Sentimental Hygiene, The Sanity Clause and Holiday Benders

By Dawn Roberts 12/24/14

The eight weeks between Halloween and New Year’s Eve are a minefield of triggers for people in recovery. . .


I’ve sorted my own twisted route through a decade of holiday dramas, on the East Coast, West Coast and even another continent. The only thing I’m sure of is that navigating the season is an inside job. Whatever you’ve got brewing is going to make itself known, so prepare for the unexpected, shore up support and go where the love is. No matter what you do, there will be some bumps along the road to Grandmother’s house on Boxing Day.

The eight weeks between Halloween and New Year’s Eve are a minefield of triggers for people in recovery. Resentments that lurk under the surface of our psyches rear their heads and scream at the most inopportune times.

For me, the shock and awe of the season started with a chain of emails. My family circulates missives about who wants what, who got what for who, who’s working with who to go in on what for who and arrrgh, I’m having a fit of rage at 7am. I furiously tap out my own contribution to the discussion with a pointed suggestion. Create a shared document for these updates rather than 15 jagged trails of messages (all ending with smiley Santa emoticons). Of course, the responses came wrapped heavy with tone! Yes, my loved ones would be happy to create such a doc (if perhaps I could show them how). It’s clear I am a dour Grinch who chose to spit in Happy Town, curiously lacking the essential festive participant gene.

Every year it feels like I’m never going to receive an infusion of good cheer. Just as surely, on or about December 20th my mood lifts, I embrace the inevitable, and end up having a good time. I wish I was wired differently, immune to feeling jaded and put upon by the demands of the day. Unfortunately wishes are not horses, and this mare may never run free, but I get to the end of the course just the same.

It’s a matter of perspective. The filter we choose to experience life’s tapestry with is of our own selection. Knowing that can make all the difference. I have never considered my position to be morally superior. The fact is, if what I used to do still worked for me, I never would have stopped. I’m no longer engaged in a daily battle with one substance. The big bad wolf takes on a myriad of forms, and clearly springs from the dodgy neighborhood just above my shoulders. I can become wretched and obsessed from a long list of vices and bad decisions. The question is how to avoid falling prey to thoughts and actions that will end up costing me happiness and self esteem?

Walking into a room of people who are in a different state of mind than we are can be uncomfortable. It depends entirely on our contentment in our own skin. The more I own who I am (for better and worse) the less challenged I am by anything going on outside of me. Sometimes, my black sense of humor is the exact filter needed to steer clear of a propensity towards the morose. Like one of my musical heroes who had long-term recovery (Warren Zevon) I need sentimental hygiene. I think we all need emotional catharsis to move from our shadow selves. Stepping outside my head is a Wizard of Oz moment, life reveals itself in Technicolor. During an emotionally charged season when we may be frustrated, disappointed or plain sad, it’s worth doing what we can to shake it off. Yesterday, I was listening to The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” loudly—singing and jumping around the room Townshend-style. Did I look silly through the window of my office? Hell yeah. Do I care? Not a bit. One of my best tactics is to get the endorphins flowing. Running and acting the fool to my own soundtrack are powerful allies during the holidays.

The Sanity Clause

I find other people’s behavior fascinating. Many times, cultivating an observer’s perspective has floated me to a safe harbor. If I start feeling self-conscious about not participating in an activity going on around me, whether it’s drinking or a political discussion, I simply walk away from it. Knowing my boundaries, and respecting them is the best tool I have to maintain my sanity every day of the year. I gravitate towards children at holiday get-togethers. By participating in their chatter and games I’m able to escape my head and join in the fun. If I’m feeling really twitchy, I find a quiet place to hang out and distract myself. 

The thing to remember is people are so self-absorbed that what you are doing or not doing is of little consequence to them. Last Christmas Eve, I found myself at a dinner party where I just couldn’t relax. There was a lot of toasting, and my friends were pretty well lit. I was definitely feeling apart from the festivities. Finally, I left the room that was making me crazy and found a 13 year-old upstairs watching TV. I climbed up on the giant pillow covered bed, took a deep breath, and hung out with her. Having a laugh over a tween comedy lifted the dark cloud. I was able to stay at the party, and be a happy designated driver home.

This year our plans are pretty low key. There are two daytime parties we’ll attend (with plenty of kids). I’m putting my attention on what I’m bringing to these events rather than what might be waiting there for me. The best, and only medicine I know that works is getting out of the cycle of self-obsession. I laugh at the absurdity of human behavior, particularly my own foolish tango with things I cannot change.

Dawn Roberts is a writer and media consultant. She lives in the Catskill Mountains with two dogs, a cat and a recording engineer. She last wrote about options to quit Suboxone, interviewed Bob Forrest and looked into the rehab abuse of adolescents.

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Dawn Roberts is a writer and media consultant in New York. Follow her on Twitter.