Your holiday plans are under way, but there’s an X factor involved that threatens to throw everything into chaos: A loved one with a drug or alcohol problem.
This deep into November, those plans are coming into focus. Perhaps you’ve dragged the storage bins of Christmas decorations out of the attic. You’ve planned your Thanksgiving meal and are gathering RSVPs from family members who will join you around a table filled with the bounty of a long day of cooking. You’ve started the annual gathering of gifts that will be wrapped and place beneath the tree, and you’re looking forward to community events like taking the kids to visit Santa.
Addiction and alcoholism, however, can derail all of those things. Whether it’s a recent discovery or a problem you’ve lived with for years, you know all too well that the erratic, unpredictable and chaotic nature of addiction usually manifests in a number of unhealthy ways. For the addict or alcoholic in your life, that’s par for the course — life in active addiction and alcoholism is often a free-for-all of making it to the next drink or drug.
For yourself and the rest of your family, however? It’s interjects dread, sadness, anger and fear into what should be the most wonderful time of the year.
So what’s your plan? On the surface, it may be to do what you’ve always done: Pretend like everything is fine. How has that worked out so far, though? It doesn’t solve the problem; it only kicks the can down the road until it becomes so big, so unmanageable, that you’re forced to take drastic action. Even then, it’s a roll of the dice: Will putting on a fake smile and pretending to ignore that your loved one is passing out in the gravy boat or sneaking off to go through your purse ever end well?
Addiction and alcoholism aren’t problems that will go away quietly if you pretend they don’t exist. Confrontation and intervention aren't things anyone looks forward to, but the holidays present a unique opportunity that can change the course of a family dynamic forever: Rather than going along to get along and pretending the problem doesn’t exist, you can do something about it, and use the holiday season to get help for the addict or alcoholic in your life.
So how, you may be wondering, do you go about doing that?
Learn What You’re Dealing With
Addiction and alcoholism are complex issues, but to help those who suffer get better, you’ve got to first understand one critical piece of information: “Addiction does not occur because of moral weakness, a lack of willpower or an unwillingness to stop,” writes Dr. Jillian Hardee for the University of Michigan Health blog . “This finding stems from decades of work investigating the effects of substance use on the brain.”
In other words, addicts and alcoholics aren’t “bad” people who need to be good; they’re sick people who need to get well. That’s a difficult concept to wrap your head around when you feel personally insulted and offended by the actions of an addict or an alcoholic, but to help those individuals in your life get help, you need to first understand what these illnesses entail.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse  describes how drug and alcohol use can develop into an addiction: “Drugs excite the parts of the brain that make you feel good. But after you take a drug for a while, the feel-good parts of your brain get used to it. Then you need to take more of the drug to get the same good feeling. Soon, your brain and body must have the drug to just feel normal. You feel sick, awful, anxious, and irritable without the drug. You no longer have the good feelings that you had when you first used the drug.”
Writing for CNN , Dr. Marvin Seppala describes how “in late stages of addiction we can see how reward-related drives, especially those for survival, are reprioritized when people risk their families, their jobs, even their lives to continue to use drugs and alcohol. The continued use of the drug becomes the most important drive, at a subconscious level and unrecognized by the individual, undermining even life itself.”
In other words, drugs and alcohol hijack the brain. That’s difficult to comprehend for those with no frame of reference, but it’s critical for your understanding: Your loved one doesn’t want to hurt you. He or she doesn’t wake up in the mornings and contemplate ways to break mom’s heart or crush dad’s spirit or break a wife’s trust. It may seem that way, and it certainly may feel that way, but they’re being driven by neurological impulses that are telling them that without the drugs or alcohol, their lives are in jeopardy. Nevermind that such thinking is a false narrative; that’s what those nerve signals from their drug-saturated and dope-starved brains are sending, and everything else becomes secondary to answering that call.
It may not make you feel any better, but it might help you set aside some anger and resentment so that you’re in a better frame of mind to help your loved one get help. There are a number of resources out there that can provide additional information about addiction and alcoholism, and it’s always a good idea to seek those out. The more you know, the better equipped at understanding you are, and the better you’ll be prepared to do something to help.
Talk About It
Addiction and alcoholism are family diseases. Only one individual may be afflicted, but the ripple effects can have long-lasting and far-reaching consequences. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has devoted an entire publication  to “Substance Abuse Treatment and Family Therapy,” and the information is sobering (no pun intended): “Extended family members may experience feelings of abandonment, anxiety, fear, anger, concern, embarrassment, or guilt; they may wish to ignore or cut ties with the person abusing substances. Some family members even may feel the need for legal protection from the person abusing substances. Moreover, the effects on families may continue for generations.”
As addiction becomes a part of a family’s experience, each family member develops different coping strategies to deal with the problem. While every strategy is different, one thing becomes clear over time: No one is talking about it.
“Alcoholic families may become characterized by a kind of emotional and psychological constriction, where family members do not feel free to express their authentic selves for fear of triggering disaster; their genuine feelings are often hidden under strategies for keeping safe, like pleasing or withdrawing,” writes Dr. Tian Dayton for the organization National Association for Children of Alcoholics . “The family becomes organized around trying to manage the unmanageable disease of addiction.”
In other words, maintaining the secret is paramount, as writers for a paper in the journal Social Work in Public Health describe : “Boundaries around the family itself are rigid to maintain the family secret of substance abuse.” Each family member is uncertain how much or how little others in the family might know about the problem, and out of a sense of misguided allegiance to the afflicted, along with the stigma of addiction as a source of shame, no one is initiating a conversation about the problem.
This has to happen for the problem to get better.
Someone in the family has to take the lead and broach the subject. Perhaps a pre-holiday family meeting is necessary; perhaps an email chain will do the trick. Regardless of how the topic is brought up, it’s imperative for someone to shine a light on what has been kept in the dark for so long. Because then and only then can you, as a family unit, move toward a solution.
Once the conversation begins, you might be surprised by how much and how little everyone seems to know. Addicts and alcoholics are professional secret-keepers; as bestselling author Lisa Smith told the morning NBC show “Today,” , “When I was an active alcoholic and drug addict, secrets were my stock in trade. They were the bricks in the precarious wall I built around myself. If one brick were ever to fall out, the whole wall would crash down and I would be exposed.”
As a result, there are undoubtedly things that will be revealed during a family conversation that come as a shock. Maybe a loved one stole jewelry and pawned it from one family member; perhaps a sibling reveals that an addicted loved one is an IV drug user; maybe a spouse has witnessed an alcoholic loved one drive drunk on numerous occasions.
The goal of gathering information isn’t to increase your misery, although that happen during the process. Chances are, what you know about the problem is only a small part of how bad it really is, and your first instinct may well be one of despair. How in the world, you might think, could things have gotten this bad?
Stay focused. You’re not gathering information for nothing. Your goal is to get your addicted or alcoholic loved one help during the holidays, and to do that, you need to paint a picture of exactly what the problem is so that you can best provide that help. Short of asking the addict or alcoholic themselves, you’ll need to piece together a picture that gives everyone involved an idea of exactly what you’re dealing with.
Get a List of Resources
Before you can provide the help an addicted or alcoholic loved one needs during the holidays, you need to first know what sort of help is available. By this point, you should have an idea of what you’re dealing with, so the next step is to determine what course of action will provide the best avenue to a positive solution.
“Help” can take any number of forms. The most common for addicts and alcoholics are 12 Step meetings that are absolutely free and come with no strings attached. You may have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, two programs that provide self-help peer support for those struggling with alcoholism and addiction. The good news is that both programs have meetings in communities across the country, and you can search for a list of meetings in your area with a location search on those respective websites.
Granted, if putting down the drugs and alcohol and walking away was an easy fix, anyone could do it. By the time most addicts and alcoholics reach a point that their problems are causing major upheavals in their lives, they often need help to stop using, lose the desire to use and find a new way to live. That’s where alcohol and drug treatment can come into play.
A simple Google search can reveal drug and alcohol treatment centers in your area, and a new federal government database can help you find a drug and alcohol rehab in your area as well. In addition, there are a number of individual therapists who specialize in addiction and alcoholism treatment that may provide another avenue of assistance.
The key is to not let an overwhelming amount of information overwhelm you. Some things to consider so that you can cross some of those options off your list:
- Does your loved one have private health insurance? If not, are they covered by a state or federal health plan?
- Are there funds available for private pay, if there is no insurance coverage available?
These are perhaps the two most important questions to answer before you determine the best avenue of help. A drug and alcohol treatment center in your hometown may not work, if they only accept private insurance or cash payment. State-sponsored facilities offer quality treatment as well, but that might mean traveling out of town to get the help needed. Still others provide grants for those who have no money and no insurance, but they require some work on your part to figure out how to go about obtaining those.
Keep in mind: A reputable drug and alcohol treatment center will help you find a resource to help your loved one, even if they can’t be the facility to provide it. Drug and alcohol treatment is about saving lives, and the admissions team at a quality facility will provide you with the referral information you need to get the help your loved one requires.
Put Together a Game Plan
You’ve initiated a dialogue. You’ve gathered information. You have a list of resources. The next step is to set up a plan of action to get your loved one to accept the help you’ve put together.
This is, by far, the most difficult part of the process, and you have to prepare yourself for an outcome that is not what you expect or desire. In addiction recovery parlance, this may seem like a confrontation, but it’s formally known as an intervention, and it’s not something to be undertaken lightly.
There are several key things to understand about an intervention, and any one of them can turn a good-hearted desire to do the right thing into a trainwreck of familial turmoil. Because of the heightened emotional states that precipitate and evolve from interventions, it’s never a bad idea to call in an intervention specialist to help guide the process, educate you on what not to do during an intervention and, if need be, take it to the next level.
Addicts and alcoholics, remember, aren’t thinking logically or rationally. Their brains have been short-circuited by drugs and alcohol, and when the jig is up, they’re apt to retreat into a shell of self-defense when cornered. They may lash out, say hurtful things, do hurtful things, reject your overtures and gaslight your intentions.
It may, in other words, end in disaster.
But then again, it might not.
The holidays, after all, are a time of miracles, and the addicted or alcoholic loved one in your life may be dreading them just as much as you are. Your tenderness and kindness may be exactly what they need to bring them out of their self-imposed prisons, and simply by acknowledging them as a sick person instead of a bad one may have the desired effect.
Don’t Give Up
Either way, you don’t have to let the addict or alcoholic in your life ruin your holiday celebrations. You don’t have to alter, change or cancel plans to accommodate them, and you have every right to enact boundaries on what you consider unacceptable behavior.
That doesn’t make you a “bad” relative any more than their actions in addiction make them “bad” people. It simply means that you’re putting yourself and the rest of the family first, offering help when and how you can and letting the loved one in your life know that if they choose to reject your overtures, that’s on them.
Because it may take days, weeks or even months before they come a similar conclusion: that life can’t go on like it has been, and the family’s big “secret” is no longer sustainable. By bringing it out into the open, developing an understanding of the disease process, gathering information and putting together a plan of action, you’re doing something of far greater value — to the addict, to yourself and to the rest of your loved ones — than simply pretending like the “family problem” doesn’t really exist.