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Perils of holiday cheer

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The holidays can become a land mind for those who have struggled with addiction, especially those new to recovery.

University of New Mexico Regents’ psychology professor Katie Witkiewitz studies addiction and treatment options. She works with the university’s Center on Alcoholism, Substance Abuse and Addictions (CASA). She said the holidays are a time of social outings and family gatherings, and a time when many people experience stress, despair and loneliness, which can be triggers. She said families and friends can also apply pressure for engaging in drinking or drug use.

“At the same time, media around this advertises ‘holiday cheer’ and alcohol consumption is glorified around this time,” she said. “The expectation that everyone should be cheerful and the drink, drink, drink culture at this time of year is really a double-edged sword for individuals who are struggling …”

There are steps though, that can help those struggling with addiction make it through this time of year, including planning ahead, reaching out for help and avoiding tempting situations.

Johnny Armijo, 42, knows this all too well.

It was St. Patrick’s Day in 2002 and Armijo was walking to a bar.

He was drunk.

He accidentally bumped into a man walking in the opposite direction. The encounter escalated when the man called him a racial slur and spit on him. It ended when Armijo punched him out cold, breaking his eye socket and sinus cavity and knocking out eight teeth. The incident earned him 7½ years in prison. But, still, that wasn’t enough to make him stop drinking.

“Sure, it was a bottom,” he said. “The bottom of a bottle or bottom of a hooch bag.”

He drank while in prison and kept right on going when he got out.

He ruined the relationship with his daughter and her mother. He lost the respect of his family.

Still not enough.

Years went by, he developed heath issues. Family members staged somewhat of an intervention in 2014, trying to convince him it was time to stop drinking. He received three citations for driving while under the influence.

Still not enough.

Armijo started drinking when he was 12 years old. He said it was the cool thing to do with his friends. He continued to drink and by high school he had the first thoughts that maybe he had a problem but he put it in the back of his mind. He convinced himself that because he could stop drinking to play sports and had never lost a job because of it, he wasn’t an alcoholic. By the time he entered recovery, he was drinking every day from morning until night.

“I could not have a few,” he said. “That was not in my vocabulary.”

It was Feb. 28, 2017, when he finally reached his bottom. He was arrested for yet another DUI. A family member he considered a father figure came to pick him up from jail.

“He yelled at me in the car,” he said. “‘Is this it for you? Is this what you want for your life? Do you want your grandson to know his grandpa is in prison?'”

Armijo joined the Addict 2 Athlete program and began his journey to sobriety. He’s nearing the two-year mark and now works as a peer support counselor at Albuquerque Center for Hope and Recovery. His work keeps him from returning to the bottle but he said he knows the holidays can be a tricky time of year.

Armijo said it was important to him to stay away from people who would pressure him to drink and to build a support system, including a good sponsor.

“I have a really strong family support,” he said. “They don’t drink. They don’t smoke. Hell, they don’t even cuss. My first step was that I changed my phone number and erased all the people I would go drinking with.”

Kaitlin High is an outpatient therapist with New Mexico Solutions. She provides tips she has gathered from clients in her substance abuse therapy groups.

“What I hear over and over again from them is that they have to take responsibility,” she said. “They need to be honest and ask for support.”

In addition, she said people should find other activities at this time of year that don’t involve drinking or using and to create daily rituals so each day gets started with momentum. She said people should lean on their support system whether that be attending church or going to therapy or group meetings.

She said for those who do not want to abstain from drinking completely or are “not interested in getting wasted every day of the holiday season” there are also strategies. She said having a set number of drinks in mind before attending a party, alternating between alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, leaving early, avoiding drinking games and shots, and drinking slowly can help curb the intoxication.

Witkiewitz said one of the most important steps is being prepared by acknowledging this time of year will be difficult.

“Know your triggers and plan ahead,” she said. “Recognize and be ready for those situations that have been associated with heavy drinking or drug use in the past.”