Holiday advice for those in recovery and their families

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Addiction and the Holidays

Family members and loved ones of those that are in active alcohol and/or drug addiction or someone in addiction recovery may need your extra support and help to make the holiday celebrations less stressful and more manageable.

Most holidays usually stir up images of family harmony: —Like Dad carving up the big turkey for a traditional Christmas dinner, Mom giving out the gifts, or your grandparents telling stories about the days of the past with the grandkids.

In actuality, this is all a big dream and fantasy.  For many families out there, the holidays can be one of the most stressful times of year that includes immense distress, conflict, and even overindulgent behaviours that later turn into regrets. This stress can be even more intensified especially for families that have members that are actively abusing drugs and/or alcohol or are in addiction recovery. For these particular families, the thought of managing alcohol or drug addiction issues while maintaining the peace can be emotionally overpowering—and not being able to handle these issues can lead to further separation from the active user, or a relapse for the person in recovery.

Addiction counsellors, psychotherapists, nurses and other health care and clinical professionals usually work with families very closely, especially during the weeks leading up to the Yuletide holidays.  “Communication between family members is crucial and each member of the family needs to address their concerns and talk openly about them,” states Catherine Cosgrove, M.A., a psychotherapist specialising in Addictions and president at Foundation, a residential addiction treatment facility in Godmanchester, QC.

Managing Unrealistic Expectations

At Foundation, our addiction counsellors, psychotherapists and medical team all unanimously agree that family members that have an active drug or alcohol addiction need to re-explore their expectations for the holidays. Most often, many families have unrealistic expectations surrounding the holiday season.  They are looking for a perfect White Christmas and the lovey dovey family all sitting at the table, but this is often unattainable.

Having these unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration, and more stress among the relatives of an addict or in recovery.  These false expectations can also bring strain and anxiety to the active addict or the recovering addict as well. Many family members assume that once you are in addiction recovery that you will become happy and blissful when in reality you are struggling and trying to cope without drugs or alcohol during the holidays for what may be the first time.

“So, if you get excited over your son Matthew coming home for Christmas and you think it’s going to be great and he will be so cheerful to be around the family, you may be setting yourself up for disaster because Matthew may really be feeling crabby,” says Maddalena diPietrodominici, a facilitator for Smart Recovery who runs a recovery support group in the Montreal area. “What you really need to be is receptive, empathetic and understanding about his feelings.”

How to Handle a Loved One with an Active Addiction

Families that have a member who is actively using may at times think the best move is to forbid these people from participating at these holiday celebrations. But forbidding your loved one to attend Aunt Mary’s Christmas dinner can actually backfire because it will only add to further shame, guilt, and isolation that the active addict will feel. This may consequently drive them to use more.

However, family members do have the right to be concerned about the physical and emotional safety of others participating at such events—especially if there are children present. Some kids may not feel so comfortable watching their Uncle John in a stupor or their grandfather Jack becoming verbally aggressive. If a family does decide to allow an addict to attend, there must be firm ground rules and behavioural expectations that need to be set and clearly communicated to the active user. Furthermore, families must follow through with the consequences if the boundaries are crossed or they will risk further enabling the addictive behaviour.

Families must keep in mind that there may be a possibility that the addict may not want to attend the holiday dinner or other functions because he/she may actually find the experience too painful. If this is the case, the family may need to realise that the holidays may not be the best time to get together as it can make things worse. 

Supporting a Loved One in Recovery

Family members’ fears and concerns about a possible relapse during the holiday season is typical. Family members need to be balanced more at this time of year when it comes to relapse prevention. They need to take the threat of relapse seriously without suffocating the recovering person’s ability to enjoy the holidays. Overtly highlighting someone in recovery is going to put everyone in the family under incredible stress.

“Relapse prevention needs to start before the holidays. Family members need to sit down with their recovering loved ones and discuss with them what can be done to make them feel comfortable during this time of year. Also there needs to be further discussions about the challenges they may face and what may trigger cravings for alcohol or drugs,” says Maddalena. It may also be helpful to discuss these issues with the recovering addict’s psychotherapist and attend an addiction recovery group like Smart Recovery and meet and connect with other families.

One of the most stressful components during the holidays surrounds the issue of drink. Alcohol consumption increases to 41% during this time of year. And this is definitely stressful for a recovering alcoholic because alcohol tends to be a central part of these celebrations. Families who are trying to help keep their loved ones sober definitely need to avoid cooking with alcohol or serving liqueur-filled chocolates.  This may accidentally expose the recovering alcoholic. Try serving nice-looking and flavourful non-alcoholic beverages so the loved one is not always limited to water or sodas.

Banning alcohol may make things easier for the families but this may not be the best approach for some. Families that ban alcohol may feel that it respects the needs of the person in addiction recovery. However, what it may end up doing is adding tension for that person. What it may create is the feeling of “walking on eggshells” and they do not want to feel responsible for taking away from your holiday celebrations. 

Families may also need to realise that everyone may not be happy around the person in recovery. Family members may have been treated badly by the individual in recovery and may express the frustration that was kept bottled up for years. 

If a loved one does relapse, the family needs to take action. Contacting the person’s therapist, taking him/her to an addiction recovery support group or even offering to take the person to a treatment facility are the best actions. Take the relapse seriously and act quickly.

How to Let Go

In order to help anyone with addiction, the most important thing is that you have to be able to take care of yourself first. Otherwise, you may not be equipped to handle the physical and emotional challenges when they arise. It is very important that you get adequate sleep, eat well and exercise and take time for yourself.  Additionally, partaking in family support groups that are offered at Smart Recovery may help you to reach out to people that share the same experiences.

Family members need to realise that they can do only so much to help a loved one get into an alcohol rehab or drug rehab program and help keep their loved one clean and sober. This can be most frustrating when they see a loved one recover and then relapse over and over again.

What happens is that fatigue sets in, and the family turns hopeless and feels anger and resentment toward the addict.  They may lash out and tell the addict upfront that ‘you ruined the holidays and you always will.” Family members become tired and lose all the energy to deal with it.

This may be extremely difficult for families to accept. They have to accept that they are not responsible for whatever happens. The solution is going to be up to the addict eventually.

Avoid Relapse During the Holidays

Make preparations in advance. Recovering addicts need to assemble a “recovery kit” they can take with them before joining their families for holiday celebrations. This kit would include contact information for the recovering person’s sponsor, therapist. People in recovery that may be travelling out of town need to bring reading material, whether it is AA’s Big Book, a journal, other books that help relieve stress and attend support meetings available at their destination.

Enter early, depart early. Recovering addicts that attend holiday parties may need to consider arriving early and leaving early. Most alcohol and drug use becomes more common as the party carries on. You must not worry that an early departure will offend the host.  Your sobriety is the most important.

B.Y.O.B. (bring your own beverages). Bring your own beverages to holiday parties. This will allow you to have more control over what you drink and not fall victim to other people’s attempts to spike beverages with alcohol or drugs as a joke. Unfortunately, many people may not take the importance of recovery seriously. For them, it’s no big deal, for you, it can be a matter of life or death.

Have an escape plan. If the situation arises at a family gathering where an argument takes place or you feel pressure from relatives to drink and you feel tempted, you need to take corrective action as quickly as possible.

When someone in recovery feels uncomfortable or that they need to use again because of a particular situation, they need to take action immediately and get out and do what they need to do to maintain their sobriety.  In the end, that is what’s most important.

People in recovery need to remember that they are the ones in control of their sobriety. They have to realise that it’s not the family’s responsibility to keep them sober, it theirs.

And now for some sobering quotes concerning the New Year’s celebrations

  • Many people look forward to the new year for a new start on old habits. ~Author Unknown
  • A New Year’s resolution is something that goes in one year and out the other. ~Author Unknown
  • Be always at war with your vices, at peace with your neighbours, and let each new year find you a better man. ~Benjamin Franklin
  • The Old Year has gone. Let the dead past bury its own dead. The New Year has taken possession of the clock of time. All hail the duties and possibilities of the coming twelve months! ~Edward Payson Powell
  • New Year’s Day: Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. ~Mark Twain
  • It wouldn’t be New Year’s if I didn’t have regrets. ~William Thomas
  • May all your troubles last as long as your New Year’s resolutions. ~Joey Adams
  • I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the year’s. ~Henry Moore
  • First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

And to One and All Our Best Wishes for a Marvellous New Year,

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Holiday advice for those in recovery and their families