Earlier this year Sarah very kindly took time out to reflect on her first summer in recovery.
As the holiday season appears in the rear view mirror, and the new year takes hold, I’m delighted to welcome her back.
This time around Sarah casts an enlightened eye over what for so many people is the most stressful time of the year: Christmas.
How did things go? How resilient was her recovery? How was SHE?
I’d like to thank Sarah again. She writes beautifully and is a great and invaluable supporter of Recovery.Wrx.
Thank you, Sarah. x
What I Learned During My First Holiday Season In Recovery
By Sarah J. Braun
1. It’s Not Bone-Chilling Cold
Living with an eating disorder brings with it an unbearable cold.
For many years my body was unable to keep itself warm and regulated in the summer months, let alone the colder ones. I had always dreaded the dark and chilly days of winter. I would drape layer upon layer of clothing each time I left the house and nothing would suffice.
Being inside wasn’t any easier. The thermostat would constantly be set at what others would call ‘sweltering temperatures’ and even then, my hands were ice and my body shivering. I would try my best to erase the continuous chill in hopes that alcohol could warm me up, but it was never successful.
Nothing was able to comfort me from that bone-chilling cold.
This year is vastly different.
My body is now in a place that is able to sustain warmth. My blood circulates properly and I have a healthy amount of fat cushioning my bones to protect me from the elements. I have found myself numerous times venturing outside in nothing but a light jacket or sweater in what are supposed to be winter months. My wardrobe has greatly expanded and activities now seem unlimited. Sometimes it feels as though I’m experiencing a whole new season.
As with any winter, there are still cold days and I have to remind myself that it’s not just me experiencing them – that’s a true reflection on the weather and I am grateful that I am alive to feel it. I sometimes find myself waiting for that relentless and unbearable cold to return, but it hasn’t and I don’t plan on letting it.
2. Having People To Shop For Is A Blessing
I have always enjoyed shopping for others, and as I spiralled more and more into my eating disorder and addictions, that enjoyment faded.
Perhaps it was because I felt as though I no longer had anyone left in my life I could shop for. Who would want to spend the holidays with an alcoholic?
They’d likely just toss it to the side or into the trash because it would remind them of the girl with the eating disorder.
It wouldn’t bring joy to anyone because it came from the sick, lost and dying girl. Perhaps my gift-giving passion began to falter because all I cared to spend my money on was drugs, alcohol and food that would later end up in the toilet.
I was self-centred in my thinking and would rather forget about the holidays altogether with my unhealthy coping strategies. Either way, in the past, this time of year always loomed over me. I would spend hours questioning my existence, my sense of belonging and the burden I believed I brought to the lives of those I loved.
Being in recovery for the first time since I was 10 during this holiday season has been so much fun.
I spent the weeks between Halloween and Christmas carefully planning, shopping and making gifts for the incredible people I have in my life. I’ve heard it said that giving is the best feeling in the world, and now I can confidently agree. I had never truly experienced the joy that came with it until this year.
As I was out in the hustle and bustle of the holiday season it dawned on me what a blessing it is to have people in your life to shop for during this time.
I was overwhelmed with happiness thinking of all the special relationships I have in my life today that I would not have if I did not choose recovery. Even more exciting than the planning and effort that went into each gift, was the expression on their faces as they opened them.
The time and thought dedicated to each one had truly shone through. As I no longer spend my time and money centred around my addiction and eating disorder, I was able to show my loved ones just how much they mean to me. Something I was unable to do during my struggle, as I constantly pushed people away trying to isolate myself completely.
Now, I know Christmas is not about the presents under the tree, but instead about the people around the tree, and this year I’m beyond grateful that I have people around the tree to give to.
3. I Enjoy Eggnog
The holiday season is very much known for indulging in both food and alcohol.
In previous years, I refused to enjoy the snack trays and appetisers set out at parties or even sit down for Christmas dinner with family. Instead, I filled my stomach with alcohol and spent my time at whatever establishment was open when I needed to escape.
A well-known holiday favourite, of course, is eggnog. Throughout the course of my illness, this drink terrified me to my core, and I steered clear of any offerings. Even if it was an alcoholic version of the drink, I would not allow myself to taste a sip, paralysed by fear of extra calories. I spent the majority of my life telling myself and others that I simply did not enjoy the taste.
Being in recovery for the holidays this year, I wanted to re-test that disordered assumption.
Therefore one of the goals I made over the holidays was to try eggnog. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. I will admit thoughts of calories still swirled in my mind as I enjoyed the thick and creamy beverage, but I liked it nonetheless. I did not let it impact or dictate the rest of my evening, and more importantly, my meal plan.
It is normal to indulge a little over the holidays and I refused to let my eating disorder take control and ruin yet another Christmas. This year I was able to sit down with my family for dinner without a tense and strained conversation. The humour and love in our home had returned.
I wish I could say that I made it through the holidays without an eating disordered thought, or craving for alcohol, but I did not.
Even though I am in recovery, I still struggle with thoughts and urges from time to time. The only difference this year is that I did not act on them.
Some days were harder than others, but through it all I learned that the holidays can be fun without alcohol and that enjoying the speciality treats, like eggnog, is okay (and delicious!)
4. My Ability To Accept Love (and Gifts)
The month of December is a very busy, exciting and celebratory time in my life.
Aside from Christmas, I also have the joy of celebrating my birthday and sober anniversary.
My first year in recovery being mere days after my birthday, I decided to celebrate turning another year older and my success by paying tribute to all my hard work surrounded by my loved ones. Up until my 28th birthday, I was convinced I would be part of the “27 Club”.
In the past, I had never wanted to make my birthday a big deal.
Partially because I felt I didn’t deserve to be celebrated and partially because I was scared of the shame I would feel, if and when, nobody showed up; I felt as though someone like me, who felt was such a burden with my eating disorder and addiction didn’t deserve to feel loved or be celebrated.
Over the course of my recovery, that mindset has changed. I deserved to be loved then, just as I much deserve it now. I only wish I knew that back then.
As friends and family flooded in and gathered around the table I was overwhelmed with a sense of love and pride.
I was swarmed with tight hugs, warm comments, thoughtful cards and precious gifts. A part of me still felt undeserving of these acts and the love being shown, however, I’ve learned to combat those negative thoughts and accept reality for what it is.
Therefore, I allowed myself to embrace it all.
The love I felt in the room that day was something I had never experienced before and it’s all because I was open to accepting it.
Had that love been there all along? Maybe, I’ll never truly know. All I do know, is that in the moment, everything I had ever wanted was surrounding me.
5. Anxiety & Triggers Are Still (Very) Real
The holidays can be a stressful time of year for anyone, not just those who live with mental illness, although that does (in my opinion) make it that much harder.
This year I went into the holidays determined to make it my best one yet, as it would be my first Christmas in recovery and I wanted to prove that all my hard work has paid off.
Turns out, the expectations I had for myself were set too high, and they were ultimately unrealistic.
In my mind, I had convinced myself that I was far enough along in my recovery that fear foods and calorie counting wouldn’t get the best of me and that I could handle whatever came way. I believed that I could cope with being around those who were using my drug of choice. I thought that the drunken behaviour and words of others wouldn’t affect me or trigger flashbacks to my previous self. Turns out, I was wrong.
I have just over one year clean and sober under my belt, and have been committed to recovery from my eating disorder for the same length of time.
I learned very quickly that the addiction and eating disorder do not care. There is no time limit or finish line – they are relentless.
To be honest, I already knew this, and perhaps was in a bit of denial.
Or maybe I just hadn’t been exposed to the situations and triggers that I encountered during my time home.
Either way, anxiety is still real, regardless of how far along you may be in your journey. It can still affect how you react and handle events in your life, expected or unexpected. I am not as invincible to reality as I once thought. Some meals were extremely overwhelming and I caught myself counting the calories or justifying and minimizing my portions. Some days I hated not being able to calm my nerves with a drink. However, I got through each day.
My holidays weren’t perfect – far from it actually.
Looking back, I’m happy that they weren’t. I’m grateful I was put in uncomfortable, unfamiliar and triggering situations. I’m glad my emotions were all over the place and my anxiety sky-high at times.
Rather than sailing through on smooth seas, I learned how to navigate my recovery over rough waters I hadn’t yet been through.
6. I Can Survive
With the holidays now over, I have been able to take some time to step back and reflect.
And guess what? I survived, I’m here to write about it.
My body didn’t spontaneously combust because I indulged in some holiday treats. My heart didn’t explode from what felt like paralysing anxiety. I didn’t miss out on, or not have fun at gatherings because I’m sober, quite the opposite actually.
I had my reservations about what the holidays in recovery would look like and what they would entail.
This was a whole new territory for me, my recovery and my life.
Despite some moments being terribly difficult and challenging my recovery, others were incredibly powerful and I learned more about myself, my strength and my ability each time. The skills I have learned and have been practising over the past year helped me stay afloat as I used them more than ever during this high pressure, high-stress time.
I continued to label my anxiety, and all my emotions for what they were, why they were there and what they were telling me. I acknowledged my triggers and rerouted my automatic thoughts. I took the time to incorporate some much-needed self-care into each day.
Overall I survived, and most importantly I learned that I can bounce back from a tidal wave of emotions and slippery behaviours that I once was convinced would be the death of me.
The holidays no longer need to be a time of year to avoid or fear anymore. With recovery, they can be enjoyed, experienced and appreciated.
It is by no means easy, but it is possible – just like recovery.
About our subject, Sarah:
Sarah describes herself as a perfectionistic, animal loving, sports fanatic. She is a coffee fiend with an enthusiasm for recovery and a wicked sense of humour. Sarah is fiercely honest, resilient and driven, embracing life one day at a time.