Air (Allies in Recovery) Holiday Article

Fast Forward to February: On Getting Through the Holiday Season with an Absent Child

Guest author Annie Highwater shares ideas and strategies for making the most of this often emotionally charged time of the year.

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© jill111 via pixabay


Beginning mid-October, a holiday dread begins threatening my soul like a shadow lurking around corners. I know the holidays are coming, who doesn’t? We see the signs everywhere, from the grocery stores to social media: pictures of ugly sweaters and perfect family celebrations. Radio stations change format to holiday themes, shopping ads and Christmas music. As for me, depending both upon the condition of my relationship with my son and how many miles are physically between us, I begin measuring how much gloom I can expect to wrestle in the weeks from Halloween through January.


For a parent far from their child, those weeks can feel like intense, lonely drudgery.

Unfortunately, as has been the fate of so many others, my son developed an addiction to opiate pain medication after a football injury nine years ago, and our lives have never been the same. Neither have the holidays or birthday celebrations. Through the worst of holiday seasons, I have found myself literally forcing a smile as people joyfully wish me season’s greetings in passing. Meanwhile, my heart weighs a thousand pounds and my mind is a million miles away.

Familiar smells of cinnamon, apple and pine remind me of the holidays long ago when we looked forward to every light, ornament, favorite Christmas show on TV and special holiday dinner. Those warm traditions are now replaced with Skype and Facetime calls. Or… if our relationship is strained due to conflict and consequences caused by the disease of addiction, I instead brace myself for silence and sadness.

I have to force myself to believe the most tender, magical of years are behind us.

Could it really be that I will never again bundle up and walk the streets with a pack of kids in Halloween costume ‘trick or treating’?

Would I really spend another Thanksgiving not having him to make knowing eye contact with when familiar family oddities play out in front of us? We call it “Eye-lish.” It’s our secret eye contact language when things are awkward, weird or funny. My son always knows what I’m thinking. We can communicate a whole conversation with just a glance. One look could say anything from ‘Let’s go!’ to ‘How cute is our new nephew!’ to ‘This turkey is raw’ as well as ‘Can you believe she just said that? How rude!’

Would I really never again wake up Christmas morning to my young son running in to wake me in pajamas, excited to see what gifts are waiting for him in the glow of Christmas tree lights?

My birthday is in November and my son’s is in January. Those are days we looked forward to making fun and special. So the twelve weeks from Halloween to February can sometimes pack a whole lot of gut punch.


It can be tempting to hibernate right through the festive months when everyone seems so happy, and wake up in February.

I find myself wondering how it could be that I would have to replay these moments as memories instead of experiencing them again? Sometimes I relive these memories so many times in my mind, like movies playing on loop, that I worry they’ll fade from me. Sometimes moments and voices seem distant and blurry and I wonder if they really even happened. The mind can play tricks on a Mother missing a child and your heart can hallucinate. When I’m wondering how happy those days really were, I often look with nostalgia through our old pictures, for hours… tears rolling off my face. ‘Tis the season.

I miss my son not just as my energetic, excited child but also as I would miss a long lost friend. Our Mother/Son relationship didn’t trespass appropriate authority – we were never best friends as peers would be. I knew I had a job to do and a responsible role to fill as a parent. But we were friends. Always. Our bond and connection especially through humor, or how we both always just get it in relation to life, family and experiencing people, is something I have had with no one else quite like I have with my son, my only child.

Missing him again this year with so many miles between us finds me wondering how another year could possibly have swung around so fast to find me again without his presence? How am I slammed with the reality of the holidays again being so far from what I hoped they would be?

William Shakespeare said “Expectation is the root of all heartache,” and I would have to agree, my heart often throbs with the disappointment of holiday expectations.


So how do I move along with the season without moping through the days like it’s raining only on me?

I have to first decide I will find a positive outlook. I must intentionally decide to find a way to see around corners and know that not every year is depressing, just like not every year is magical. Whether good or bad, no moment lasts forever. Such is life. As hard as the reality of loneliness and disappointment hits, the return of Spring and future joys around the corner are just as promising.


I must stoke the fire of motivation within me by accepting a few fundamental truths.

First of all, I am not the only person to mournfully endure a lonely, depressing holiday season.

Many people experience great grief, loss and pain through the holidays. Knowing I am not alone makes it easier to not take on a “poor me, it’s just little me against the whole happy world” mentality. Recovery support groups are extremely helpful for realizing this. Sharing stories is a great reminder that this life is give and take, someone always has it worse, or better, or maybe they went through a similar struggle, came out stronger and can speak encouragement right to my heart about it. I know I am able to do the same for others when it comes to adversities I’ve come through.

I’ve lived long enough to know there have been both painful years as well as years that exceed joyful expectation. This is the ebb and flow, the yin and yang of life, as much as the rising and setting of the sun and all four seasons are an expected part of it.

Second, I know I can sit down in the drudgery long enough to push through it.

Facing and feeling the misery like a wave crashing yet eventually subsiding is much healthier than resisting it, numbing it or acting out because of it. Sometimes I need to sit in that silence and grieve my way through those moments with the memories. I may even fall asleep in it because an impromptu nap in a moment of meltdown always seems to help. I often wake up twenty minutes later a little less dreary, feeling stronger, more hopeful, ready to get up and proceed through that day. No matter where it falls in the calendar, I only have to get through that day. And if I look hard enough, I find a lot of special moments and joy along the way.

During the coldest winters and darkest of times, I always find myself buoyed along by the kindness of strangers. If I open my eyes to it, I find kindnesses around me daily. At first this can feel like trying to plant flowers in ground that is frozen solid. It’s work to be hopeful and positive. It’s work to not give up! But it’s by far some of the greatest, most crucial work we’ll do.

Third and finally, I believe that turning my misery and energy outward into kindhearted service is a no-fail guarantee to take me outside my private world of personal circumstances.

There is nothing more uplifting than focusing on someone else for a while. There will always be someone who can use some loving kindness from me, whether it’s a card dropped in the mail, a call to say “I was just thinking of you,” or a visit to let someone else know their life matters and I want them to tell me all about it. Sometimes all one needs is a comforting reminder that they, too, are not the only one. These are things I can do to not only get through, but give a boost to others as well. We are, in fact, all in this life together.

No, Halloween wasn’t what it used to be, this year. But the day was exactly what it should have been: a beautiful Fall day with plenty of moments to appreciate and enjoy.

And yes, Thanksgiving this year was void of my son’s presence. I had no Eye-lish to convey my thoughts with him, but I did spend the day with family and friends and there was much laughter.

Christmas is just days away and it feels more like a regular day off than a holiday filled with lights, gifts, lots of guests and warm traditions. But I know I will make the very best of it. I have great hope that next year we will all be in a different place – just like we are now. Just like we are every year. Life ebbs and life flows, the sun rises and sets. In that, there is hope, as well as the reminder to stay mindful in the moment and cherish every good day without letting it slip by unnoticed.

I refuse to have an attitude of ‘wake me up when December ends’ or ‘fast forward to February!’ I want to stubbornly look for, and find, the kindness and joy within each day and plan for the future with a childlike hope. This awareness and hope feel more like being alive and holding the magic of the season than just about anything.

“Hope is being able to see that there is light despite the darkness.”
– Desmond Tutu

Until next year, season’s greetings of hope, joy and gratitude,


Since 2003, Allies in Recovery has addressed substance abuse in families by providing a method for the family to change the conversation about addiction. We use Community Reinforcement & Family Training (CRAFT), a proven approach that helps the family unblock and advance the relationship towards sobriety and recovery and to engage a loved one into treatment. Learn about member benefits by following this link.


*Annie Highwater is the author of Unhooked: A Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction. She is a long distance runner, health and wellness advocate and researcher of behavioral science, specifically including family pathology and concepts of dysfunction and conflict. Annie resides in Columbus, Ohio where she has worked in the insurance industry. She also enjoys writing, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in Southern California as often as possible. Learn more about her and the book on her Facebook page.

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Codependent Comfort won’t help me finish the race!

Codependent Comfort won’t help me finish the race!

Comfort:  a state of physical ease and freedom from pain.  The easing or alleviation of a person’s feelings of grief or distress.  To ease the distress of; console.


Many years ago I suffered a dislocated shoulder in a minor car accident.  A paramedic pushed it back into place but it was never quite the same.  Over time the damage done and the pain it caused became excruciating.  I was advised by a doctor to have the shoulder repaired with surgery.  However, I tend to have a strong tolerance for pain and delayed that for as long as possible.  But when my shoulder joint began going in and out of socket regularly and the ache from that became too unbearable, I decided I had to go through with it.

Pain left unhealed may lay dormant temporarily, but it will inevitably return and usually with a vengeance.  Eventually comfort will become your only focus.

I went through shoulder surgery, titanium anchors were inserted to repair my labarum and I was advised by the doctor to rest for eight weeks. But not being one who can stay down for long, I was determined to return to my love of running as soon as possible.  However, the injury, the surgery and time off had taken some toll (and added some weight!).  Stubbornly, I signed up for my favorite 5k race anyway and set my resolve to finish strong.  I had two weeks to prepare!

The day of the race my son, Elliot a junior in high school at the time, drove me to the starting line, gave me a quick pep talk, said “See ya at the finish!” and off he went.  Nerves immediately hit, worse than previous races.  I knew I was not in the physical condition to do well.  Discovering I was late for the starting line didn’t help.  Being that it was a large, community event I had to make my way through thousands of people chatting excitedly.  Some wore bright costumes, hats and ribbons, some were running in place, others stretching against one another.  Some wore shirts proudly displaying previous races, signs of experience and love for the sport. These were always my favorite familiar sights.  Yet in the midst of it all, I found myself feeling alone and insecure.

I realized I wouldn’t be on time to make my way to the runner’s starting line so I decided I would line up with the walkers and weave my way forward to reach those who were running.  The race started and we were off, I stumbled forward with groups of women pushing strollers.  Realizing I was surrounded as far as the eye could see by those who were walking while I wanted to sprint, I made my way to the side to run around slower paced folks.  Jumping curbs, dodging dogs and yelling “Sorry! Excuse me!” over my shoulders.  As I neared the end of mile one I realized how out of breath, out of energy and exactly how out of shape I was!  I stopped to walk a few times, hating myself for it.

Finally, accepting that this whole thing was a mistake I began believing the voice in my head screaming “This race was too soon!  You only trained for 2 weeks!  You’ll never finish!  Your running days are over.”  I stepped away from the crowd and called Elliot from my cell phone that was tucked safely in my pocket for such a moment as this.  “No.”  He answered immediately.  “You are not calling me to quit.  Are you kidding me?!  No.  Mom you’ve run a marathon…the year after you lost your Dad! You raised me by yourself, you made a life for yourself out of nothing.  Alone!  You’re not quitting.  This is nothing for you, you can do this!  I’ll see you at the finish line even if you don’t get there until midnight!  Keep going.” He hung up.

My mouth fell open and tears tugged my lower eyelids threatening to spill over.  I stood there holding the phone to my ear as the crowd moved on in front of me.

But something resident inside of me, a familiar strength began to rise up and I realized he was right.  I had been through worse and kept going! I would try to finish.  Besides, I had no choice!  Elliot wasn’t coming.  I wouldn’t see him until I did finish!  I took Elliot’s words to heart and told myself to keep going.  Slowly I jogged back in with the crowd making their way forward.

As I continued winding my way through the throngs of people, a woman came running alongside me, she was moving right along with my own slightly quicker pace.  “Oh you are running this too?”  I asked, striking up a conversation.  Runners are some of the friendliest people!  “I got a later start myself.  I’m trying to find the runners; do you have any idea how far we are from the first wave of runners? It seems like a sea of walkers to get through!”

“Oh I already finished the race today.  I decided to run it again so I started the route over.”  She said, barely out of breath as I struggled along next to her.  Shame hit me like a gut punch.  “Well, I ran all the time before this injury.”  I said pointing to my shoulder.  “I recently had surgery and I’m just getting back to it.”  I caught myself overcompensating to explain my deficiencies.  Never being one who cared to create an illusion of who I am, I quickly dropped the first instinct to have a defense mechanism and got real.  Real is where the magic happens.  Real is when the breakthroughs come.  “To be honest with you, I’ve been a runner for quite a few years, I’ve run a marathon.  But I had this injury and it brought me to a standstill.  I’m so out of it lately and today just feels like one big failure.  This 5k feels like pushing a bus up a mountain.  Barefoot.”

She pulled me aside and stopped running, facing me she said “Listen you are a runner.  That means you have heart and you know how to push through.  That’s still in you.  I was injured a few years ago myself.  I lost my home, I went through a divorce, depression, weight gain…I wanted to give up.  But I didn’t let myself.  I started again and day by day, because I didn’t give up and here I am.  Back to it, stronger than before.  You’ve got this.  You can do it.  I know it for a fact, I’ve been there.  You can do this.  Just don’t give up, don’t ever give up.  Keep going.”

She lightly tapped me on my injured shoulder, nodded in the direction of the runners, turned and ran off.  “Don’t quit!” She yelled back as she disappeared into the crowd.  I was so moved by her compassion and comfort that I stepped up my pace, smiling to myself through most of the next mile.

It’s been almost 9 years since that race.  I have added many more 5 and 10k’s along with half marathons to my running resume since.  I even ran another full marathon.  But none of them compare to that 5k race. That memory still speaks into my life. I learned a lot about what comfort really means that day. I’m so thankful for the tough, “suck it up” pep talk from my son when I called him determined to quit.  Had he said “You’re right, Mom.  You can’t do it.  You poor thing, you shouldn’t have to, it’s too hard!  I’ll be right there.”  I would have sat down on the curb waiting for him to come for me, climbed in the car and most likely continued on down a path of defeat and easy resignation.  I didn’t need the codependent kind of comfort that coddles me into giving up.  Not if there was any chance I could do it.

And my fellow runner, what an amazing picture of comfort, empathy and true human connection.  I don’t remember what she looked like, I forgot the color of her clothing and what type of running shoes she preferred. I didn’t even catch her name.  But that moment with her will be with me forever.  People truly do not forget how you make them feel.  The kind words of a stranger telling me “I’ve been there; I know you can do this. Just don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”  fill my mind every time I am tempted to quit.   Someone who can say “I’ve been there.  I know this path by heart.  I know you can do it.” has weight in their words.  Whatever hard thing I’m facing, that memory powerfully comforts and encourages me to take a few more steps, to not give up but instead…to just keep going.

I’ve had many adversities to persevere through in my life.  Mental illness and addiction run rampant within my family.  I’ve struggled through many a defeat, failure and tragedies I never saw coming.  I have had my heart so broken that there were times I wore sunglasses in the grocery store to hide my red, swollen eyes.  I’ve lived through excruciating loss.  It’s not been a cake walk by any means.  I know myself that not just anyone can spur you on through the hard times.  You have to be careful who your encouragers are.  Well-intending friends or family may say flippant, unhelpful things that may wound you further and hinder your progress.  Someone, however who has been through it, who has run the same race, who knows the pain of the struggle telling me I can handle it if I just keep going, makes me believe I can.  Coming alongside me with comfort like changes the trajectory of my thinking.  Before I know it, I’m past the moment of giving up and heading toward the finish line.

Had my kind stranger not decided to run her race again, coming back through to run alongside those of us enduring it for the first time she wouldn’t have been there to encourage a weak, insecure runner needing fresh hope.    Reaching back to those coming through what you have endured to say “You can do this” is a picture of comfort at its best.

I pulled it together and finished my race that day.  Though more labored than usual and slower than ever.  I finished.  I give credit to the inspiration of my son Elliot who spoke to the fighter within me as well as to the kindness of a stranger who took a moment to ease another’s distress. When I finally reached my finish line, seeing the proud face of my son was an incredible moment, one I will always cherish.  But more than that, proving to myself that I could keep going was worth every hard, heavy step it took.


“Surround yourself with people who are rooting for your rise.”  ~Brene Brown




Annie Highwater Author Bio

Writer Annie Highwater, Author of “Unhooked, a Mother’s Story of Unhitching from the Roller Coaster of Her Son’s Addiction” is a long distance runner, health and wellness advocate and researcher of behavioral science; specifically including family pathology and concepts of dysfunction and conflict. Annie resides in Columbus, Ohio where she has worked in the insurance industry. She also enjoys writing, yoga, hiking, the great outdoors and visiting her son in Southern California as often as possible.

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