Christmas, 1986. I was at my aunt’s house in New Jersey. As always, she had prepared a huge feast and had invited family, friends, and neighbors. (I’m Jewish. My aunt and her family celebrate Christmas. But that’s a whole other story.) I had been in New Jersey for a couple of days, and had brought with me what should have been enough heroin for the duration, but true to form I’d done it all on the first night, and by Christmas was in my second day of withdrawal. I hid out on the couch in the basement all day, dopesick, listening to the goings-on upstairs, wishing I was somewhere, someone else –wishing I could hold down solid food. I felt horrible, physically and emotionally. I was isolated, lonely, miserable, and full of self-loathing. I told everyone I had the flu, but my mother knew what was really going on, and gave me some of her valium. It helped –a little.
Many recovering addicts and alcoholics have these kinds of memories, or some version of them –feelings of isolation, shame, disconnection from others during the holiday season. And often, especially in early recovery, the experience of holidays and family isn’t so different from what it was during active addiction. Dark, short days, in and of themselves, can make for funky moods. Family dynamics –and intoxicated family members –may not have changed, and being in the midst of these familiar patterns can trigger cravings, or bring up other old feelings. Then there’s the ubiquitous, “Don’t you want some egg nog? There’s only a little splash of rum in it,” and, “C’mon, it’s New Year’s Eve, not even just a sip?” And when, as is often necessary and healthy, recovering people make the decision not to attend toxic family events and drunken parties, there’s a sense of being defective, as if, somehow, this feeling of being different, of being alienated during the holidays is one’s own damned fault.
Traditional recovery wisdom suggests avoiding the pitfalls of isolation. During holiday season many recovery fellowships hold “marathon” events that can be tremendously helpful in combating feelings of loneliness, shame, and alienation –the sense that one is not like everyone else, all of whom seem to be happy and enjoying their holidays. The thing is, many people, recovering or not, really don’t enjoy their holidays. Many “normies” struggle with feelings of isolation and loneliness, whether they’re alone or with others. And like people in recovery, they may not give themselves “permission” to be honest about their holiday unhappiness –they may feel obligated to simply show up and smile. As painful as these feelings of loneliness and isolation may be, even more suffering arises from not being “allowed” to experience them; whether individually or in group settings. It can be a tremendous relief to share these feelings with others, not just for the support and connection that it offers, but also for the relief that derives from allowing oneself to have uncomfortable feelings, from simply allowing oneself to be present with them.
Feelings of alienation and loneliness are natural –a part of the human experience shared by all, whether recovering or not. Many philosophical frameworks have arisen in response to this, in an attempt to make meaning of it, to find ways to bear what sometimes feels unbearable. Spiritual traditions also describe this experience, sometimes as a sense of disconnection from the divine, sometimes in the form of being disconnected from the present moment. The fact that so many philosophers and spiritual figures have grappled with this phenomenon is yet another indication not only of how pervasive this experience is, but of how normal it is, how much it is simply a part of life.
In the recovery world, a great deal of attention is given to the dangers of the addictive tendency to isolate and this is, of course, important, especially during the vulnerability of early recovery. This kind of isolationism is a behavior, not a feeling, and the distinction is, I think, an important one. It is indeed essential not to overindulge in isolative behavior; however, that doesn’t mean one won’t –nor that one shouldn’t –experience feelings of isolation and loneliness. (And, as is often the case, feelings of loneliness may have nothing to do with whether or not one is physically isolated –for example, feeling alone in a crowd is an experience of which many have spoken.)
Yes, there are concerns specific to people in recovery –potentially dire consequences if, as traditional wisdom suggests, one becomes too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. But by no means is it suggested that one should never be lonely; in fact, quite the contrary. Although perhaps even more intense at holiday time, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and alienation are part of ordinary human experience from which people in recovery are by no means exempt. Recovery isn’t about getting rid of uncomfortable or unwanted feelings –rather, it’s about learning to be in daily life, on its own terms; it’s about becoming, over time, ever more human, with all the vulnerability that entails; it’s about simply feeling what and how one feels, without the suffering that arises from believing it should be otherwise.
Dr. Michael Aanavi is a Clinical Psychologist, licensed acupuncturist, and recovering
heroin addict in private practice of Psychotherapy in Berkeley, California (www.michaelaanavi.com). He is the author of The Trusting Heart: Addiction, Recovery, and Intergenerational Trauma (www.thetrustingheart.com).