man looking depressed during the holidays

The holidays are a time to get together with loved ones, to reminisce about old times, and to anticipate the future — all things designed to bring joy. But if you have addiction in your past, these activities carry the potential to prompt different feelings: grief and loss.

That’s because addiction leaves so much damage in its wake, and the nostalgia and sentiment of the holidays seems to shine a spotlight on the gap between how things are and how you wish they could be.

For example, you may be struggling with:

  • Loss of intimacy. Even if you have done your best to make amends to those who were hurt by your addiction, some people may be unwilling to allow you back into their lives or unable to fully forgive you. It can be painful to think back on holidays past and realize you may never return to the former levels of emotional support and closeness you had with those you care about.
  • Loss of self-esteem. Because addiction requires that you take an action (consuming a substance or continuing a behavior), most people believe it is much more controllable than it is. That may include you. Perhaps you still tell yourself I should have been better than this. I should have been able to control it. It’s not a rational thought — no one chooses to become addicted, and loss of control is what defines addiction — but the shame it brings still has the power to batter self-esteem.
  • Loss of identity. So much of how we perceive ourselves is tied to our occupations. Addiction can damage and in some cases prevent us from returning to our careers. If this has happened to you, you may feel unmoored from a central anchor in your life, and looking ahead to a new year of uncertainty.
  • Loss of friends. You have likely forged friendships with others in addiction recovery and may have friends still in active addiction. Both are high-risk groups. Physical health tends to be poorer, relapse and overdose are always a possibility, and suicide rates are higher. That means the chances are good that you have lost or will lose someone close to you. The holidays can make this sorrow or fear especially troubling.
  • The Rip Van Winkle effect. Life goes on when you are active in your addiction. Children grow up, relatives pass away, relationships change. When you make it to recovery, you have to deal with the grief of knowing you’ve missed being fully present for part of your life and the lives of others. This holiday in sobriety may be your best ever, but you will never be able to reclaim the time that has slipped away.

Beyond Grief and Loss

All this is tough to deal with at any time, but it can be especially difficult during the holiday season, when our tendency is to reflect and when nostalgia colors all of our recollections.

It can also set you up for drug relapse — you may find yourself yearning for the simplicity of the days when you would turn to your substance of choice to deal with distressing feelings and make everything seem better, at least temporarily.

So how do you make it through the holidays without being overwhelmed by the intense and distressing emotions they can inspire?

Get help. When you’re active in your addiction, the substances you take obscure the losses and emotional traumas you are accumulating. When you become sober, the reality can hit hard. Treatment such as psychotherapy can allow you to reconstruct what really happened and how it affected your life and the lives of those around you, and to grieve. Looking back in this way is instrumental in helping you reach resolution and move forward.

Embrace service. This is more than a feel-good activity to get your mind off your troubles. Serving others, perhaps as a volunteer for an organization or one-on-one for someone in need, can be a deeply powerful way to return meaning to life. No matter how damaged you may feel, no matter how bereft of identity, sad or reduced, there are positive contributions yet to be made.

Realize it’s not just you. The holidays can be hard for everyone. It’s not just recovering addicts who have regrets, losses or grief, and the reality is that not everything can be fixed. But take some measure of comfort in knowing that humans are built to handle what comes our way. It takes time, but you can make it to the other side.