There are a lot of reasons you might be spending this holiday season alone. Stories like mine are common; there are so many people struggling with addiction like I did.
Content warning: This piece includes non-graphic references to overdose and suicide attempts, as experienced by the author.
I’ve been alone on Christmas, in a self-imposed exile from the family and friends that cared about me. When I was 17, my apartment was raided by the police. I was living with my drug-dealing boyfriend, lying to everyone around me, and in way over my head. My parents tried to move me to a different state to offer me the kind of support I needed, but I was young and inebriated and in love. I ran back to the bad guy and the bad drugs like only a scared, skinny teenager can run—poorly packed and people-pleasing to all the wrong people, wearing gobs of glittery makeup.
I wish I could say things got better after that, but like so many addicts and alcoholics I know, that consequence and the ones that followed didn’t slow or stop my drinking and using. Hospital visits, suicide attempts, overdoses: I stumbled through them all, ready for the next score or swig. I was convinced that my problem was depression or the boyfriend or my stupid town.
Needless to say, holidays weren’t a big concern for me when I was in active addiction. Holidays and events slid by unnoticed and uncelebrated, like much of the rest of my early twenties. Now, 15+ years later and working at Workit Health to support other people in finding recovery, I think it’s important to pause and reflect on the time before I knew what recovery meant. Before I was making self-care strategies for travel. When I didn’t think I’d even live past 27, and couldn’t imagine myself holding down a job or graduating from college. I spent holidays alone, or with others but totally unnoticed. Even in early sobriety, sometimes I just didn’t have the social network (or social skills) built up yet to celebrate.
There are a lot of reasons you might be spending this holiday season alone. Stories like mine are common, addicts and alcoholics are legion. Substance use disorder is a family disease, and we leave a trail of angry, hurt, and scared loved ones in our wake. Maybe you are one of those confused parents or siblings or spouses, questioning why you’re sitting alone this holiday season, loving someone who isn’t willing, ready, or able to celebrate with you.
No matter what your reason for spending this holiday season alone, there are some basic tips that can make the day more bearable. These hold true for Christmas, Hanukkah, and any other holidays that you find challenging.
1. Remember that it’s just another day.
Regardless of the meaning society places on this day, you can choose to give it as much or as little significance as you like. You can choose to not celebrate this year, or ever. You can also choose to tell people as much or as little about your holiday plans as you choose. You don’t have to shape your holiday activities around societal expectations. Build a world that works for you, wherever you are in your journey.
2. If you miss family connection, seek out service opportunities to give back.
Many local food banks and homeless shelters will have volunteer opportunities around the holidays. Helping others can be a really effective way to fight the woe-is-me feeling that might come up if you sit all by yourself on Christmas Day. Go be of service, give back, and get thanks in return. Most of these service opportunities require no qualifications. They’ll just be happy you’ve shown up to help. You’ll also create new connections in the process.
3. Reach out with no expectations.
If you are estranged from family members, try reaching out the day before Christmas instead of on the actual holiday. This can relieve some of the pressure about hearing back from them. If you don’t get a response (this is the hard part), let it go. Accept that you’ve done your part by reaching out. If you need to express your feelings more, write a letter to them that you don’t send.
4. Movies are your best friend.
When you have a lot of time to fill on a holiday and most places are closed, movie theatres can be your best friend! Especially if you rarely indulge in going to see a movie at the theatre (who does that anymore?), plan to see a movie on Christmas. It takes up time, gets you out of the house, and provides an entertaining distraction that doesn’t require you to contribute to any conversation. If you can’t afford a movie out, see what’s playing on your chosen streaming service. Consider skipping the holiday-themed stuff (which can reinforce your feeling of aloneness), and instead watch a thriller, action, comedy, or romance that you love.
5. Take the time to take care of yourself.
Especially if you’re still using, a holiday alone can be an alarm bell for how far you’ve drifted from family, friends, and the rest of the world. Take this opportunity to do a self-check. Have you eaten a regular meal today? Have you had a few glasses of water? When was the last time you slept?
Being on the reverse side of this conundrum—as a family member missing a loved one due to their addiction—can also be physically and mentally exhausting. What are you doing to handle the stress? Try tuning in to yourself, and sitting for a 5-minute meditation.
The holidays are the most wonderful time of year for a lot of people. Today, I’ve come far from the girl who ran towards drugs and away from the rest of the world. My relationships are mended, and I’m a (mostly) functional person. But I’ll never forget when the holidays were just another day to come down off drugs, alone in a cheap motel room. Sometimes, a holiday is just another day to get by. Getting by can be good enough.