Home(less) for the Holidays

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

It’s that time of year again: shorter days, colder nights, and the rustling of papers as we crack open the “Dealing with the Holidays” file.

This is a difficult time for most folks in recovery, and work gets a little more intense, so we get prepared. We pull out the yellowed Hazelden workbooks, print out the latest “how to” articles and tip sheets, make sure we’re not missing anything new. We really aren’t. Time-honored recovery themes, addressed in the context of increased social contact with family, friends and intoxicants; the dangers inherent in all three combined in a memory-provoking event. It’s good, reliable stuff, and we can be pretty good at spinning it in new creative ways.

But sometimes we miss the mark. For some people, the standard tips on surviving family gatherings during the holidays just aren’t helpful.

I did a Google search for “addiction, recovery, holidays” and found countless resources. I added “homeless” and got the same exact results. In fact, homelessness was mentioned only in the context of “volunteering at a homeless shelter,” encouraging readers to focus on gratitude. I tried different search engines, different keyword combinations, to no avail. I couldn’t find one resource specifically for clinicians treating the homeless during the holiday season.

It appears that despite all reported data, the homeless aren’t just victims of addiction, they are the solution to holiday relapse!

So just how do you tell a room full of homeless addicts and alcoholics to go volunteer at the shelter as a way to cope with the holiday blues? How do you tell someone who has no family to talk to – let alone visit – that they should “take a walk around the block to get centered when feeling pressure from family members after dinner”?

And there’s always the part about dealing with “crazy Uncle Charlie who will insist you have just one.” But what if that already happened, when you were five years old? And that wasn’t all Uncle Charlie insisted upon. And that’s a big part of why you drink, why you have PTSD, why you’re estranged from your family.

We can always fall back on gratitude, one of the cornerstones of recovery. Find something, anything to be grateful for, and squeeze the life out of it. At any other time of year, it’s a great discussion to have: hold on to the little things, find hope in the smile of a stranger, or a sunset. But again, when everything you have (including all of your medications) are in a plastic shopping bag, which has just been stolen from under your bunk at the shelter, and everyone is talking about the ‘season of giving,’ and your family wouldn’t even answer your phone calls if you had a phone to call them with – what then? How grateful can you really be for “another day, another sunrise, another chance to stay sober”?

We can always fall back on gratitude, one of the cornerstones of recovery. Find something, anything to be grateful for, and squeeze the life out of it. At any other time of year, it’s a great discussion to have…-Keith McAdam

I got tired of looking at the faces of my clients; sad, tired and broken down. I got tired of the only thing people being grateful for was one more day alive. I got tired of worrying that every “tip” was potentially a trigger. I got tired of cutting and pasting lists, struggling to actually believe that any of this was helping. I put down what I was trained to do and I just let them talk. I let them share the stories about why they are alone, why the holidays are so painful, and why they have little hope of staying sober until January, maybe.

I went back to the old social work chestnut (holiday pun intended): meet the client where they are. Then the program heard what it was our folks needed: their own Christmas. With each other, with the doctors and clinicians that listened, and cared, and walked their path with them. What they wanted was a real, healthy supportive family. They didn’t find it “in the rooms” and couldn’t find it on the streets, but they had it in group.

So we threw a party. What the program couldn’t provide, the staff did. We begged pharmaceutical companies to sponsor a hot meal, got local businesses to donate gifts. Just the mention of it brought the clients to life. They helped each other dress up as best they could. They made cocoa and decorated the tree with ornaments they made, full of love and gratitude they couldn’t express when looking at a worksheet.

Those who have the least truly – and justifiably – need the most. We have to adapt our programs, and the tools we use, to address that. Recovery is not “one size fits all,” especially during the holidays.

…if we can somehow give just a little something of ourselves – a little break from programmatic “best practice” requirements – we might just see a little more hope and a little more belief in the utility of “gratitude.”-Keith McAdam

So now, I skim the blogs and articles and find some clever tools and discussion starters. And it always helps. But if we can somehow give just a little something of ourselves – a little break from programmatic “best practice” requirements – we might just see a little more hope and a little more belief in the utility of “gratitude.” And as professionals, we might just get something out of it, too. That “smile of a small child” we talk to our clients about being grateful for? We just might find it ourselves, and hold on to it. At least until January.


Photo Source: pixabay

Addiction can cost up to $200 per day.

What would you do with that money if treatment was affordable? Find out if your insurance covers treatment now!

See if you’re covered