events – to evaluate if the traditions you’re in the habit of using – getting a Christmas tree, going to large family gatherings or spending a lot of money on gifts – “resonate with who you are as an authentic person, the real you inside."

If not, he says it’s OK to create new traditions and to let go of ones that no longer serve us or speak to us. He also suggests taking a step back during the holiday season to consider the universal experience of sunlight changing during the solstice – to help us feel connected to something greater. Jacob notes that since time immemorial, humans have honored and celebrated the shift in the light through a myriad of different ways.

Today, as we build a life of recovery, we get to discover if we also find meaning in experiencing the solstice, participating in family traditions, being of service to others and honoring our own truth.

“There is something going on here in the bigger picture, in the cosmos, as the light shifts,” Jacob says. “And when I am in touch with that, it pulls me out of my own little selfish needs. I am part of a larger picture here, and I notice when the light is changing. We are all part of that larger cosmos and creation. When we are anxious and depressed, we forget that we are part of something so much larger than our suffering. It’s very soothing and helpful for me to remind myself that we are never truly alone.”

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