Grief is a fact of life. As much as we hate it, fight it, or hide from it, it still lurks in the background. Allowing time and space for grief is not something I have always done.
By Aleah Johnson, The Meadows Alumni Coordinator
Have you ever jumped to conclusions, made brash decisions, dove into problem-mode solving mode instead of actively listening, or spoken too soon? I am guilty of all!
Admittedly, I have never met Jerry Siegel, co-creator of Superman, the fictional comic book superhero. Had I been granted the opportunity, I first would have thanked him for the borrowed Superman metaphor I often employ in therapy with my clients. Then I would have asked him if Krypton, Superman's native planet, held any resemblance to Mr. Siegel's own homeland of Cleveland, Ohio.
As it was written, Superman was jettisoned to earth in a rocket ship only moments before Krypton exploded into smithereens. Krypton's demise was due to its unstable radioactive core, perhaps a deliberate tribute to Cleveland's Cuyahoga River, infamous for its frequent fires on the water caused by pollution slicks.
I mean no disparaging sentiment for the Clevelanders reading this, but I can't but help wonder: What did Mr. Siegel have in mind when he decided that the one and only element that can strip Superman of his superhuman powers - and perhaps even kill him - is the element that comes from his home planet? The reference is too obvious for this therapist to ignore. Better yet, it's too beautiful a talking point to overlook.
I want to know how Mr. Siegel felt about his family of origin. Was the family contentious and dysfunctional - or warm, connected, and validating? Was Krypton like the home of Mr. Siegel's own family of origin? I'll never know, because Jerry Siegel died in 1996, and his co-creator, Joe Shuster, died in 1992.
Were it not for holiday family gatherings - and oftentimes destructive family feuds - I wouldn't need to employ my cautionary but appropriate reference to Superman. Every year, as Thanksgiving approaches, not a week goes by that I don't pull Superman out of hiding and speak of his comic-bound strength and invulnerability. I ask, "What is the one thing that renders Superman powerless?"
I'm often met with a bewildered look. Those clients old enough to remember mumble, "Kryptonite?"
I quickly exclaim, "Kryptonite! Exactly!"
"And where," I ask, "does Kryptonite come from?"
"Krypton?" they ask more enthusiastically.
I confess to my clients that I cannot say what Jerry Siegel had in mind, but it is ironic that Superman could be stopped by only one thing: an element from his homeland. Even the most therapy-savvy among us, those who have risen out of dysfunction and family disorientation, are rendered powerless while returning home for the holidays. It can seem as though time has stood still, waiting for our return to fill the family roles-of-old.
As much as we'd like to think we've arrived at therapeutic transcendence, returning to our families of origin during the holidays often challenges our ability to maintain self-care and personal boundaries. It takes mindful awareness to remain immune from family havoc, and such success is not always achievable.
By way of my comic book metaphor, I remind my clients that even the strongest among us is susceptible. Even though a luscious glance from Lois Lane couldn't bring Clark Kent to his knees, Superman was susceptible to the destabilizing effects of Kryptonite. So we seek progress, not perfection. And as the holidays approach and we find ourselves facing a trip to Krypton or Cleveland we have choices: Stay home, or go visit the family. Just take along your favorite superhero for protection.
The holiday season can be a time of joyous celebration with our loved ones, a time when we begrudgingly drag ourselves to dreaded events, or a time when feelings of loneliness can be overwhelming. For many of us, some combination of all three is present this time of year. In many cases, the holidays are a time when stressors, triggers for relapse, and old wounds are more abundant.
This season also brings the opportunity to continue or start off the new year in recovery mode. We at The Meadows would like to offer you a 12 Step plan for doing just that. We honor the work that many of you have done to re-engage in your life, leaving old habits behind. We also honor those who continue to struggle with addiction. Below is a 12 Step guide for surviving the holidays in sobriety - "the 12 Steps of Holidays Anonymous," if you will. (Disclaimer: The steps below are loosely based on the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and are not a replacement for them.)
The 12 Steps of Holidays Anonymous
1. Make sobriety your first priority. Acknowledge the vast amount over which you are powerless (your family situation, the location of events, etc.). Be aware that you are, however, empowered to choose to maintain what you have lovingly worked so hard to achieve. Assess what you want and need for your sobriety and relational engagements with others.
2. Believe that you can be restored to sanity. Plan ahead and have realistic expectations. If your family looks more like The Family Stone than Ozzie and Harriett, ground in reality and be open to the flaws and imperfections of your family system. Detach from expectations and practice acceptance and forgiveness.
3. Turn your care over to a higher power, or at least someone with more experience staying sober during the holiday season. Have a safety plan. Speak with your support network prior to the holidays and share any concerns and plans. Remember that, in previous years, many of your peers in the program have survived and thrived during the holiday season. Some common techniques used in the recovery community include driving yourself to events so you can leave whenever necessary, taking the number to a taxi service if driving yourself is not an option, asking a sober friend to accompany you, or hiring a sober escort. Keep in mind: The impact of bringing someone with you or leaving an event early is small compared to the impact of a relapse on your relationships with your loved ones and self.
4. Make a searching and fearless inventory of yourself, and practice boundaries and grounding. Setting limits is a loving and respectful thing to do for yourself and others. If you have awareness that you are willing and able to participate in a holiday activity for one hour rather than five, set a limit with yourself and share this limit with your loved ones or holiday celebration peers.
5. Admit to God, self, and one other person any concerns and potential triggers you may have going into the holiday season. Remember: Those around you cannot support you unless you are willing to be rigorously honest with yourself and your sober support system, i.e., your sponsor, home group, and therapist.
6. Be entirely ready to remove all defects of character. Remember this is for you only; your willingness to assist family members in identifying and removing their defects of character before they are ready avails no one and is NOT relational.
7. Humbly ask the higher power of your understanding to remove your shortcomings, recognizing that your shortcomings do not subtract from your value. Be respectful of others. If one of your tendencies is to judge others, make a resolution to contain your comments on Uncle Marvin's lovely twinkle-light reindeer sweater (not that there's anything wrong with battery-operated clothing).
8. Make a list. Chaotic, last-minute trips to the mall can be destabilizing and stressful. Honor yourself by not overextending to make others happy. Take a personal inventory of yourself and your finances. This is a self-care technique that can help you turn inward and avoid future resentments. Also, don't forget to include yourself on your gift list. Gifting oneself, in a moderate way, is an act of self-care and acknowledgment.
9. Make direct amends, except when doing so would injure others. Remember that one of the ways to make amends is with living amends. You can do this by maintaining your sobriety, acting within your value system, and being respectful of others. You may believe this is a good time to speak with those you have harmed, but do so with conscious thought. Grandma may prefer to spend her holidays watching the grandchildren unwrap gifts rather than discussing a way you can pay her back for totaling her car.
10. Continue to take personal inventory and, when you are wrong, promptly admit it. Remember HALT (the basics of self-care: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired). In times of stress, we become more susceptible to allowing some of our defects of character to leak out. If you act outside of your recovery and value system, make prompt amends to avoid allowing unnecessary feelings of guilt to overtake the celebrations.
11. Seek through prayer and meditation; the holiday season can be busy and, in some cases, stressful. This is not an excuse to skip your morning meditation, meetings, or time with your sponsor. This is a time to hold these commitments even more strongly, or to kick it up a notch. Prearrange your meeting schedule and ensure that connection, sobriety, and self-care remain top priorities. It may come in handy to repeat the Serenity Prayer in your head as Uncle Jack attempts to dominate the season with his thoughts on the current political climate. This allows you to remain connected with your higher power and accomplish relational objectives, all while nodding your head during his share.
12. If you have had a spiritual awakening, try to carry this message: Acts of service can help us to reground, stay connected to our program, and just feel darn good! The holidays can be an important time to practice gratitude and giving. If your holiday plans this year are not what you had hoped for (or even if they are), volunteer to be a sober escort, speak at a meeting, or volunteer to clean up after one. Remember: Whatever your season looks like this year, it’s still a lot better than holidays spent living in addiction.
We at The Meadows wish you a sober, safe, and successful holiday season.