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  • Caleb Birkhoff

Signs that Someone in Recovery Might be Struggling During the Holidays:

The holiday season can be a magical time, but for those in recovery, it can also be a delicate dance. From the outside, it might seem like the holidays bring joy and merriment, but for those in recovery, it's a unique terrain that requires careful navigation. The holidays bring with it a myriad of emotions, traditions, and gatherings; and for individuals navigating the delicate journey of recovery, the holidays can pose unique challenges. Thanksgiving, with its gatherings centered around gratitude, and the impending Christmas celebrations, often laden with nostalgic echoes of the past, can be particularly demanding. Signs of struggle may manifest in subtle shifts in behavior, from withdrawal to heightened stress. Recognizing these signs and offering tailored support becomes crucial during this time, especially for those who are new to recovery or finding themselves in the early stages. This season, you can be ready to recognize the nuances of struggles individuals in recovery may face during the holidays, and be ready to support them. With a focus on Thanksgiving and the anticipation of the next holidays, let's delve into the signs that someone in recovery might be facing a tougher time during this festive season.


Signs to Watch For


1. Isolation:

Your friends, family members, or loved ones might demonstrate withdrawal from social events or family gatherings, preferring solitude. They might not show up to the events they're invited to or spend a noticeable amount of time by themselves at events. This could be an indicator that they aren't prepared for the feelings that these gatherings bring up or are trying to avoid showing people that they have relapsed or returned to use. I will add, if they aren't at events, but have set a clear boundary about not going, it could be a sign of a decision in their recovery's best interest.


2. Mood Swings:

Increased irritability, agitation, or anger can be an outward sign of inward discomfort. For some people in your life, this might be the very first time that they're at a Thanksgiving celebration without drinking. They're on edge and uncomfortable, and their mood is an unconscious way to create separation. They might have underestimated what it feels like to be around people using, or self-conscious that other people have noticed that they're not drinking. Think about it as being pre-defensive, ready to set a hard boundary before they're required to, which can be very off putting to interact with.


3. Changes in Routine:

Be on the look out for disruptions to established routines, such as missing support group meetings or therapy sessions. Neglecting self-care constitutes a change in routine. Folks in recovery are working on taking better care of themselves in general, which is often achieved with a consistent routine. If people are showing up disheveled, with poor hygiene, or not engaging in their usual care activities, it's a reasonable bet that they are preoccupied with their anxiety about recovery. This likely will also include not attending to their recovery activities (meetings, journaling, therapy, etc.) which is always a cause for concern in recovery.



4. Heightened Stress:

Man people experience an observable increase in stress levels, possibly linked to holiday-related expectations or triggers. The holidays often bring a base line of stress, and stress unattended to in recovery can lead to triggers and cravings. One of the biggest struggles in recovery is dealing with emotional discomfort without substances. If your loved one is talking about stress, or seems stressed, without a healthy stress-management plan, there is some risk for unhealthy behaviors.


5. Nostalgia for Substance Use:

Be concerned about expressions of longing for past holiday seasons that involved substance use. This nostalgia, romanticization, or “euphoric recall” can be a dangerous territory for those new in recovery. The mental part of recovery is just as important as the behavioral changes folks are making. A loved one who can’t see to think about a new way to build traditions, have fun, or participate in the holidays is likely struggling with their new relationship to drugs/alcohol.


Specific to Thanksgiving and Christmas:


6. Anxiety about Gatherings:

Apprehension or anxiety about attending family gatherings where substances may be present. It is not unusual for people new in recovery to be attempting their first winter holiday season without substances. They might not come out and say it directly, but you might get subtle hints about not wanting to be around all people.


7. Financial Stress:

Concerns about holiday expenses leading to financial strain and emotional distress. It’s not that uncommon for people early in recovery to be confronted by the consequences of their using, often referred to as “wreckage.” This can take the form of financial issues like debt, unpaid bills, or lavish spending.


8. Memories of Past Issues:

They might be reflecting on past holiday seasons marred by substance use or related problems. If this is the first sober holiday season, there’s probably one they’d rather forget in the rearview. The guilt and shame of these memories can be triggering own their own.


How to Support Someone in Recovery During the Holidays:


For all of the above, and more, it is reasonable to reach out to your loved one in a supportive and non-judgmental way to offer support. This is a great time to be an ally in their recovery, without drowning them in unsolicited advice. You can start with something as simple as a phone call, an outing, a listening ear, or providing care through the recovery process. Here are some specific suggestions:


1. Open Communication:

Encourage open dialogue about their feelings and concerns regarding the holidays. Be a person who they can talk to, but take it a step further and tell someone that you’re capable of being that person.


2. Plan Ahead:

Collaborate on a plan for holiday events, ensuring they feel comfortable and supported. This could look like hosting a dry event, a specific time to spend together, or being an ally.


3. Suggest Sober Events:

Identify and attend sober or recovery-oriented events together. Many 12-Step fellowships have marathon meetings on holidays, even just encouraging someone to participate could make all the difference.


4. Create a Support System:

Ensure they have a network of friends or support groups to lean on during challenging times. Be careful to not overstep though, these is an easy space to “inflict help,” when we don’t ask for permission to be supportive.


5. Offer Alternatives:

Suggest non-substance-related activities to replace past holiday traditions. Lose the toast, find a new gift, or start a tradition that is sustainable in recovery.


6. Practice Self-Care:

Emphasize the importance of self-care, including sufficient rest, exercise, and healthy eating. A way to we can support those close to us is model the behaviors we want to see in others.



The holiday season can be particularly challenging for those in recovery. Providing understanding, support, and practical assistance during Thanksgiving and the rest of the winter holidays can make a significant difference. Encourage a focus on gratitude, emphasize the importance of self-care, and reinforce the idea that seeking support is a sign of strength, not weakness.


You Can be the Difference


So, how can you be the beacon of support during the holiday season for someone in recovery? It's all about understanding the signs, embracing open communication, and offering a space free from judgment. The holidays might add an extra layer of challenge, but with the right support, those in recovery can navigate this season with resilience. Keep the lines of communication open, be attuned to the signs, and remember, your support can be the greatest gift of all. As the echoes of holiday cheer linger and the promise of Christmas hovers on the horizon, it's vital to carry forward the spirit of support and understanding for those navigating recovery. Recognizing the signs of struggle during Thanksgiving and beyond is the first step in fostering a compassionate environment. From offering alternatives to substance-centric traditions to providing practical support, our collective efforts can make a profound impact on someone's journey. As we conclude this exploration into supporting those in recovery during the holidays, let's carry the lessons of empathy and encouragement into the festive season, ensuring that everyone feels seen, heard, and supported on their path to wellness. If you're uncertain about how to navigate this journey or need more guidance, feel free to reach out. Together, we can ensure that the holiday season becomes a time of growth, connection, and continued recovery.


I hope that this list helps you feel more confident to support someone close to you, or yourself this holiday season. If you're wanting more, consider therapy in San Francisco. If after reading all of that, you’re still swirling with questions feel free to call me at 415-990-1452 for a free 15-minute phone consultation and to get some questions answered. I would be happy to hear what is happening for you, what you’re looking for and provide some direction to finding the right therapist for you.


If you are seeking help with couples therapy, drugs and alcohol, life transitions, discovering yourself, or therapy for men’s issues, you can read more about how Caleb Birkhoff might be able to help by clicking here!




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