Holiday Challenges for the Recovering Addict

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Holiday Challenges for the Recovering Addict

Recovering opioid addict Brett Fabert had been clean for two and a half years, right up until Thanksgiving. That’s when the 34-year-old Salt Lake City man saw friends and family drinking and he decided to join them. Shortly afterward, he went back to his old drugs of choice — heroin and cocaine. Fabert was so ashamed of his relapse, he cried about it for two days. The holidays are a time to eat, drink and be merry. But what if you’re a recovering opioid addict? Then the season for parties and good times can be a tough one to navigate.




Stressful Triggers

Stress is one of the most common triggers of drug abuse. Opioid addicts who’ve been clean for years can suffer a damaging relapse during periods of high anxiety.

Which is why holiday gatherings can be a huge trigger for people in recovery. Particularly if family members have issues with one another, or if family relations were the reason the addict tried drugs for the first time. Old wounds can reopen and lead individuals right back to drug abuse.

Drug addiction experts note that there are two kinds of triggers for recovering addicts, external triggers and internal triggers. Both of these can be aggravated by holiday stress.

Holiday Season External Triggers

Examples of external triggers during the holiday season include:

  • People. Running into old friends with whom the recovering addict used the drug of choice; spending time with relatives who have addiction problems and are not in recovery
  • Places. Visiting the parent’s house where the addict used to get high; passing by the location where he used to acquire the drugs
  • Things. Wearing an old jacket that smells like marijuana or another drug smoked; noticing an unattended bottle of pills at home or at a party.
  • Events. Attending any party or event where drugs will be consumed; witnessing a family argument at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner.

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Holiday Season Internal Triggers

But recovering addicts also face the threat of internal triggers. These physical sensations, emotions, thoughts or memories can remind a person of drugs and prompt the urge to use.

Addiction experts often use the acronym “H.A.L.T.” to teach addicts how to become more conscious of internal triggers. Hunger, anger, loneliness and tiredness are the four pillars of this approach. Each represents a powerful condition that can push addicts to satisfy their urges.

Examples of internal triggers during the holidays include:

  • Hunger. Feeling the physical need that is hunger and confusing it for a substance craving. 
    • Anger. Feeling angry you can’t imbibe with your friends; feeling frustrated they didn’t invite you to parties involving drugs.
    • Loneliness. Feeling self-pity and loneliness after family members un-invite you from Christmas celebrations; feeling lonely because you’re single during the holidays and worry you can’t achieve intimacy without being high; having no close family ties.
    • Tiredness. Feeling exhausted and irritable after a long drive to visit with family.

    It’s important for the recovering addict to know his personal triggers for relapse. Then he must take care of himself to ward off these triggers, mentally and physically.

6 Strategies to Avoid Holiday Relapse

#1. Start each day with a plan.

Wake up each morning thinking about how to stay clean that day. The key is staying focused on your goal of sobriety.

#2. Don’t forget to eat.

Low blood sugar can leave you anxious or irritable, making you feel impulsive and easily tempted by substances. Have a nutritious meal or snack about every three hours.

#3. Make time for regular exercise.

Giving your body something to do can help satisfy the physical craving. Plus, exercise is a great stress reliever.

#4. Arrive early and leave early.

Drive yourself to social functions, so you can leave when you’re ready. Also, take along a food or safe drink that you enjoy.

#5. Bring along a buddy.

If you plan to attend holiday parties, bring a friend who doesn’t imbibe to help you stay clean and sober.

#6. Learn to move past your craving.

According to addiction experts, a craving typically only lasts about 20 minutes. So if you can stay strong for a short period, the urge should pass. Move to a different setting, meditate or breathe deeply.

Say something to yourself like: “The reality is, I can’t handle this drug, and I choose to do something else.” Remind yourself how much is at risk by relapsing.


Have a Heart-to-Heart. To avoid any awkwardness, have a direct conversation with the recovering opioid addict before the holiday celebration. Tell him you’re proud of him and ask if there’s anything you can do to make him feel more comfortable at the party.

Prepare as a Family. Understand that families cannot cure addiction and they cannot control it. Nor can families cause a relapse during the holidays – the recovering person is responsible for his own recovery. But families can be supportive of loved ones in recovery – especially during the holidays.

Show your Support. Approach a recovering addict the same way you’d approach him if he were battling any other chronic illness. Don’t ignore it, but don’t base the whole experience of your holiday around that person’s situation. Say something like, “We’re really glad you’re here and that you’re clean.” Acknowledge his or her recovery in a low-key way.

Offer Alternatives. Alcohol can lower an opioid addict’s defenses toward drug use. Provide alternative drinks and watch out for certain foods. Even though dishes made with wine, beer or hard liquor have no traceable alcohol content, just the flavor of the alcohol could trigger a relapse for someone in recovery.

Source: Hazeldon Betty Ford Foundation



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