Have you ever flipped on a favorite show or read a scene in a book you’ve been anticipating, only to be confronted with a reference to substance use that hits you right in the chest? The reference or exposure may be casual, often the “spice” on a scene instead of the point, but you’re sweating and feeling a little bit too crowded in your skin.
Being confronted with our triggers in the media we consume is often uncomfortable, but when you’re in recovery, it happens a lot more often. Maybe you’re okay with it most of the time, or you’ve learned to gloss over it, and this time it’s just too much. Or maybe, you’re still learning. Either way, support and validation in this situation are both essential, and you should know: there’s nothing wrong with feeling uneasy about seeing these things, even in the media. Let’s talk about some of the reasons this happens and ways you can navigate it to support your recovery—both physically and emotionally.
From a young age, we see drinking and smoking in the media we consume. In some scenarios, it’s depicted as the villain or in a somewhat accurate light, but the majority of the time, it just exists as a normalized part of the world. Drinking is, at best, just something that people do, and, in other programming, it’s glamorized as something to aspire to. The cool kids drink, the alt kids smoke, and later on, it’s the central theme of glamorous or exciting events in the lives of characters we’ve come to love.
This early exposure was ingrained well before substance abuse found its way into your life, and those connotations have stuck in your mind. You see it now from the other side of the lens and feel a conflict that never existed for you before: the nostalgic normalcy and the ache of your reality in recovery.
While you can’t banish those early impressions, you can focus on rewriting them. Practice validating your own narrative when you feel that insidious nostalgia rising with reminders like:
- Drinking wasn’t fun for me, and I have fun doing ___.
Fill the blank with an activity that makes you feel good about yourself.
- Drug use isn’t glamorous, and my own experiences matter more than fiction.
- It’s okay for others to have these experiences even when I didn’t.
Ultimately, you take up the most space in your own life, and you don’t have to reframe your thoughts if it doesn’t feel comfortable. It’s always okay to turn the channel or put down the book if the behavior makes you feel unsafe.
The holidays have a way of making us all feel a bit less level, after all, and as we take the slow slide into sweater and stress weather, things that normally feel okay can be a bit trickier to navigate. Maybe the celebrations ask you to spend more time with loved ones you don’t see often or relationships that were a part of your life during active substance use. These things may pull your awareness right up to the top of your emotional meter, making it that much more apparent when the wine bottle goes around at Thanksgiving dinner or when you hear the ninth commercial for beer on the radio during your holiday gift shopping.
The exposure can feel like an endless assault on top of the emotions of the holidays themselves, and when stress runs so high, it’s more difficult to look away when you feel its influence more acutely.
While you can’t turn off the celebrations or the season, you can prepare yourself for the exposure by bringing your own drinks or taking charge of the conversation to mention your sobriety so that it doesn’t feel like the elephant in the room. Being open about how you’re feeling with someone you trust will also help you to feel less overwhelmed by the prevalence of substances in holiday media.
Exposure to parts of your history in a glamorized or socially celebrated spaces that you respect can feel chafing at best and triggering in other instances. There is no one size fits all solution in protecting your recovery and rewriting your relationship with a media culture that glamorizes something so personal to you. Still, there are many routes you can tailor to your situation to find one that fits. At any stage in the journey, we’re happy to help supplement your coping tools and navigate these constant confrontations so that you can feel confident in your own life, your recovery and that Netflix guilty pleasure you don’t want to stop watching.