Time Off + Gifts + Shopping + Expectations + Family = The Need for Solid Recovery
- An increased number of emotionally challenging situations from which there can be a desire to “escape”
- Extra free time for slips and relapse (via time off from work or school)
- A culturally influenced background encouraging unrealistic expectations of “joy and happiness”
In essence, heightened emotions related to difficult family dynamics and numerous other factors make the season a more stressful than usual period, and this can feed into the chronic, progressive disease of addiction. Active addicts often experience escalation in this timeframe. Even addicts firmly grounded in recovery can revert to old patterns, especially if they stop attending their 12-step support groups, reaching out to supportive friends and family, and actively working their program of recovery.
But Everyone Else Seems So Happy…
The mere mention of the November/December holidays can evoke nearly universal visions of Norman Rockwell-like nostalgia – families gathered around pine-scented trees, candles burning night after night, tables weighted with endless goodies, hot cocoa topped with miniature marshmallows, and one tone deaf uncle or another cluelessly belting out holiday songs to grandma’s foot-pounding piano accompaniment. And everyone in this scenario is overflowing with joy, peace, love, harmony, and the spirit of giving. For some blessed families, this picture may actually be a reality. For the rest of us, though, the holidays typically fall at least slightly shy of this romanticized perfection, a fact that can be especially vexing for individuals already dealing with the challenge of addiction.
For people whose lives are dominated by relationship or sexual addiction (or any other addiction), the holiday season is an obvious set-up for slips and relapse. The justifications and rationalizations that every addict employs to one degree or another are particularly strong at this time of year, as there are endless reasons to feel frustrated, disappointed, lonely, or simply let down by love and life. Feelings of resentment, isolation, disappointment, and loneliness help grease the slippery slope of relapse. Some addicts (re)engage their addiction to escape the pressure of “being present” with family and loved ones; others act out as a way to cope with the disappointment of an idealized holiday that never actually happens. For men and women who struggle with problematic sexual and romantic behaviors, this time of year is rife with perfectly justifiable “reasons” to act out.
Sex Addict as Escape Artist
Let’s examine the two very distinct types of addict mentioned above. First up is the escape artist, the person who literally cannot abide the “life on life’s terms” reality that the holiday season forces on us all. This addict will show up for holiday functions, but as soon as he or she can reasonably depart… Whoosh, they’re out of the door and into the oblivion of addiction. Consider the words of Steven, a now-sober sex addict:
The beginning of the end of my sexual acting out was a Christmas Eve that’s now hard to forget. My sister and her kids lived about an hour away, and I drove to their house for dinner and midnight mass. My parents drove in, too, so the whole family was there. My sister made a fantastic meal, as always, and her young kids were crazy excited that Christmas had almost arrived. Me? I picked at the dinner, twitchy, sullen, and withdrawn, anxious for the evening to end. I knew I was behaving badly, but I couldn’t stop myself because I truly wanted to leave. Church was even worse. At one point my mother whispered, seemingly out of nowhere, “Why are you so angry?” I’m not sure how I responded, but I remember the question. As soon as church was over I was out the door and in my car. Back on my own, where I felt far more at ease, I drove around until I found a prostitute who brought with her the gift of crack cocaine. The next morning at breakfast it was back to my sister’s house to unwrap gifts. Thing was, I hadn’t slept, I hadn’t showered, and I was still wired from all the coke. As soon as the presents were opened, I told everyone I didn’t feel well and I left. But instead of going home and to bed, I called around until I found more drugs and another prostitute.
For this type of addict, the holiday season is a nuisance, filled with parties and family gatherings that try to push the individual back into reality and force him (or her) to be present – both of which he (or she) would prefer to avoid. After all, addiction is all about escape and dissociation from life stressors and uncomfortable emotions. Addicts engage in their addictive behavior because they want to “feel better,” which actually means they want to “feel less.” Being dragged into a social situation, particularly one that is supposed to evoke gratitude and joy, is not only unwanted and uncomfortable, it is a fast-track to anxiety, low self-esteem, depression, and the need to “medicate” those feelings by numbing out with sexual fantasy and behavior. And without insightful support, structure, and accountability, that is often exactly what sex addicts do.
Dealing with Disappointment
The second type of sex or love addict is the man or woman who sets impossibly high goals for the season in the misguided hope/belief that a perfect holiday will alleviate his or her obsessions and make everything right in the world. This individual lives in the fantasy that this year, unlike so many years past, he or she will be surrounded by loving family and friends who will set aside their differences, forgive past transgressions, and get along swimmingly. Consider Jane, a wife and mother struggling with her addiction to romantic intensity:
Last year before the holidays rolled around, I took some time out from my endless search for love by getting out of the romantic chat rooms and off of websites like Match.com and Ashley Madison so I could prepare for a holiday of reconnection with my husband and family. I planned everything down to the last detail – tasteful decorations, delicious food, perfect presents, the whole nine yards. On Christmas Eve there would be caroling around the neighborhood, and on Christmas morning our family would light a fire in the fireplace, eat cinnamon buns and drink hot chocolate, and then open our presents one at a time, savoring each and every special gift. Unfortunately, reality is not always what I would like it to be. My husband John refused to go caroling, the kids ripped open their presents while I was still in the kitchen making coffee, and they complained about almost every gift they received. Then John started yelling at the kids for being selfish, I started yelling at him for yelling at the kids, and pretty soon I’d had about enough. So I left home for a drive with no particular plan in mind except calming myself down. Yet without much effort or thought I soon “found myself” in a cheap motel room hooking-up with a married guy I met on my smartphone Ashley Madison app. Apparently, his Christmas morning didn’t live up to expectations, either. Even though I was filled with shame and felt terrible for leaving John alone with the kids on what was supposed to be an extraordinary day for all of us, I was absent for several hours. It was like I couldn’t stop myself.
For this type of sex and love addict, the holidays – viewed as a cure-all way to re-establish love and family connection – can easily become a reason to act out sexually. The simple fact is no spouse or family can live up to the idealized expectations placed upon them by an addict eager for excellence (and escape), and when they inevitably fail in their duty of perfection, the addict ends up hurt, resentful, disappointed, and ready to act out.
Holiday Checks and Balances
For individuals in or out of recovery a mindfulness check-in – perhaps even a written check-in later read aloud to a good friend, therapist, or 12-step sponsor – can be especially helpful around the holidays. Useful questions to ask yourself include:
- Am I feeling isolated, lonely, sad, or angry as the holiday season approaches?
- Am I keeping any sexual or romantic fantasies, ideas, plans, or behaviors a secret?
- Have I recently contacted former hookup partners or lovers, drug using friends, or drug dealers?
- Will I “run into” past or potential sexual partners at a holiday celebration or event?
- Do I have idealized, possibly unrealistic expectations about the season or any upcoming events?
- Am I prepared to handle holiday disappointments, letdowns, and the like?
- Am I feeling impulsive or obsessive?
- Am I resting, eating well, and generally taking good care of my physical, emotional, and spiritual self?
It is especially useful at this time of year for individuals already in sex or love addiction recovery to talk to their sponsor or a supportive friend in recovery about whatever it is they are feeling, to step up support group attendance, and go back to the very basic, early recovery advice that has worked in the past such as, “Just do the next right thing,” and, “One day at a Time.” If you’re not in recovery but know you have a problem with compulsive sexual or romantic behavior and/or addictive substances, now is a great time to reach out for help. The best holiday gift you can give to yourself and to your loved ones is the gift of healing and sobriety. Making an appointment with and talking to a licensed (sexual) addiction therapist is the perfect first step. You might not “get well” in time to fully enjoy this holiday season, but with a little hard work and dedication you can ensure that future holiday seasons are filled with genuine intimacy and joy – even if you and your family never quite achieve Norman Rockwell perfection.