For many people, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
To those who love an addict that’s still using, it’s also the darkest.
While so many families are planning holiday gatherings, Christmas feasts and Yuletide festivities, those with a loved one addicted to drugs and alcohol are torn. The calendar says it’s December, but they’re often so exhausted from worry, from fear, from anger and from frustration that mustering the frivolity called for during the holiday season seems like a bridge too far. At the same time, they have other family members — spouses, siblings, children, parents — who can’t imagine not celebrating the holidays in some capacity, and so they feel they must put forth some sort of effort.
If you recognize yourself as one of those individuals, you may feel on the verge of a breakdown because the stress is so great, the answers seem nonexistent and the addict in your life seems hopelessly lost.
Take heart, however: The holidays are a time of hope, and even though you may struggle with an addicted loved one, it’s available for you as well. You can save the holidays — for your family, for yourself and even for the addict or alcoholic in your life.
First and foremost, resist the urge to cancel Christmas. According to Cindy Brody, director of intensive services at the Center for Motivation and Change, there’s a tendency on the part of some family members of addicted loved ones to pull away and isolate from one another and from members of their community. Addiction still carries with it a stigma of shame, and even those who aren’t addicted themselves may feel embarrassed by the choices the addicts and alcoholics in their lives have made.
“You may have concerns about privacy, gossip, and the ‘public’ perception of your loved one/yourself/your family if you put yourself out there and socialize more,” Brody writes in a blog post for Partnership for Drug-Free Kids. “While those are reasonable concerns to think about, as you pick and choose who you do and don’t want to confide in, please do not underestimate the horrible toll that feeling isolated in a problem can have on you. Isolation contributes to and can increase depression, anxiety, loneliness, and a whole host of other challenges that will not serve you well as you are dealing with all of this.”
The key is balance: Celebrating the season while also managing expectations. A great many families set themselves up for disappointment when they picture the holidays as some sort of reenactment of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “Miracle on 34th Street,” and hanging hopes on an expectation of perfection is setting both family members and their addicted loved ones up for failure.
“If you get excited because Susie is coming for the holidays and you think it’s going to be so exciting and that she’ll be so happy, you’re setting yourself up for disaster because Susie may be feeling really crappy,” says Jonathan Katz, a licensed clinical social worker and director of New York’s Jewish Community Services, in a 2011 article in the magazine Social Work Today. “You need to be sensitive and compassionate and understanding about that.”
Grant a Little Grace
With demands on time, the shopping for presents, the solemnity of the sacred and the pell-mell rush to wrap up all the affairs of the previous 11 months, the holiday season can be a gigantic pressure cooker for everyone. For those addicts and alcoholics new to the recovery process, it can be even more so.
“For addicts, these same issues of money, family and general stress are amplified, often because they are the same age-old issues that lie at the root of the addiction and the beginning of drug use and abuse in the first place,” writes Dr. Adi Jaffe in a 2010 article in Psychology Today. “If the recovering addict has not had the opportunity to openly confront family issues in the past, either with the family itself or with a therapist or counselor, the potential for relapse can be great.”
If your loved one is facing his or her first holiday season clean and sober, let them take the lead. Ask for what they need, and offer support when and where you can. Encourage them to safeguard their own recovery above everything else, and don’t pressure them to gather around the family table if they feel they need to go to a meeting or gather with members of their recovering network.
In addition, take stock of your family’s holiday rituals. Is alcohol always on the menu? And if so, can it be removed so that your recovering loved one doesn’t have to face the temptation?
“... Celebratory rituals might be triggers for your addicted loved one,” writes Jennifer Anderson in a blog post for the The Addiction Advisor. “If family gatherings have historically involved heavy drinking and/or conflict of any kind, you may consider taking things down a notch. In lieu of pressuring your loved one to partake in the traditional events, gently suggest an alternative.”
At the same time, don’t take your loved one’s recovery and make it your own: In other words, the decisions they need to make to stay clean and sober are entirely up to them, and while you can and should make gentle suggestions or inquiries on ways to offer support, you should not make it your mission to keep your loved one clean and sober.
Boundaries Are OK
If the addict or alcoholic in your life is still using, their inclusion in your holiday events or family gatherings can be a complex issue. The initial reaction may be to prohibit their attendance, but there are factors to that decision that should be considered, according to Marti MacGibbon, an addiction treatment specialist who also contributed to that 2011 Social Work Today article: “In fact, a ban may backfire because it may increase the estrangement, isolation, and shame the addict feels. That, in turn, may drive the addict deeper into substance abuse.”
However, the needs and emotional safety of other family members — specifically children — must be a priority, and the presence of an actively using family member at a holiday gathering can put those things in jeopardy. If you do choose to invite an actively using or drinking loved one to the Christmas table, “firm ground rules and expectations of behavior should be set and clearly communicated to the substance abuser,” according to licensed clinical social worker Donna M. Hunter of Booneville, Ark., and “families need to follow through with the consequences if a boundary is crossed or risk further enabling the addict.”
Families may find that active alcoholics and addicts choose to purposefully stay away during the holiday season out of feelings of their own guilt and shame. If that’s the case, don’t force the issue: Demanding they make an appearance or take part will only add to the volatility of an already precarious situation.
At the same time, some families choose the holiday season, when extended relatives are more likely to be in town anyway, to stage an intervention that can lead an addict or alcoholic to treatment. Whether or not that’s a good idea is dependent entirely on the family dynamic, and a decision should be made as a group as to whether an intervention will only add to the holiday stress for all involved. Regardless, an intervention should be done through the guidance of a trained interventionist.
It’s important understand that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to an active alcoholic or addict. They may or may not respect the boundaries you set, but you can still control the narrative, especially if they call (or show up) drunk or high. Rather than engaging in emotional fisticuffs, the best thing you can do is tell them, “I love you, and I’ll be here to talk when you’re sober.”
Don't Tough It Out
Finally, know that you aren’t alone. There are a number of support groups for family members and loved ones of addicts and alcoholics that meet year-round; you may find it beneficial to avail yourself of those meetings during the Christmas season just to maintain balance and remain centered.
Remember: Christmas is the season for hope, so maintain it as best you can for yourself, and for the addict or alcoholic in your life. You don’t have to dread the holidays, nor do you have to lose faith that there is light at the end of the tunnel — during this particular season, or any time of the year.
If you would like more information on treatment for your addicted loved one, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Cornerstone of Recovery is open year-round. Our commodity is hope, and even if the addicted loved one in your life isn’t ready, we can provide you with the information you need to present to them when they are.