Year's most challenging time: Addiction recovery at holidays

December 4, 2008

Every December, it began like a Norman Rockwell painting. Sometimes, snow even fell outside the picture window as the family gathered to decorate the Christmas tree. Mom and Dad lifted the children to place ornaments on the upper branches, but when their hands were free, they downed martinis. Soon, they would blame each other for choosing a crooked tree and argue over getting lights placed correctly. A few martinis later, the parents were throwing plates at the wall. By then, the children were cowering. As they grew older, "the Christmas tree fight" was embedded in their holiday memories.


At least one of the children, J.C., who asked that his full name be withheld, grew up to be a successful businessman, dedicated parishioner -- and alcoholic. The beers after choir practice became more important than choir practice itself.

J.C.'s relationship with beer exemplifies addiction. "The object of addiction becomes the primary relationship, distancing the addict from one's self, others and God," said the Rev. Kevin M. Cross, transitional deacon and board member of Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Church. According to its website, Recovery Ministries is an "independent, nationwide network of Episcopal laity and clergy, dioceses and parishes, schools, agencies and other institutions -- all with a common commitment to address the use and misuse of alcohol and other drugs in relation to the church's mission."

Most experts agree that behaviors such as gambling or overeating or even compulsive shopping can become as addictive as alcohol or other drugs. The key is chemicals that react to pleasurable activities in ways that cause people to become addicted to substances or behaviors.

A particularly insidious aspect of addiction is that, "even when the addict is in recovery, the disease continues to progress," Cross said.

J.C. has been in recovery 30 years, and he still sings in the same Episcopal church choir. The near-miss traffic accidents his fellow choristers witnessed over the years are a source of legend -- and guilt.

Their regret over not coming to J.C.'s aid sooner, alongside his sobriety and openness, led to a tradition in their parish. Those with addictions speak confidentially with the rector, who puts them in touch with parishioners in recovery from the same addiction. It's a list that sees heavy use during the holidays by those addicted to alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, food, sex or work.

Holidays are stressful
Regardless of the addiction, "the holidays can be a very stressful time, and people go to their 'default setting' for coping," said the Rev. Lauren G., a vocational deacon who has been in recovery 14 years and asked that her last name be withheld. Those with a gambling addiction who feel the "stress of buying presents may think a 'sure bet' would make their lives easier" and wind up back at the casino instead of at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting, she said.

Addicts use this kind of compulsive behavior to cope with stress, she said. "Even though on a certain level you know it's dangerous, there's still a 'built-in forgetter' in the brain."

"The season of more -- more alcohol, more food, more work, more fun, more spending," as Recovery Ministries President Eleanor M. Stromberger terms the holidays, is what experts typically identify as one of the two stressors that can pull addicts out of recovery. The second is family expectations.

"Most people with addiction issues, regardless of the addiction, come from families with addiction issues," said the Rev. Alison M. Dingley, who has been in recovery from alcoholism 28 years.

Addiction is particularly insidious because it is characterized by denial. "It's the only disease I know of that tells a lie," said Stromberger. "Addicts don't believe they have the disease. And often, families and others enable that perception. Who wants Thanksgiving dinner ruined by Uncle Joe saying nasty things to Aunt Flo? It's easier to just ignore it. And heck, if you give him enough wine, he'll shut up and fall asleep in the easy chair."

Having shed 50 pounds, five pounds away from her goal, Dingley said she particularly was aware this holiday season of the pressure to overeat.

"It's rare that there's a family gathering without expectations for eating lots and lots of unhealthy food. Otherwise, you're not showing appreciation or rejecting the cook or refusing to participate."

In some families, piles of lavish gifts or expensive ski vacations are equated with love -- even as struggles with bankruptcy, shopping addictions or shoplifting are ignored.

Young people may feel pressured to seem as carefree as kids on Christmas cards, and some may turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their stress.

Holiday pressure on adolescents in recovery is particularly acute, according to Cross, whose extensive work with those in recovery has focused on addiction and adolescents.

"They find themselves in a tug-of-war between their need for independence and societal expectations that all families are close-knit and happy during the holidays," he said. "It's especially important for them to have support outside their families."

Support is vital
Experts generally agree that a viable support system is crucial at the holidays.

"Most people don't have a relapse by accident," said G.R., who has been in recovery 35 years and asked that her name be withheld. "It's usually because they don't have a support system in place. You have to care for the disease on a daily basis, and part of that is having a support system in place -- especially when you know you're going to be facing a stressor, like the holidays."

The Rev. Nancy Van Dyke Platt a member of the Diocese of Maine's Alcohol and Substance Abuse Committee and in recovery 39 years, quickly pointed out, "It does get easier. The first five years of sobriety are the hardest."

Early in her recovery, Platt was told that "my first job at a party is to find one person who is not drinking and have a conversation," she said.

Platt continues to follow this advice because, she said, "after about two hours at a party with too much alcohol and too few other drinks and too little food, people get loud and say things better left unsaid," turning the gathering itself into a stressor.

Six General Conventions between 1979 and 2003 have passed resolutions to educate the church on substance-abuse issues, including, in 2003, a call "on all dioceses to establish Committees on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency and to develop policies concerning health-care coverage and treatment for alcohol- or drug-dependent employees and their future employment." Platt estimated that about half of dioceses have a committee similar to Maine's, whose services include guidelines for serving alcohol at church functions.

Gradual change
Platt's experience is that the church has become -- albeit slowly -- more sensitive to recovery issues, she said. She recalled being in another diocese's cathedral 30 or so years ago where only wine was served at the diocesan event. When she asked for an alternative, "I was given 50 cents for the soda machine."

Parishes with a history of welcoming those in recovery generally find themselves in the best position to ease the holiday season for them.

At Church of Our Saviour, Akron, Ohio, churchgoers who would like their recovery anniversaries noted are prayed for aloud during the Sunday service. This weekly practice makes it easier to be a supportive parish during the holidays, said the Rev. Meghan Froehlich, rector. "At all times, especially during the holidays, when the very means by which we're expected to celebrate – drink, food, expensive gift-giving – are triggers and hot buttons for our addictions, church can help balance some of those expectations with knowing your own worth as belonging to God rather than by any external measurement."

Recovery Ministries offers instructions for Recovery
Sunday celebrations and 12-step Eucharists on its website for between $5 and $6.60, with discounts for members. Stromberger said she saw a natural fit for the 12 steps to serenity (http::// in church, calling them "classic Christian formation."

Several Episcopal churches offer "Blue Christmas" services for those who find the holidays challenging and even depressing. Many are designed with the needs of those who cope with addictions in mind.

St. Paul's, Oakwood, Ohio, originally planned its annual "Quiet Christmas" service to minister to those in recovery or grieving, although anyone is welcome to attend the quiet and intimate service, said the Rev. Judith A. Doran, assistant to the rector.

During the service, worshipers light a candle to symbolize their struggles, and the Christ candle is lit from these candles. Laying on of hands and healing are offered. The purpose of Quiet Christmas, held at noon on Christmas Eve, is "not to get together and commiserate over common misery," Doran said, "but to gather together to receive hope."

"Ultimately, addiction is a spiritual disease," said the newly ordained Cross. "Many experts agree that, to maintain recovery, the strength of the spiritual life must outpace addiction.

"The major goal of ministering to addicts is to show that God is loving and forgiving. The holidays, because so many people are at church, offer the perfect opportunity."

Twelve-step and related programs
Adult Children of Alcoholics
Al Anon/Alateen (for family members affected by alcoholism and drug addiction)
Alcoholics Anonymous
Debtors Anonymous
Dual Recovery Anonymous (for those who are chemically dependent and have mental health issues)
Emotions Anonymous
Gamblers Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous
Overeaters Anonymous
Sex Addicts Anonymous
Workaholics Anonymous