Staying Clean and Sober During the Holidays

By Tim Ryan

A friend of mine dragged me into a Yankee Candle store and picked up a candle named “Home for the Holidays.” Bringing it to his nose, he took a deep whiff and handed it to me saying,

 “Wow! Take a sniff. It lives up to its name. It smells like rage and disappointment!”

 Whether you’re in recovery or not, the holiday season is often a time of exhaustion, broken routines, eating too much, financial worry, and over-commitment. And if you’re one of millions returning home for the holidays, time with family can trigger good memories or unaddressed emotional trauma. 

If you’re in active recovery, the holidays can be even more challenging. Most gatherings with “normals” will include alcohol and maybe even so-called recreational drugs. The recovering addict—especially those celebrating the holidays for the first time clean and sober—may face a whole new level of temptation to use to avoid standing out or to question “Am I really an alcoholic or drug addict? Maybe I’m not. I should have just one…”

Others in active recovery might find time with family and friends stressful for other reasons. Most people I know in recovery have experienced social anxiety, and many people—even “normals”—often reach for a social lubricant to feel less awkward and more relaxed.

So how do you safeguard against relapse during the season?

1. Plan to Stay Active in Your Recovery

In active addiction, my entire world revolved around scoring my next fix. I planned my day around securing cash, driving into the city, and buying as much dope as I could. That strategy meant that I usually had what I needed when I needed it.

Make staying sober an active plan. Even if you’re traveling away from your home group, sponsor, and support network, you can still stay plugged in to recovery.

  • Call your sponsor and support network from the road
  • Ask those closest to you to help hold you accountable to your sobriety
  • Download a free app like Meeting Guide so you can find a meeting whenever you travel

If you’re staying close to home, attend sober events and festivities. If you must attend an event that you know will be full of triggers, call your sponsor before and after so you aren’t going in or out without support. Drive your own car to events (if possible) so you don’t have to rely on someone else who might wish to stay longer. And if it’s possible, you can always stay away from known people, places, and events that serve as your triggers.

2. Look for Ways to Serve

Do you remember your life in active addiction? I do. It was miserable, I was miserable, and I spread my misery around to others. Active addicts are joy thieves, always taking more than they give in relationships.

Do the opposite this holiday season. Make someone’s day every day. Smile. Be courteous, even in traffic and crowded stores. Hold doors open for others. Shovel your neighbor’s sidewalk and driveway. Serve a meal at a shelter. Bring food to someone homeless. Visit a shut-in or someone without family nearby. Write a holiday thank-you with a few bucks for your trash collector and mail carrier.

Giving helps others. No doubt. But giving helps the giver even more. Fight any lingering obsessions with alcohol by being out there as a giver of light to someone else.

 3. Keep a Full Drink in Your Hand at Gatherings

 A gracious host and hostess may work around a party with a bottle of whatever people are drinking so they can top off drinks along the way. You don’t have to be unkind or indignant to anyone who offers you a drink. They are trying to serve. But you can most easily avoid having alcohol brought to your face if you keep a full glass in your hand at all times.

4. Rely on More Than Willpower

Willpower wasn’t enough to keep me away from my addictions for long. Recently, I learned why. A Harvard psychologist calls willpower a muscle that actually weakens with repeated use. So if you’re relying on willpower alone—as opposed to continuing the spiritual work of recovery—don’t be surprised if you have strong urges after you’ve made it through the holidays.

You can prevent that by keeping your recovery routine during the holidays. If you go to a meeting every day in June, go to a meeting a day during the holidays. If you start your mornings on your knees asking your Higher Power for strength and direction, do the same during the holidays.

What are you going to do this holiday season to keep your recovery your priority?

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When Good Times Roll, Don’t Be Knocked Down

By Tim Ryan

I have asked hundreds of people in recovery when they most struggle with temptation to relapse into their drug of choice. The answer is, “It depends.”

Some struggle when they face emotional pain such as loneliness, guilt, shame, and strained relationships. That makes sense. In active addiction, these people developed coping skills (drinking, drugs, sex, gambling, etc.) to numb the pain. Those “skills” led to addiction. So when they face pain again, they quickly get sucked back into old patterns, especially if they lack a solid foundation in their own recovery.

I am grateful for the good times that sobriety brings, but they don’t keep me from focusing on my daily recovery.

But for many in recovery, the good times conjure up that old beer commercial: “It’s Miller Time.” That’s when the lie of addiction starts to whisper in their heads: “Don’t you deserve it? Haven’t you worked hard? Isn’t it time you did something nice for yourself?” 

Early in recovery, those struggling with addiction learn how to share their feelings, address the pain, and stay surrounded in a positive community based on respect, honesty, and acceptance. But recovery isn’t a “one-and-done” task to be checked off a list. Recovery is constant, and it is necessary even in the “good times” when you seem farthest from your addiction.

I helped a young heroin addict a few years ago. I brought him to 12 Step groups and helped him find a sponsor. Since this boy was a best friend to my sons, I took him into my home when he no longer had a place to live. In every way, I treated him like another son. I helped him get a job and continued to shepherd him in his recovery.

Eventually, as he matured in his recovery, I got him work at a treatment center so he could give back. He met a sweet young lady and moved out to plan a life with her. He found a place to live across the street from where he worked. His life had never been better.

He decided to use one more time, maybe as a way to celebrate how his life had turned around. When the paramedics arrived, the needle was still in his arm. The clients he had served across the street at the treatment center watched from the window as his lifeless body left in the silent emergency services vehicle.

Don’t get lulled into complacency when life is going well for you. Good times can serve as a sneak attack and a stronghold for the lies of addiction to whisper the loudest.

Here’s are 8 potential good times triggers to be on the lookout for:

  1. You have healthy, positive relationships
  2. You find yourself with more free time, no longer having to structure your every thought around fighting your addiction
  3. You have some financial security and freedom
  4. You start to romanticize the “good old days” of your addiction, but you forget the pain and suffering you experienced and caused for others
  5. Your attitude of gratitude that once loomed large in your recovery begins to slip into discontent that you don’t have more
  6. Your humility slips away into pride, and your focus returns to your wants and needs instead of others
  7. You start missing meetings and make excuses not to spend time with your sponsor
  8. You wonder if you can use one more time, just as a test, to see if you can use alcohol or drugs like “normal” people

I’m not suggesting you don’t find joy in those good times. They are there as a result of your hard work in recovery, and they can help you stay grounded.

But it’s important also to know your triggers. Be honest with yourself when you recognize that you’re slipping in your recovery. Get back into regular meetings. At those meetings, share your feelings honestly. Dishonesty begins with silence. No one can help if you wear a mask. Talk with your sponsor. Be accountable to someone who will hold you accountable.

Good times can remain good, even great, when they are grounded in your recovery. But be on guard that they don’t crack open the door to relapse. Too many of us won’t survive another relapse. Need help? Reach out today.


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6 Years Sober: 4 Recovery Rules I Live By

By Tim Ryan

November 1, 2012. Likely just another day for you, but for me it is when I was reborn.

For more than 25 years, I flirted with sobriety without grasping it. My road to recovery could be called “scenic,” if by scenic you mean losing a dozen jobs, spending extended time in the hospital and prison, missing birthdays and holidays with my wife and children, countless arrests, and years in virtual blackouts.

I want to share a few things I’ve learned during the last six years of active recovery, and these practices are ones that I plan to continue as long as I have air to breathe.

  1. Start each day on your knees.

Before I entered recovery, I had morning rituals. After relieving myself in the bathroom, I’d place a lit cigarette in my mouth and cup of coffee in my hands within minutes of waking up. Then I might have a stiff drink to “take the edge off” before the day had a chance to develop an edge. Then I would do a line of coke or snort some heroin to kick me into gear.

Once I entered recovery, that changed. I now start each morning on my knees. I roll out of bed and immediately get on my knees to pray. I ask God to direct my path throughout the day, to use me as He sees fit. I ask Him to lead me to those needing help, and I ask Him for strength to accomplish what He’s called me to do. I thank Him for the life He’s given me—an opportunity to have a life that includes recovery, a beautiful wife, meaningful work, and wonderful children who mean the world to me.

Before recovery, there was a God, and His name was Tim Ryan. I started each day chasing my wants and needs. Throughout the day, I’d seek pleasure and feed my addiction. And I would end most days in various stages of exhaustion, spent from alcohol, drugs, and guilt.

  1. Surround yourself with the right people.

When I was a competitive barefoot water skier, I surrounded myself with other competitive barefoot water skiers. Why? The best strive to learn from the best.

When I entered recovery, I surrounded myself with someone who was 100 percent into recovery. His name was Big Perk. He was a former Chicago gang leader and big as a house. Big Perk made it easy for me to follow the straight and narrow, even when my commitment to recovery waned. That’s because Big Perk wouldn’t let me into the cell we shared in prison unless I, too, was 100 percent into recovery. I’m so grateful for Big Perk’s friendship and guidance during my earliest days of recovery. Without him, I may have been tempted to stray.

You’ve probably heard the saying, “If you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.” Who are your closest friends? If you spend time with people who aren’t serious about recovery, your own commitment may waiver until you are strong in long-term recovery. If you hang out with people who are still using, don’t kid yourself into thinking that you can resist temptation. Heck, before I grasped recovery, I did some service work by helping a guy move. When I got to his house, his brother was doing heroin and offered me some. Remember, I was there to do good work—service work! What did I end up doing? Heroin!

Surround yourself with people as strong or stronger than you.

Once you’ve had a spiritual awakening and have some maturity in your recovery, you’ll be strong enough to spend time with people in need without their addiction tempting you to slide. The gift of recovery is free, and we can freely give it to others when we stay strong.

  1. Set goals that depend on your ongoing recovery.

I enjoy water skiing, and I’d love to live on a house by a lake. I’d love a nice car, the license to drive that car, healthy kids, and a good job that provides great income. And I wouldn’t mind having the time to pick up hobbies and follow sports like other people.

The truth is, I had all those things at one time. In addiction, I pissed them away.

But today I invest in things that can’t be lost to fire, thieves, or a bad economy. I set goals that I can only achieve in recovery.

Today, my top goals are to be a good husband and loving father and help those lost in addiction find recovery. I want to make sure that another parent doesn’t have to bury their child. I want to spread the message of Hope and Recovery to as many people for as long as I have strength to do so.

I can’t do that if I slip back into addiction.

My first wife divorced me when I was in prison, and I don’t blame her. I would have divorced me, too. Just because I’m in recovery doesn’t mean I get a do-over with my ex-wife, Shannon. But I can be a good husband to my wife, Kirsten, thanks to recovery.

I lost my son, Nick, to his own drug addiction. Nick watches over me today, but I will never again have a father/son conversation with him. I will never see him marry, have children, or live his best life. Just because I’m clean and sober doesn’t mean I get Nick back. But I can finally be the kind of father I should have been to my other children if I stay in recovery.

What goals do you have that can be achieved only if you stay in active recovery? Think about that. Write them down. Share them with others. And live like you aim to accomplish them.

  1. Keep your eyes on the promises.

It doesn’t matter if you have earned fifty 24-hour chips or have reached 50 plus years of continuous recovery. Recovery is a journey. It has a beginning, but it doesn’t have to have an end.

Regardless if you have just entered recovery, or you’ve been attending and running meetings for half a century, the path requires hard work. Recovery forces you to confront your demons head on and doesn’t come with a guarantee of pain-free living.

But that journey comes with sweet promises, like freedom and happiness, gaining a deeper perspective or renewed purpose or direction in life, acceptance of self and others, selflessness, hope and faith, less fear and worry, and redemption.

My only regret is that I didn’t grasp it sooner.

If you need help, please contact Transformations Drug & Alcohol Treatment Center, 866-211-5538, or reach out through our contact page today.


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Self-Care: Why I Need It, and You Do Too

by Tim Ryan

Sitting in a hospital room with my son and ex-wife in Virginia a few weeks ago, stress flooded me. I had been on the road for what felt like months, doing everything I could to help those still in struggling with addiction to find hope and lasting recovery. When I finally returned home for a long, restful weekend, a family emergency put me right back on a plane halfway across the country.

During those few days, I never felt the urge to use. But I did feel many other things—emotions ranging from sadness to relief, and gratitude to anger.

As the emergency subsided, I had to remind myself of a concept that is at the heart of my recovery: I am not a victim. So I don’t need to act like one.

A victim says to himself, “This isn’t fair!” and “I shouldn’t have to put up with this crap!” Before long, a voice tells the victim, “Things can’t get any worse. Maybe you should get some relief by (insert drug of choice here.)”

But I am not a victim. Circumstances, neither good nor bad, don’t control me and my recovery.

So when I’m temporarily triggered or overwhelmed, I don’t let the situations win. Instead, I use healthy self-care as part of my lasting recovery.

Here’s what you need to know about self-care so you can practice it regularly to stay strong—

Self-care is part of your recovery

I’ve heard some people say—

  • I don’t have time to focus on myself
  • When I step out of the battle, there is no one who will step up for me
  • If I’m not tired all of the time, I’m not giving enough

That’s garbage, nothing more than ego talking. Don’t confuse self-care with selfishness.

For many of us, recovery involves working a 12-step program. Step 12 is all about taking your gift of recovery and paying it forward. Here’s the kicker: you can’t pay forward what you don’t first possess! Unless you prioritize your own recovery, you can never help another person. Self-care is like putting gas in your car. By keeping your tank full, you’re able to help others. After all, helping others starts with you taking care of yourself.

The right people feed your soul

Think back to the people you spent time with when you were active in your addiction. Fellow addicts, right? It’s nearly impossible to get and stay clean when those around you are using.

Meaningful self-care requires us to surround ourselves with the right people, those that give more than they take. Two of those people for me are my wife, Kirsten, and my youngest daughter, MacKenzie, who I call Princess Mac. No, I don’t expect them to serve me. Kirsten gives to me by simply sitting and sharing a cup of coffee with me, being my sounding-board, or putting up with my erratic schedule. Princess Mac gives to me by laughing, falling asleep on my lap, or playing on her yard swing.

You know you are surrounded by the right people when you are able to relax, be yourself, and stay in the moment without getting pulled into conflict.

Part of recharging involves unplugging

Our lives are full of incessant noise: social media updates from our friends, 24/7 media coverage, requests for help, phone calls, etc. How can we find a slice of quiet in a noisy world? Unplug.

When I returned from Virginia, I called my boss and told him that I would be out for a week. Then I shut off my phones (yes, I have more than one!), turning them on only when I wanted to call someone or take a picture. I kept my focus on two things only: matters requiring urgent attention (like family emergencies) and my family.

Guess what happened? I didn’t miss anything. By taking the time away from all of the noise, I got to invest in my wife, children, parents, loved ones, and closest friends. Instead of being connected to everything and everyone screaming for my attention, I reconnected to those who charge my battery.

No, it’s not always possible to take a day or week off from work to regain your charge. But you can do it in small ways like hitting a meeting, joining a friend first thing in the morning for coffee, or practicing deep breathing. Just make sure you’re phone is off. Stay in the moment. Really be with the people in front of you. Phones have become like new limbs. We’ve become dependent on them to fight boredom, learn new things, and stay connected. Some replace cocaine with a cell phone. Don’t be afraid to disconnect with the virtual world so you can reconnect with the real one.

Every time you get into an airplane, the flight attendants tell you that if the oxygen masks deploys, put your own on first. Why? If you don’t, you become a liability instead of an asset. And if you don’t stay strong, how will you be of any use to anyone else?

By the way, these concepts apply whether or not you’re an addict. Reach out and raise your hand if you need help.

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