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Supporting an Addicted Friend or Family Member During the Holidays

The holidays accentuate both the best and the worst in life. They are a time of increased focus on family, friends and social interaction. The season encourages us to turn our thoughts toward appreciation, generosity and compassion, as tradition and fond childhood memories bring joy to our hearts. Yet, the holidays are also a time of increased stress, chaotic schedules, and potential financial recklessness. Unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled fantasies can outweigh the positive qualities that the season brings out in us.

For addicts and those in recovery, these issues are often amplified.

Why Are the Holidays So Hard for Those With Addiction?

The pressures of the holiday season are stressful for everyone. But for an addicted person, such stress can cause long-dormant behaviors to re-emerge, as people often return to old habits during times of increased stress. If an addict does not have a solid support system, such as a stable family unit or a strong peer-support group, they will often feel alone and isolated during this intensely family-focused season.

On the flip side, family visits that are common during the season tend to stir up both memories and habits from the past, many of which may be dysfunctional rather than joyous. Especially if there is a history of abuse in the family, powerful triggers can be set off, just by re-entering the family household. Many studies have shown that highly emotional memories are easier to be spontaneously recalled, especially if they contain troublesome impressions or sensations. Cues (like being in the same room where you used to do drugs or drink) can induce a resurgence of cravings for the substance being recalled.

Other common issues that emerge during the holiday season include:

  • Temptations are everywhere: Not only are “using” cues a potential problem when an addicted or recovering person visits family, they are almost inescapable at other holiday gatherings as well. Alcohol is commonly served at holiday parties, and the addict’s senses are likely to be bombarded with cues that can trigger cravings, especially if he/she is in early recovery.
  • Uncomfortable conversations are more likely: During the holidays, we often see relatives and friends that we may not see at any other time of the year. If these people do not know the addict’s current status as it relates to their addiction and/or recovery, they may ask questions or make comments that cause the addict to feel uneasy and uncomfortable.
  • Family conflict can spoil the mood: As much as everyone wants to have a holiday gathering that is filled with joy, this is often an unrealistic expectation, especially in families that have a history of dysfunction. Families often worry that the addicted or recovering person will disrupt the get-together. But socially inappropriate behavior is less likely to be a problem if precautions are taken prior to the event.
  • Unrealistic expectations can ruin everything: Too often, the main obstacle to a happy holiday when a recovering family member or friend is involved is that expectations are way too high.  We must manage our expectations and be realistic about what our addicted/recovering friend or family member can actually handle. This involves, of course, taking into consideration the stage of recovery that the person has reached.

Ways to Be Supportive of a Friend or Family Member During the Holidays

So how can friends and family members be helpful to a recovering person during this season that is often marked by overindulgence?

  • Mutually Create and Set Realistic Expectations

    It is not realistic – or fair – to expect a newly sober friend or family member to be able to handle being around a lot of people who are drinking, without increasing their risk for relapse. However, banning this person from the party could backfire by making them feel shamed and isolated, and this could increase the potential for relapse. Instead, reach out to the addicted or recovering friend or family member and work together to reach a mutual agreement regarding the best way to handle the situation. If alcohol cannot be taken off the party menu, then it may be that this holiday party may not be the best occasion for the addicted or recovering person to attend; but their absence should come from a mutual agreement, not from being banned.

    Discuss with the addicted or recovering person whether they think they can handle other holiday related festivities as well, such as decorating a tree, stringing lights on the home, shopping for gifts, etc. Being included in these kind of activities will make them feel included without putting them in a position of being tempted by substance use or drinking.

  • Don’t Use the Holidays to Solicit an Overdue Apology

    You may have unresolved issues with an addicted or recovering family member or friend, but a holiday gathering is not the time and place to confront them and seek a face-to-face apology for wrongs that they never owned up to. Doing so can stir up old feelings of guilt and shame that may not only spoil the party, but may put the wrong-doer at risk for relapse as well. Instead, if you feel the need to address these lingering issues, simply ask to set up a future meeting with the person, at which time it would be more appropriate to go into a discussion of old wounds.

    Giving the person an opportunity to make amends for their prior hurtful behavior can help mend your relationship and help them move forward in their life. By taking responsibility for their actions, their shame and remorse for past wrongs can be diminished, as long as it is done in a manner that does not unnecessarily embarrass or demean them.

  • Help Them Be Prepared, “Just in Case”

    Assist the recovering person in making sure that they have all necessary information in case they feel triggered or need help. They should have handy at all holiday gatherings a list that includes their sponsor’s phone number and numbers of other peer support people, plus information on AA and NA meetings nearby. Often during the holiday season, there are more AA and NA meetings available, so check ahead of time for holiday schedules.  Also have on hand information about an appropriate treatment facility, as an emergency option.

What if the Recovering Person Relapses?

Unfortunately, even with the best-laid plans, there are no guarantees. A relapse may occur, and if it does, it is imperative that friends and family members address it:

  • Speak Up: Without the use of shame or guilt, address the fact that you are aware that a relapse has occurred.
  • Assist Them in Getting Support: Offer to take the relapsed person to an AA or NA meeting, where they can receive peer support. Encourage them to contact their sponsor, or to allow you to do so. Offer to take the individual to a treatment facility, if this should be deemed necessary.




Images Courtesy of iStock

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