Observer Xmas

Cool yules

The festive season has moved on since we all lived in nuclear families and sat down to watch the Queen’s speech. From organic feasts to rehab retreats and child-free fun, we celebrate the 21st-century Christmas

Rehab Christmas by Anna Moore Christmas is a dangerous time for an addict. For anyone struggling with a habit – whether it’s drink, drugs, overeating, sex or shopping – at Christmas every excess can just about be passed off as normal.

While some crash after a week-long bender only to wake up on Christmas Eve in rehab, others check themselves in a couple of weeks in advance just to be safe.

Sarah Collins, a self-employed headhunter, fell into the latter group. Five years ago, aged 30, she knew she was on the verge of a breakdown as Christmas approached. ‘I’d separated from my partner; I was working 20 hours a day and losing control,’ she recalls. ‘I had this obsession about looking good for Christmas so I wasn’t eating for three days at a time, and I was still making my self sick 10 times a day.

I’d developed obsessive-compulsive disorder, checking things constantly, so it was taking me two hours to leave the house. The focus of Christmas is food, alcohol, chaos, madness – and that pressure to be happy. I remember standing in a shop, being shoved about by the crowds, crying and crying.’

On the advice of a friend, Sarah spent that Christmas in the Promis Recovery Centre, which treats alcohol addiction, drug abuse and eating disorders. Like a growing number of rehab centres tucked away in the British countryside, this large Victorian house on the North Downs of Kent comes with all the trimmings: landscaped gardens, sports facilities, chef, masseuse, beautician.

There are more than 170 rehab centres in the UK, many with an ever-widening remit: workaholics and shopaholics, co-dependants, shoplifters. Last year, more than 181,000 people made use of their services.

Robin Lefever, director at Promis, says that Christmas is absolutely the best time to come. ‘Most people are very pleased to be safe, to be in a sanctuary at a time when getting wasted in one way or another is de rigueur. There’s an amazing atmosphere here.

We have an even gender split, and our residents are aged from 14 to 70. Father Christmas leaves a present at each bed. There are always some musicians in treatment, so there’s songs and guitars. We don’t have television – we play communal games.’

Therapy becomes particularly poignant. ‘It’s incredibly emotional and evocative, as people remember how they behaved on previous Christmases, like how they missed their children growing up the last five Christmases because they were off their faces.’

Kirby Gregor, head of client services at Clouds, a rehab centre in Wiltshire, says visits from relatives are memorable. ‘Families visit on Boxing Day, and it’s often the first trauma-free Christmas they’ve had in years. It’s doubly moving when it involves children visiting parents.’

Sarah chose not to tell her family where she was (‘I said I was with friends’) but stayed in rehab for a month. Five years on, she is 90 per cent cured of OCD and eating healthily. ‘There was a complete mixture of people in the Promis, but we acted like a family unit.

We opened presents and ate Christmas dinner together, looked after each other and really cared how everyone was feeling. By the time I came home, I was a lot calmer and so pleased I’d stepped away from it all. The New Year had started. It felt like the ultimate fresh start.’

View the story at The Observer Website

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