Getting the Christmas Treatment

If you talk to folks who work in the admissions department at any major treatment centre, you may be told the same story: people don’t necessarily want to come to treatment during the Christmas season. But, then again, they often don’t want to come any time.

There they are, often in a life and death battle, but they won’t do it.

Yet, those who have spent time in treatment over the holidays almost always seem to come through with strong, rich, supportive memories.

They are often eager to share with those who are hesitant to come to treatment. To pass it on. To offer encouragement.

You Can Do This. You Can Do This.

Christmas at Nick’s house was always dicey. As a child from a broken home, the drunkenness and arguing affected him on one side, while the materialism, extravagance and grandiosity of gifts confused him on the other. All he wanted was peace and harmony. As he grew older, he tried to tune out the tension.

“Christmas, to me, was always a bit of a stressor. I was apathetic toward it for much of my adult life, for sure.”

Brandon, Manitoba born and raised, he would go on to become a dad of two girls himself. But, no matter how much he wanted to be the father he’d imagined, his addiction to alcohol and drugs took over.

“The last five years … just a shitshow. Getting drunk and wallowing in self-pity for days.”

After three months in treatment, the week before Christmas 2019, Nick was given the green light to leave. His kids were off on a ski vacation, but he had offers to stay with either of his parents. He could have found his own place. Instead, he chose to stay an extra month.

At Aurora, over the holidays.

“It just made sense for me to stay at Aurora for another month and really solidify my recovery,” he says. “I knew doing another month wasn’t going to hurt me. In fact, that last month is when I did some of my best therapy work.”

Now 38, the software developer and data analyst understands the apprehension of spending a difficult time of the year in treatment.

He has plenty of affection for the staff who walked the members at Aurora through the season.

“Absolutely … they were pretty good judges of who needed a little bit of extra attention,” he says.

Declining treatment just because of a holiday, any holiday, is not a good move, he believes.

“There’s no time like the present. Are you going to sit at home at Christmas and be down and sad like you are every other year, or are you going to choose to do something different this time around and get healthy? And as a result, you’re probably going to have the best Christmas you can imagine or, at least, the best New Year. Because you are not going to be hung over, you’re going to be on the path to recovery.”

HOLIDAY SEASON AT AURORA

Great food. A massive pool. Fire pits to gather round. Comradery. Let’s face it. You can paint it anyway you like, but going to treatment at Aurora Recovery Centre is hardly hitting a bottom. Doing it over the holidays comes down to attitude.

“At first I was sad that I couldn’t spend Christmas with my whole family,” says Sara. “Although, I had a second family at Aurora.”

The 27-year-old from St. Clement, Manitoba, spent last Christmas in treatment at the centre.

“It was very joyful. We had a lovely Christmas dinner, activities, games. We also had a bonfire. Our immediate families were allowed to come visit Christmas day and spend time with us. Bring presents. It was truly amazing.”

With two weeks to go before she hits the one year mark of abstinence, she says Christmas on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Gimli is not something she is going to forget any time soon.

“The mood, the energy, for myself, was a mixture of feelings: happy, homesick but most of all proud and bubbly. I’ve gotten not just one family but a second, and friends for life that will always have a warm place in my heart. Lots of wonderful memories.”

Almost to a person, Aurora members contacted for this story had nothing but positive remarks to make on being in treatment over the holidays. The success of walking through what can typically be an emotionally-charged few weeks without getting loaded, without consequences that can harm relationships for years, is something that can be life-changing for those who struggle with substance use issues.

WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS, ANSWER

Piper Deggan has worked in addiction centres for over 15 years. As the leader of Aurora’s Admissions team, she is a big believer in taking action when the opportunity presents itself. Especially when it comes to addiction.

“When that moment of clarity arrives, it’s imperative to take action, regardless of what cultural celebrations are occurring,” she says. “When a crisis has created the momentum to attend treatment, we underscore the fact that Christmases in the future need to be celebrated.”

Rick is coming up on his third Christmas without substances. He concurs with what Piper has to say.

“It’s never the right time,” he laughs. “There’s always a reason not to go.”

Until you run out of reasons.

It was during his first semester at Red River College when, at age 34, while changing careers, that time arrived for the former construction and flooring subcontractor.

“I was having some trouble adjusting. There are always lots of reasons, but my drinking, my stress got out of control.”

On November 21, 2018, Rick broke down and asked for help. A 26-ounce bottle of vodka per day for two months will accelerate that process.

“I was drinking every day. I knew it was affecting things negatively, but I just couldn’t seem to stop. I felt like if I stopped, I’d collapse and everything would fall apart. It sounds weird, but the drinking was the only thing keeping me getting up and going, keeping it together. I’d buy a 26 and I would meter it out throughout the day … I had so much anxiety.”

“I’d make sure I had a couple of shots in the morning so I didn’t have the shakes, then a couple of shots every couple of hours. I was still going to classes.”

“But I was getting the shakes and had to have it around. And I had done a little bit of reading so I knew that I could have a seizure.”

The time had come.

When he told his parents, who were fortunate to have the means, they were quick to arrange a stay at Aurora.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

Rick is a matter of fact kind of guy. Practical. Pragmatic.

Being in detox to start, he knew he was in safe hands. That eased some of the anxiety, as did the detox medications. In no time, he was ready to go, but his counsellor coaxed a promise out of him.

“I don’t want you to leave,” Jennifer said, “but if you decide to stay I want you to give it your all.”

When he recommitted to stay, he kept his word. “I said okay, fine. I’d promised. So, I gave it everything.”

“It was like a vacation. I didn’t have to see my family. I didn’t have to go to school. Remember, I was in a college course where I was in class eight hours a day and they took attendance. I had two to three hours of homework a night, depending on how you spread it out. I was working 50-plus hours a week in a college course!”

So, how difficult could it be?

Unlike previous vacations, he wasn’t hungover time and time again for this one.

“I was like, wow, this is like the best vacation I’ve had in forever because I am actually feeling better. I am eating well. I’m getting enough rest. So, from that perspective, I was really enjoying it.”

“The great thing about being there over Christmas is I didn’t have to start a vehicle. I barely had to put a jacket on. I’d throw something on to go out for a little vape then run back inside. The gym was down the hall. I’d wake up, put on a pair of shorts, walk to the gym, take a swim in the pool, go to the kitchen, breakfast is made, go have a shower and go to a group therapy session.”

Rick looks fondly back on some of the moments over the holidays. A three-day Risk game comes to mind, as does a great New Year’s Eve with good music and socializing with his peers, dancing, laughing and learning how to enjoy life without substances.

Of course, not all went smoothly, like when he chugged a litre of egg-nog, egged on by peers who said he couldn’t. Or shouldn’t.

Progress, not perfection.

In the end, Rick is like most Aurora Recovery Centre members who believe the opportunity to help yourself should be taken, no matter when it appears.

“My advice to people is, like, it is all in your head. We get to choose. The whole Buddhist thing.

Do we choose that this is suffering, or do we choose that this is an event, so that detachment from emotions. Are you going to choose to see this as a positive event in your life or are you going to choose to see this as, ‘Oh my God! I am missing this one Christmas, and what is going to happen?’ Nothing. Nothing. Everyone is going to be so much happier for you.”

“When I was leaving for treatment, I was just a mess. I was throwing a bunch of clothes into a garbage bag. They were, like, just pack and get in the car! My sister comes downstairs and says, ‘Well Rick, you win this year.’ I’m, like, what do you mean? She’s like, ‘You win because none of us are going to outdo this Christmas present you got for mom.’ I started laughing, but it’s true.”

“People are, like, what’s the best Christmas present? Where does your family want you to be? They want you to be here, at Aurora.”