By Christian Castaneda, LCSW, Program Director, Promises It’s human nature to feel a connection to holidays. People relate to familiar anniversaries and hold certain dates as significant or sacred. That’s why so many people plan to make healthy changes at the start of a new year. While some holidays are designated for specific people and cultures—such as Cinco de Mayo, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and Yom Kippur—New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day are holidays everyone celebrates. And there are certain things that go along with this time of year that many people can relate to.
- It’s a time of year in which people start to reflect on their lives.
- There is a common understanding that it signifies the end of the old.
- There is an excitement about the opportunity to create things anew.
- People feel more hopeful.
- There is more positivity around the idea that they can make important changes.
- The pervading feeling is that the change in the calendar can usher in changes in life.
Maturing Enough to Know When to Change
When people are young, it feels as if they have all the time in the world. They feel immortal, invincible and untouchable. When it comes to their problems or unhealthy behaviors, they think, “I will get to that next year.” Putting off change can go on for a long time. And as each year ticks by, adults begin to feel time is of the essence and that the years are getting shorter. This inspires people to become more aware of the need to make changes and possibly more determined to try to make changes that perhaps did not take effect before. It may even inspire people to strengthen their hope that it will work out this time by taking a proactive approach, such as weighing the pros and cons of drinking or substance use. Healing from addiction requires a “timeout” from the life that led to the disease and it requires reflection. Around the new year, it is more culturally appropriate to say, “Well, this is what I’m going to do for these next 365 days because I need to take time to reflect on my life and get sober.”
Desire for Healthier Habits
Human beings are creatures of habit, and they’ve had years of upbringing that have taught them that the start of a new year is special. If New Year’s Eve is for drinking, New Year’s Day is for starting fresh. Decisions and declarations to change may begin in the form of New Year’s resolutions, but they are often formulated from some sort of internal understanding that things must be different, or from a fear that, without change, life may be irrevocably damaged. Addiction is a painful experience; it is like living in a prison. A person with addiction is enslaved by their substance of choice and the activities that go along with active addiction. Often a crisis occurs―a lost job, being kicked out by a spouse, an accident or arrest―that forces change. Sometimes people just become so desperate after a holiday season of reckless partying that there is a glimmer of awareness that changing old habits is the only way to survive. A person with addiction may begin to think:
- I want to give it up and break free.
- I have to get sober.
- I need to go to an AA meeting.
- I need to find a rehab center.
The New Year Is a Fresh Slate
The thoughts and desire for change are what initiate change. That’s why it’s always best to be proactive about starting a recovery program and to seek the right help as soon as a person feels called to make changes. Gym memberships spike in January, but only about 15% of the people who sign up when the new year rolls around actually show up to exercise. Only those who do begin to incorporate exercise and fitness into their lives as the result of a New Year’s resolution will find themselves on a rewarding path. This can happen with addiction recovery too. People may have messed up in the past and they may have relapsed before; but that does not mean it will happen again. Making that phone call or going to a meeting can initiate a life of sobriety. That’s why it’s so important to take that first step. The desire “to try” can evolve into a commitment “to do.” And this often begins with that moment of reflection when the sense of possibility felt at the new year leads toward an action. Not all people with addiction have clarity about what they do want, but they may know this: They no longer want to be a slave to substances. That understanding can lead to positive change.
Everyone Deserves a Do-Over
There are very few holidays and times in life when we, as a culture, can sit down and allow ourselves to be reflective of what we would like our lives to be. The beginning of a new year gives us that opportunity. The decision to seek help at this time of year is a gateway toward treatment and undertaking sobriety. Even if someone has tried before in the past, these are still the first footsteps of treatment, starting fresh. One study showed modification of addictive behaviors involves progression through five stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. It’s possible individuals will go through these stages more than once before the active addiction ends. No matter how many times you’ve experienced the cycle of change, there is always a chance for a do-over.
Changing Perception Changes Your Life
A key to getting sober is a change in perception. Once someone has arrived at the gateway of treatment, they must stop using. This may involve different levels of medical and psychological treatment. From there, a new vantage point in understanding opens up and from that viewpoint, people begin to see things that were not visible when they were locked into active addiction. Once they enter a rehab program, they begin to understand that getting healthy requires a holistic approach. They see that trauma and pain are at the root of their problem and that treatment can come in many forms. They learn they are not alone—that many others share the kind of experiences and pain they’ve been through. They come to see that they are not bad people, but that they have a bad disease. In treatment, perception and awareness increase with each passing day. People begin to realize that recovery is an ongoing process and if they stay with it, they can reclaim their lives. And by the time the next New Year’s Day rolls around, they can be sober and live a new reality.