Imagine a very different version of this year’s festivities. Liam Ward finds out what it means to spend Christmas in rehab.
A roaring fire, a table laid with a lavish roast dinner, a tree groaning under the weight of decorations – a glowing backdrop to the family gathering. However your Christmas looks, what’s certain is that you’re never missing from the picture.
The reality of Christmas for people in residential rehabilitation can often be quite different. Spending this time of year away from families and loved ones can be difficult. Harder still is the prospect of reframing what Christmas means to you if your memories are dominated by negative experiences of drugs or alcohol. Across our sites in Sheffield, Wirral, Glasgow and at our National Specialist Family Service, we need to ensure that every single person in our care this Christmas is supported through this challenging period.
Three wise men
I recently talked to three of our graduates from the Sheffield Residential Service about their experiences of Christmas.
Luke and Robert had spent Christmas 2017 with us and Jake had been here in 2018 (names have been changed). Before they entered treatment, all three associated the festive period with being in the company of family, but for each of them it had become a grudging duty. A time of celebration for others had, for them, become a hinderance to their substance use.
Robert comes from a family where Christmas means parties, socialising and honouring traditions. ‘In my family, from Christmas Eve onwards, there always seems to be a party at somebody’s house,’ he said. ‘All the men in my family have always gone to the pub on Christmas Day. They still do that now, from 11 until three. You see cousins you only ever see on Christmas Day. That tradition is one of the hardest ones. I don’t know if I’d be able to do that now.’
Over time the lively, inclusive Christmas he was raised on became dominated by his substance use and the invitations became fewer. ‘One year I got dragged out of my flat by my stepdaughter,’ he recalls. ‘I drank three bottles of cider before I went for lunch. I ate about two potatoes then stood in the kitchen drinking spirits. The next year, before I went to rehab, I was in a shared house sat with a load of people I wouldn’t even call friends and took drugs.’
Luke also saw his substance use affect his relationships with family. ‘I’d always make it to my parents’ at Christmas, but I’d have had a skin-full before I’d go,’ he said. ‘I caused a nightmare atmosphere with everybody.’ Luke’s family never considered drinking to be a big part of their Christmas – which is now a welcome cornerstone in his recovery – but at the time it made being in their company a daunting and isolating prospect. ‘I wouldn’t drink in the house when I was there, I’d just eat my dinner and slope off,’ he said. ‘Eating was a chore – the last thing you want to think about. I probably never got through a full Christmas meal.’
Like his peers, Jake found his substance use put him at odds with the way his family celebrated. ‘I hadn’t had a sober one for a long time,’ he said. ‘The year before [coming to Phoenix Futures] I was supposed to go for a big family Christmas, but I drank way too much, so I spent Christmas on my own.’
These experiences clearly left a lasting mark, so it was a surprise to hear them speak positively about Christmas spent in residential rehabilitation.
‘Going into Christmas I was quite anxious, but at the same time I felt safe as well,’ said Luke. ‘The temptation wasn’t there.’
‘I was a bit nervous, but it was an opportunity to enjoy Christmas for what it was and I felt safe in the house,’ said Jake. ‘People put any problems to one side and everyone realised it was a tough time, especially for those with kids.’
Robert said he was buoyed by the mood of the house. ‘We had a good laugh,’ he said. ‘You forget where you are for a little time.’ He focused on the positives and said it was nice seeing people getting visits from their children. He had a visit from his own daughter and granddaughter.
What helped the community through this difficult period was having lots of things planned – Laser Quest, theatre, cinema, panto, bowling. New Year’s Eve was a party night without the drink and drugs and ‘chaotic but a good laugh’.
Robert and Luke still have photos from the New Year’s Eve they spent together in the Sheffield Residential Service, fondly recalling the community members and staff dressing up, joining in the karaoke and ‘making a good night of a difficult time’.
This year they are all back home for Christmas. ‘It’s going to be really challenging,’ acknowledged Luke. ‘Nobody in my family really drinks, but it’s just spending that first Christmas back there again sober. But for me the big thing about going home is my parents and brothers actually wanting to see me.’
Robert plans to repeat what worked for him last year – chilling out at his mum and dad’s. ‘Last year I enjoyed seeing my brother’s young kids, playing with them and their toys,’ he said. ‘Before I’d have just rolled in pissed five minutes before dinner was on the table.’
Jake will celebrate his first Christmas after graduating this year. ‘In the past I isolated myself,’ he said. ‘I’m looking forward to spending time with family and seeing those I haven’t seen for years. I’m going to a New Year’s Eve party, but I’ll only go for an hour. There’s no point putting myself in any risky situations.’
A mother seeking refuge
Other residents are gearing up to their first Christmas in treatment. Mi and Ma are both mothers who will be staying with us at our National Specialist Family Service.
‘I am excited to celebrate my first English Christmas,’ said Mi. ‘And I am looking forward to singing Polish Christmas songs to my little princess.’ Mi’s youngest daughter is placed here with her, however her older daughter is with her father this Christmas. ‘It is emotional for me being far from my family, and hard that I can’t be with her this year. But I already feel as though the people here are like my family. I have good people around me.’
She places much value on her future with her daughters. ‘My kids are my gift,’ she said. ‘The best necklace I could get is my baby’s fingers on my neck.’ If she wasn’t at the family service, things would look very different. ‘Without this placement and my baby, I would drink,’ she said. ‘I would drink and I would die.’
Ma will also be at the family service over Christmas, along with her partner and their newborn son. ‘Last year we spent Christmas Day in a hostel smoking crack,’ she said. ‘I know that’s what I would be doing this Christmas if I wasn’t here.’
She was looking forward to the chance to start building new memories during a time of year she found distressing. ‘My dad died in December 2016, so this time of year is hard. But even before that, in my family, we had the presents but we didn’t have the love,’ she said. ‘I want to make Christmas for my little boy about the nice things I remember.’
‘I can be open here,’ she added. I’m happy. I still have the issues, but now I have a different thought process, I have structure.’
During these conversations I was stunned by the honesty and moved by the strength of character shown by each person. With so many challenging emotions about the past and the future, each seems to have made peace with their place in the present.