By Patrick O’Neil (RADT, MFA), Group Facilitator, Cast Centers
Maybe it’s the prospect of starting fresh with a new year, or the leftover collateral damage from all those eggnogs, champagne and bong hits during the holidays—but come New Year’s Eve more people make resolutions to get sober than any other time of the year. And while making resolutions to better yourself is by no means a new practice—most people would like to change some facet of their lives—the beginning of a new year just seems like the perfect opportunity to start.
With the aftermath consequences of excessive drinking and drug use there’s the added incentive to getting your life together and the holiday parties no doubt mirror the fact that the alcoholic/addict cannot use moderately and are powerless over their addiction. Family events, social drinking, endless parties, and the final coup de grace of New Year’s Eve, all create a carte blanche atmosphere where the overindulgence of drinking (and drug use) is not only accepted but expected. In fact the average American experiences a 100% increase in their alcoholic drinking habits between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Combine that with someone that either knows or thinks they have a substance abuse problem and it’s no mystery that January sees a spike in addicts and alcoholics calling it quits and entering treatment to get sober.
Unfortunately another reason for all these sober New Year’s resolution is that people relapse. According to Dr. Indra Cidambi, Psychiatrist and Doctor of Addiction Medicine, “for individuals in recovery from an addiction to alcohol or drugs, [the holidays] can be a trying time.” Ongoing family issues, seasonal depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem brought on by the holiday festivities have caused many a sober drunk to slip. “There are a lot of messages over the holidays from the media, and family, and friends, that alcohol is part of the celebration,” says Dr. Susan E. Collins, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Washington who researches relapse prevention. “It can be particularly hard, especially if someone is early on in their sobriety.”
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, “The chronic nature of addiction means that for some people relapse, or a return to drug use after an attempt to stop, can be part of the process. Relapse rates for drug use are similar to rates for other chronic medical illnesses. If people stop following their medical treatment plan, they are likely to relapse.” Because, as Dr. Chinazo Cunningham, professor and associate chief of general internal medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montfiore Health System in New York City states, “Humans have a host of self-destructive behaviors; we do it with food, with lack of exercise, with smoking. How many of us haven’t resumed behaviors we pledged to stop? Quitting is Hard.”
Yet just acknowledging that “quitting is hard” is not really recognizing (and may even be avoiding) the actually issue of relapse. Case in point is when Terence T. Gorski—an internationally expert on addiction and relapse prevention—was asked what it was that drug addicts and alcoholics do that causes their relapse. He answered, “You don’t have to do anything. Stop using alcohol and other drugs, but continue to live your life the way you always have. Your disease will do the rest. It will trigger a series of automatic and habitual reactions to life’s problems that will create so much pain and discomfort that a return to chemical use will seem like a positive option.”
For those that have relapsed and have made the resolution to get sober again the emotional and mental achievement of making that commitment creates a sense of empowerment that can actually help them get sober. As Dr. Collins explains, “It’s really important to be extra compassionate with yourself over the holidays. What we know from research is that relapse can be a part of recovery. We’re all human and sometimes we do have slip-ups. But the idea is if you can learn from that slip and apply that knowledge in the future. You can get back on board with your goals and move forward.”
Another way of looking at this is utilizing an alternative concept that New Jersey yoga instructor Mary Ansell offers when it comes to making resolutions, “Set an intention for the new year, which is not as definitive as a resolution. With resolutions, there’s no room for error, and if you make a mistake, you may just quit instead of continuing to modify your behavior. Most healing comes from inside you. Stay confident that you know it. Picture a plan of action, and stay curious about your actions. Think of [your resolution] as living healthier.”
Ansell’s words ring true as the commitment to sobriety involves putting in work every day—not just in January, and that commitment is just the beginning. The real important work comes afterwards through putting in the effort, achieving goals, and acknowledging progress. Whether you want to call it a resolution or intention there’s no better time than now to make that commitment to find treatment for alcoholism or treatment for drug addiction. If the New Year gives you that needed nudge, then take it.