Welcome to our Holiday Special Blog, the December 2018 edition of Family Matters – Families Matter, our new blog authored and curated by FSDP’s Guest Blogger–pioneering harm reduction therapist, educator, advocate and author Dee-Dee Stout.
This month, Dee Dee, in her own inimitable style, shares some essential tips to navigate the holiday season in empowering ways…
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Hello all! Here we are at the end of 2018 – and of my blogs for this year! Thank you all for your support and your readership! I have truly appreciated all the comments and shares over these past few months. And I’ve discovered just how much I love to do research on these topics!
In the past five months we’ve talked about the dangers and origins of Tough Love; recovering the word “recovery;” and Harm Reduction strategies for families. I know I promised 12 “Ways to Get Through the Holidays” but you know, I found myself doing only 10, perfect for counting on both hands! I hope you won’t be too disappointed. Most importantly, remember our 2018 take away for all families and their loved ones through this sometimes treacherous time:
It really is all about the love – and love is never tough!
So, who knows what the new year will bring. I know I’m eager to see 2019 and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. For the New Year, what ideas and suggestions do you have for new topics and conversations? Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. See you all next year!
Holy Holidays, Batman!
Holidays. I love them and hate them.
And regardless of which camp you fall into – or perhaps you’re in the “in between” camp – the winter holidays can be a challenge to navigate, especially when there’s added drug use (yes, I mean that tasty eggnog or rum punch too) by many involved. As I sit here with all my research and ideas in front of me, it occurs to me that I can’t think of anything to add to an incredible list of “do’s and don’ts” already available all over the internet and social media.
But that said, perhaps it’s worth revisiting some ideas with a “reduction-of-harm-to-all” bent – and so here goes (OK to sing your fave holiday tune along to these 10 tips, too. Ho ho ho!).
1. Eat light
One of the best tips we can use is to save those heavy conversations for another time. Sure, there will be exceptions to this, but the holidays are already such a heavy meal in so many ways that experts suggest benching the Big Convos until after things have settled down, including our stomachs. So what’s one thing we can do to lighten the mood?
Perhaps we can simply focus on the positives this season and save the less positives for later. That’s a tip for all seasons according to CMC’s 20 Minute Guides for Parents & Partners. What do we mean by this? Think of finding positive things – called “reinforcers” – to say to your loved ones – family, friends, and those using drugs problematically. And here’s why: “The value in reinforcing positive behavior…is that it can start to compete with the reinforcing effects of drugs and alcohol. In essence, your [loved one] can learn to “feel good” in other ways rather than using drugs/alcohol.”
John Gottman, the famous couples therapist, has stated that we need a “magic ratio” of 5 positive statements for every 1 that we make to someone. Dr. Gottman and his team successfully predicted divorce with 94% accuracy in 700 couples 10 years after scoring their negative-to-positive responses in one 15-minute conversation. That’s pretty darned “magic” indeed. We see similar results in workplace conversations as well. So lighten up on the negatives and accentuate the positive statements this holiday season. You might see a greater gift than you ever expected
2. Hang out in the bathroom
This is something I suggest to those trying to reduce or eliminate their drug use as a place to be alone and use a quick meditation. (side note: I realize that for some this can also be a triggering place for both families and their loved ones using drugs so like all good suggestions, please use your discretion as to whether any of these are right for you). But this is also a terrific exercise for anyone to use for a quick fix. This exercise is known as “The Ball and Triangle.” I learned it from the developer, Terry Gorski, back in the 90’s. And it can be done anywhere, with your eyes open or closed. Here it is:
To start, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, like a big sigh. Now imagine there’s an equal-sided triangle floating in space in front of you. In one corner of the triangle there’s a small ball, just sitting. On your next inhale, move the ball up the side of the triangle. On your exhale, allow the ball to fall back into its original place. Do this until you feel as relaxed as you desire.
There are many ways to get creative with this brief meditation too so feel free to experiment; make it your own.
3. Just like real estate: it’s all about location, location, location
One thing that I hear from families and their loved ones is that the location of the festivities is important. Some places encourage nostalgia though may also bring up tension. It may be helpful to discuss the location of events with the whole family. See how everyone feels. I have found with my own family that eating out at a local restaurant can be wonderful: a) everyone’s food intolerances can be honored; b) most folks will be on their best behavior when in public and finally c) no one has to do the dishes! Perhaps grandma’s or dad’s special chocolate pecan pie at Aunt Cristina’s house can be an alternative.
4. BYOB: Bring your own bottles
Even if you’re not the one with the drinking/other drug problem, it might be a good idea to limit your intake. The very best way to do this is to first, bring your own fave beverage. I’m a big fan of Pellegrino so typically carry a couple of bottles with me (I even bring a baggie of lime slices). That way I know what will be served. If you’re moderating your drinking especially, it’s really important not to get dehydrated which is easy to do in a heated room with booze. So experts suggest drinking water between alcoholic beverages. Again, an easy way to reduce your intake – and possible help stave off a nasty hangover too. Be sure to eat something as drinking on an empty stomach is never advised. Also food will help to absorb some of the alcohol which will keep your overall blood alcohol levels down. Finally since alcohol is known as a “social lubricant” for good reason, you might consider who you’d like to be in charge of your emotional state during this event (see # on Lizard Brain). But if you want to indulge more than usual, remember the previous tips and to call Lyft this holiday season. It’s so easy not to drive while intoxicated now – and expensive to get caught.
5. Find support where you can
Hug your pet. See old friends. Go to a meeting at a support group, or a service at your local synagogue, church, temple, or mosque. Volunteer and make new friends. Lots of ways today to stay in touch with others even if only through social media. Visit someone in a nursing home or senior housing. Take a plate of cookies to a neighbor you’ve never met because you’re working all the time (no, they don’t have to be homemade).
6. Like a good photograph, mind your exposure.
If you’re spending time with those that irritate you, do so gently. It’s OK to limit the time you’re with those you love. This is your holiday, too.
7. Rest when you can
For many of us, the holidays are an expenditure of more energy. Sometimes more than we can muster! So resting and sleeping well are crucial to having the outcomes we want. You can think of rest as our body’s need to regenerate its resources to allow us to think before we eat, act, or wind up somewhere we didn’t want to go. I’ve learned that I can’t engage my mind when it’s running on empty, which leaves me with Lizard Brain in control. Now I’m OK with old Lizard Brain having some fun once in a while but not all the time and especially not when I’m going to be in an emotionally challenging situation
8. Cravings aren’t just for drug users
Yes, you heard me right! I like to think of cravings as the body’s way to say “Holy crap, Batman, I need something – help!” The difference for families is that there aren’t any medications for your cravings (and yes I know there aren’t meds for all chemical cravings too but let’s ignore that for now). You may have physical or emotional cravings for all sorts of things from food to the latest mystery to taking a ski weekend in Banff. Whatever it is, it’s just possible that your body/mind is trying to tell you something. We want to learn from our emotions and not be afraid of them or ignore them. We all know the holidays are overfilled with stress so perhaps we can take a page from relapse prevention for drug users and learn to “urge surf”. Here’s how to do it. And you can keep your eyes open or closed them as you find most comfortable:
First, think of something in your real life that’s challenging for you, something that actually triggers some strong emotions (be gentle with yourself here though. Nothing too tender please!). As you think about this challenging behavior or event, imagine that you’re NOT reacting in the moment with that usual strong emotion (you’ll be responding to the situation soon). As you’re thinking about this event, be mindful of where you’re sitting: how does it feel? Are you comfortable? Plant your feet gently and firmly on the floor if you’re sitting. Let your breath gently come in and out of your nose and notice the rising and falling of your chest/lungs. Now once again, think about the triggering circumstance. Really see yourself there at the moment and bring yourself right up to the moment that you’d typically lose your temper, or be overcome with sadness, or even use a drug/take a drink. Here we might think it’s a good idea to push away these strong emotions or swing the opposite way and give in to the emotion/behavior. Instead, I’m going to ask you to just be curious about this emotion and event without reaction. Ask yourself these questions: 1) what does the feeling really “feel” like? Where is it located in your body? 2) what about this situation/feeling feels intolerable? Can you stay with it and relax into it rather than get overwhelmed by the situation/feeling? 3) what is it you really need right now?
Finally, imagine that the feeling your experiencing is a wave on an ocean. You’re riding this wave like a surfer, using your breath as your surfboard. All you need to do right now is focus on your breath going in and out of your lungs and imagine that surfboard riding the waves like Bethany Hamilton! You’re able to keep your balance in spite of feeling a little frightened. Up and down, in and out, you’re riding your board; you’re not allowing the wave to push you off. This is “urge surfing”.
When you begin to feel relaxed and able to respond instead of reacting to a situation or feeling, you can let the board bring you home. Notice how you were able to ride the wave and not succumb to its power but rather allow it to be what it is: just a wave…and it will end. When you’re ready, come on back to the room while you let go of the triggering situation you were thinking of. Take a few deep cleansing breaths and know that you’ve got this! Bethany would be proud!
9. Ho, ho, ho!
I always encourage humor and lots of laughter during the winter holidays (actually I encourage it all the time!). Laugh till your face hurts. Be silly as often as possible. I read a piece recently on a family holding an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” contest with the winner getting a gift card to a favorite store. Wonderful idea! We humans are a pretty funny lot all in all and this is the perfect time of year to embrace that.
Movies are another great way to bring laughter into a room and there are some terrific old and newer holiday films that will make you pee your pants (in my family, it’s “A Christmas Story” hands down!). Anything from “The Grinch” and “Charlie Brown Christmas” to “Bad Santa” and “Die Hard” are considered holiday fair game. Or perhaps you’re the sentimental type and look forward to watching your favorite heart-wrenching, tear-jerker each holiday. No problem! Those films are available as well (anyone for “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “White Christmas?”). Just be sure to temper those tears with some belly laughs
10 The holidays are a trip!
And they are literally for many of us! Traveling these days can be a trial-by-fire experience. Some quick tips: 1) Only use a carry-on bag 2) Bring something to read/watch/play and 3) slow down on imbibing early (planes really suck the moisture out of every part of us and alcohol makes it worse). For more excellent tips on everything “travel” this holiday season, check out Cheap Flights Survival Guide: www.cheapflights.com/news/holiday-season-travel-survival-guide
Bottom line for the season: Do your best, let go of the guilt/shame, and have as much fun as possible. That sounds like a pretty good recipe for 2019 to me, too. In fact, I think I’ve just found my 2019 New Year’s resolution. How about you?
 The Parent’s 20 Minute Guide by CMC: Center for Motivation & Change. (2016) Center for Motivation & Change. NY, NY. p93.
 https://www.ocde.us/PBIS/Documents/Articles/Positive+$!26+Negative+Ratio.pdf. Accessed 12.18.2018.
 https://terrygorski.com/2014/05/08/magic-triangle-relaxation-method/. Note: the Ball and Triangle exercise is now called the Magic Triangle Relaxation Method. Accessed 12.18.2018.
 The limbic system aka Lizard Brain is the seat of our emotions and the oldest known part of our brains.
 Bowen, S, Chawla, N. & Marlatt, G. (2011) Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors: A Clinician’s Guide. Guilford Press. NY, NY.