Combating Holiday Compulsions


by Kay Sheppard, M.A.

During the holiday season, it becomes very noticeable in recovery meetings that attendance falls off and our recovering friends start to disappear. Some of these disappearances are long-term and some are permanent. What happens during the holidays? Increased stress is certainly a complicating factor in holiday activities. There is more pressure, date books are fuller, to-do lists become longer, and altogether these are busy times. During these fast-paced times it is tempting to start canceling meetings, forgetting phone calls and postponing step work until after the holidays. After all, isn't this the reason that we recover, in order to enjoy life? The temptation is to take a holiday from recovery.

We have to be vigilant about this kind of complacency and overconfidence. Whatever the excuse for letting up on recovery activities, the "twenty-four-hour principle" of recovery still applies. We must remember that we cannot stay abstinent on yesterday's program. It is crucial to recovery to maintain our program on the twenty-four/seven concept. We work our programs seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day. Each holiday is nothing more than another twenty-four-hour time frame which requires our attention as recovering people. Let us make the holidays holy days of joy and peace.

On Holiday from Your Recovery Program?

Before the holidays become frantic, it would be a good idea to outline your "best recovery" program. Formulate a checklist which is based upon those activities which best support recovery. This checklist might include the optimum number of meetings to attend, a commitment to daily phone calls, reading, writing, prayer and meditation. It might look something like this:


Phoned Sponsor _____

Attended Meeting ______

Exercised _______ hour

Journal Writing _______

Gratitude List _______

Meditation _______ times

Prayer _______

Literature Selection _________________

Food Plan

Planned ________

Reported ________

Committed _______

No Changes _____

Weighed and Measured All Portions ________

Two Phone Calls to ___________  ____________

Tempting Food and Drink

One of the obvious pitfalls of the holiday season is the abundance of tempting food and drink. All of the magazine covers display in gorgeous splendor all the foods which will trigger our addiction and our life of horror. The whole world has missed the idea that for food addicts those foods should be photographed with a skull-and-crossbones Poison label. For those of us who are food addicted, holiday foods are poison.

Of course, there are always folks who urge us to eat "just a little." People-pleasing is a definite characteristic of many food addicts. When we hear our favorite relative say, "Oooh, I made it just for you. You used to love it," then we have a decision to make. Do we placate our relative or choose recovery? Worse yet, there are others who offer to prepare abstinent food for us, then we show up for dinner to find nothing appropriate for us to eat. Some hostesses even lie about the ingredients, thinking they can "put one over" on us.

The best way to maintain abstinence throughout the holiday orgy of addictive substances is to eliminate or restrict the number of occasions attended, to show up prepared with your own food or to eat before the party. A tactful response to all well-meaning relatives is "No thank you" said with conviction. The bottom line is that I am always responsible for my own recovery and for the food I eat. I have to understand that others don't always understand the importance of physical abstinence. If you trust your host or hostess to understand it, call ahead to make your needs known. Take your scale and measuring cups to facilitate a weighed and measured meal. Don't be your own worst enemy, either. Stop baking those old favorites; the smell alone can trigger cravings. You may wish to stop bringing highly refined and processed foods into your home for the family. Often we stop "pushing those drugs" to our loved ones.

Holiday Compulsive Shopping and Spending

Overspending during the holiday seasons is an issue for many, especially compulsive spenders. The holidays are a good excuse to let loose and really indulge in this addiction. Be aware that much time spent shopping, even without spending large amounts of money, can be an addictive process. Both shopping and spending take us out of reality and away from our daily concerns and responsibilities. We escape into Mall World, where everything is beautiful and all things are possible. We get a false sense of power from the purchase. We become obsessed with it and develop lists of gifts for others, the house and ourselves. The advertisers would have it that we must redecorate the house, purchase a new wardrobe and serve only gourmet food and drink. 'Tis the season to spend, spend, spend. From Halloween to Valentine's Day, we can go on a ninety-day jag.

Credit cards have made it possible to buy now and pay later, mortgaging our future in order to have things now. Huge credit card debt is the burden of many Americans, but it is especially an ordeal for compulsive spenders. Often this spending and debt production is driven by guilt. Addicts often feel "less than" and make an attempt to make it up to loved ones with material goods. Would any of us have the courage to cancel spending next holiday season? I think we would wonder if our loved ones would go on loving us. We are so much the victims of the mass media. Newsprint and television ads relentlessly shout about what we must do and be in order to create a Martha Stewart kind of holiday season.

Take some time to write about the feelings you experience while shopping and spending. Talk about the high of the pursuit, the glitter and glitz of the department stores, the thrill of the music, the spirit of the crowds, the euphoric recall of childhood holidays. Make a list of the ways that you are powerless over spending and shopping. Make a list of the ways that your life has become unmanageable due to that shopping and spending.

In recovery, we must find a way to bring sanity into our world of spending or perish in debt and frustration. There is something joyless about the word "budget!" It is a bucket-of-cold-water kind of word. But we begin to understand that with recovery comes responsibility. In recovery it is finally possible to take charge of our financial life. There is power in money management. How to Turn Your Money Life Around, by Ruth Hayden, is a wonderful resource for those who are serious about recovery from spending. There are Twelve-Step programs for those who need support in this recovery. If you are interested in more help, you may wish to contact Debtors Anonymous in your area.

The question we may wish to ask ourselves is, "How can I turn my holiday-spending life around without becoming Old Scrooge himself?" The truth is that we can moderate our spending and still celebrate the holidays with love and service instead of guilt and fear. Those are the recovery principles we can emphasize in our lives. By remembering the spirit of each holiday, we may even wish to return to a simpler time of celebration with handmade ornaments or gifts. Let's recount some of the spiritual principles of the holiday season: love, gratitude, kindness, compassion, sharing, caring, joy, humor and play—and let's plan a way to demonstrate those in our lives. Keep the spiritual in mind when shopping; take your Higher Power with you.


Too often we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others during the holidays. We envision the loving family gathered around the fireplace singing carols and basking in the glow of love. We see ourselves giving and receiving gifts selected with care. The real picture may be somewhat different: dirty dishes, piles of discarded wrapping paper, irritable children and maybe even a cold or flu thrown in for good measure. That's not to say that our holidays are always totally horrible or disagreeable, but they may never match the jolly pictures we conjure up. Projecting outcomes is always dangerous. There is no way to predict the future. Whenever our expectations are high, our serenity is low. Acceptance is the key to serenity.


Remember the acronym HALTS, and don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired or Stressed. Avoid overdoing. Stress can trigger food thoughts, so beware of your stress level during the holidays. The tool of HALTS is great for an on-the-spot inventory. If you are experiencing any of these, take immediate action, including relaxation techniques, rest, well-timed meals, meetings and phone calls. Recognition and correction is the key to maintaining recovery.

Feeling Deprived?

Count your blessings, make a gratitude list for after the holidays. Think of how great it will be not to have to go on another diet right after the holidays. One of my dear friends relates how she cried all day on her first holiday in recovery. She felt so deprived. Now she sees that she is deprived of obesity, depression, anger, lethargy, shame, fear, physical pain and medical problems associated with her food addiction. We laugh about having two holiday meals because we stay on schedule and have a turkey dinner midday and one in the evening, too. Those normal eaters usually get just one! We don't have to pass out in front of the TV, either.

Discover Alternatives to Eating and Cooking

There may be something to do over the holidays that does not involve baking or eating? What a concept! Get outdoors often to enjoy the winter sun, take a family walk, enjoy a winter sport like skiing or ice skating. It is fun to go to the movies, look at old pictures or home movies and play board games. Of course, here in Florida, we just go on with our usual activities in the sun. Have some fun during the holidays.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that for our life-sustaining abstinence, we are responsible. We have to understand that others do not understand. They don't have to understand. We are personally responsible for what we eat and drink, where we eat, how our food is prepared and for provision of that food on a reasonable schedule. No one is allowed to make those choices for us. We must realize that we are worth the time, effort, consideration and cost of recovery—always remembering that the disease costs more.

©2000. All rights reserved. Reprinted from From the First Bite by Kay Sheppard. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street, Deerfield Beach, FL 33442. Available in local bookstores or call 800-441-5569 or click here.