Yvonne Hess, Walking the Walk, 12/18/12

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Recognize holiday addiction triggers

By Yvonne Hess

Over the years, my kids have asked me what it was like at Christmas when I was a little girl. Each child has had their own special spin on the inquiry, but it all boiled down to the same general theme: appeasing their need to have it better than I had it in my childhood.

Oh, you know, the times before electricity. Or, the year I got the wheel and a stick as a big gift from my parents. Those days when we had to go prime the water pump in the snow (in Los Angeles), barefoot, to have a Christmas bath — trekking buckets of water uphill both ways to fill the old tub out back.

When the kids were young they’d believe the myths I spun, then challenged those myths as they got older. One exception, surprisingly, was that they could believe we lacked electricity in suburban California in the 1960s. Black-and-white TV was also a stunning shock for them. They’ve never been able to reconcile that we needed electricity to watch TV, but as backward as they saw the olden days of my early life, it seems yet not to bother them.

The laughs and jokes about Christmases past I have carefully choreographed. The stories I scripted like two-act plays to distract the kids. I didn’t want to expose them to the realities of a childhood in a toxic family.

Holidays always added heat to the poisonous family stew that slowly simmered most of the year. As Christmas evolved into New Year’s the lid would fly off and the pot would boil over, flooding its scalding contents through our home.

Like many children of dysfunctional families, I have emotional burn scars from holiday times. As is often the case, I learned to use drugs as a way of coping with the season — numbing myself to the anxiety that kicked off each Christmas. 

For many people in recovery, this is a very precarious time in their sobriety. Reminders and triggers play pop-up games in the graveyards of early childhood memories. Struggles with relapse and suicidal thoughts are common with recovering people at holidays even far into healthy, stable lives.

Early in my recovery I learned to distance myself from holiday triggers. For me it was people — my family. I took great pains to script myself out of family activities. I’d plan vacations, trips, job duties, obligations, and such to excuse myself from “family time.” I built important social connections to keep myself in the presence of sober, healthy, sane people I could trust.

Later on, I went into early life counseling and worked through much of the trauma of my childhood. I was able to put tombstones on the old graves of my emotional pain. I built a fence around the graveyard to keep myself firmly separated from those old wounds as I healed.

Finally, I learned to love myself enough to embrace my past as a part of who I am now. Without those experiences, that pain, and that anguish I wouldn’t have empathy for those beginning the journey—and most importantly for those who don’t yet know there is a journey and haven’t hit bottom ... yet.

We can see holidays as either a curse or a gift. It’s vital that we transform our curses into the blessings they were meant to be: working our program, seeking out counseling, and learning to love ourselves so we can love others with health and sanity. I pray that each of my readers have truly holy holidays!

Yvonne Hess is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Certified Addictions Professional (CAP) with an International Certification as an Alcohol and Drug Counselor (ICADC) who works for the Citrus County Health Department’s Phoenix Program. She can be reached at 352-527-0068, ext. 251, or yvonne_hess@doh.state.fl.us.