Visiting Shady Brook Farm’s annual holiday light show, when two miles of rural Pennsylvania are adorned with more than three million lights, is one of Tyler Cordeiro’s favorite holiday traditions.
Another is the annual holiday party Barb Williamson puts on at the Newton Athletic Club. Williamson is the president of Way of Life Recovery and has eight recovery homes in the Philadelphia area and Bristol.
Cordeiro has lived in one of Williamson’s homes in Levittown for five months. He said the holiday season can be stressful for him and other people in recovery, but it’s ultimately a time to reflect.
Impact of holiday stress and winter months
The holidays and winter months can have be stressful for anyone, but possibly have a greater impact on people in recovery, said Robert Ashford, a recovery scientist at the Substance Use Disorders Institute at the University of Sciences and researcher at the Treatment Research Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Some have said that overdoses spike during the holidays, but Ashford said it’s hard to prove that statement with data because the city provides quarterly summaries, not monthly. Overdoses have also been significantly increasing over the years, so it would be difficult to pinpoint spikes in certain seasons. For example,1,217 people died of an unintentional drug overdose in Philadelphia in 2017, which is a 34 percent increase from 2016 and a 291 percent increase from 2003.
Data from other countries, such as Canada, does show a spike around the holiday season — though it could be caused by other unrelated factors, Ashford said. Cold weather, for example, may lead people to use drugs in isolated places indoors like bathroom stalls, where it’s less likely someone with naloxone — a medication that reverses opioid overdoses — will be able to help them if they overdose on opioids.
It’s also more likely for people to enter treatment during the winter because of the cold weather, and the likelihood of overdose increases once people leave a facility, Ashford said.
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The psychological stress of the holidays can take a significant toll, too. According to the American Psychological Association, holidays can be upsetting because of difficult conversations with family, pleasing your loved ones with gifts and finding the money to pay for them.
On a day-to-day basis, visiting family during the holidays may also pull people in recovery away from their “recovery base” — including regular meetings and familiar faces — and cause them to be thrown off from their normal schedule, said Devin Reaves, the cofounder and executive director of the Pennsylvania Harm Reduction Coalition.
“It’s a complicated question,” Ashford said. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the data supports that we see a significant spike around the holidays or around, I think more accurately, the winter months when it’s colder. But … logical evidence would suggest that it’s possible.”
Tips for people in recovery during the holiday season
Reaves, whose been in recovery since 2007, has a simple piece of advice for anyone in recovery preparing for the holiday season: “Have a plan.”
People need to ensure they have reinforcements of support to deal with stress wherever they’re heading, Reaves said. For instance, he plans his gifts early and prioritizes down time so the holiday season doesn’t get overwhelming.
Cordeiro said it can be difficult to face family members with whom he “strained relationships” while he was still using. To counter that, he’ll start attending more 12-step meetings during this time of year and call his sponsor more often.
But both agreed that enjoying the holidays while in recovery means connecting with their family, as everyone else does.
“I enjoy my family, and try to focus on the presence of life,” Reaves said. “Not the gifts and presents.”-30-
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