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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 12-8-23 – Unsung Heroes in the Holiday Trenches

“If I am wounded, I have in turn been given the resources needed to heal the wounded person standing next to me.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough


The holidays are a time of paradox. Happy times of celebration and community. Every moment a Hallmark moment worthy of a Norman Rockwell painting or a sappy commercial with ecstatic people experiencing the finest moments of joy and peace that the year offers. It is perhaps one of the most powerful messages in our culture that this is a time of the year to celebrate and experience bounty and connection. Earth shattering as it may be, it is not the full story. Holidays can be a time of disappointment, sadness and divisions in families intensified with the stress that comes with unrealistic holiday expectations. The hype tends to overshadow reality in our culture.


Data we have at our fingertips support that Holidays are less than perfect. It includes the sad fact that intimate partner violence increases on or around major holidays, including Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and even Super Bowl Sunday. There is even a condition some term Christmas stress disorder that relate to persistent or recurring feeling of sadness. With all of the challenges it is important to dispel one myth, suicide rates are at their lowest in December and increase in the spring. Nevertheless, it is a challenging time for people who are in programs like the one I worked at for many years. Regret and loneliness can be huge issues for so many people.


One of the experiences I have had in life is working for many years in a long-term residential drug and alcohol treatment center in the dining room pictured above. So many of the people we worked with did not have the kind of holiday experience we see on TV or in a Norman Rockwell painting. So many had lived through prior holidays in cardboard boxes in the streets, behind the bars of a prison cell or alone and isolated in addiction. The antithesis of what is projected in our media, which serves to remind them of all they do not have in their lives.   


It is also quite a challenging time for those charged with helping people who struggle. Staff in these programs can feel even more overworked, in programs that are understaffed because of the holidays. The needs that they try to meet can be overwhelming. Running these programs under immense pressure to help people heal while saddled with overwhelming levels of administrative burden is challenging even in the best of times. The holidays exacerbate these factors. In the years I ran a residential program, I spent additional time away from my own family during the holiday often dealing with very difficult situations. This is the norm for people staffing these programs for what amounts to long hours, huge responsibility and far too often warehouse worker pay. They are unsung heroes.


The program I worked in had a very long history of trying to make the holidays a special time for the people we worked with, despite very little time and resources with which to do so. Traditions that went back well before I ran it. There were these special holiday meals, and everyone dressed up for the occasion. We would help people in the program to get ties and more formal dress and a huge meal was prepared. Alumni would show up and help decorate the program, offering vital connections to our clients in what we now think of as recovery capital. There were visitors, and for me, I would bring Julie, my wife, who got a brief glimpse into the people and the place and why it was all so important to me.


People in the program may never in their lives wore a tie outside of a courtroom legal procedure or experienced a sit-down family style meal of that level for decades. Everyone in attendance would share gratitude for the meal and to be healing in a safe space with people who cared about them. One of the things that those we were working with would begin to understand is that they were part of a larger family, the family of recovery community. Looking back, I suspect it was a pivotal moment for many people we worked with. They began to understand that no matter what their experience in life up to that point, they were part of a community who cared for them. A community that they could find support within. A community in which they could find purpose.


Our program expended the energy and the resources on these events despite how meager the funding was because we knew how very important it was to do so for the people we were charged with helping. Many of us who worked in the program were people who found these very same lifesaving connections and a new family in recovery because the very same thing was done for us early on in our own recovery. I am the beneficiary of unsung heroes who created such space for me. I am grateful for those who carry on these traditions despite the difficulties. Despite all of the challenges, I am grateful for the opportunities I have had in my own life to pay such efforts forward.


When I think of the real meaning of the season, these are the things I think about and the things I am grateful for. What are you grateful for today?  

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