Home (Sober?) for the Holidays

By Dr Kerby Stewart and Chris Gates 12/10/15

Expert advice on avoiding the family meltdowns of Christmas Past.

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Home for the Holidays
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Like the song says, the holidays are the most wonderful time of the year. But they may also be the most stressful, and a season that is fraught with particular dangers for those who are struggling with addiction. There is pressure all around—pressure to spend money, to socialize and to have the holiday spirit. For many, “home for the holidays” is a recipe for unhealthy regression, as the combination of the old twin bed, snarky uncles and unmet expectations pulls for the self-medication strategy that was relied on in one’s rebellious teenage years. Here, two experts weigh in with healthy strategies that can be used to negotiate the season in a way that can help create a template for surviving, and maybe even enjoying, the holidays…..Richard Juman, PsyD. 

With the holiday season well underway and Christmas vacations around the corner, images of family gatherings complete with football, festive dinners, Christmas trees, Hanukkah menorahs and peaceful naps may come to mind. But for the families of the 23.5 million Americans who suffer from addiction, it can be a time full of disappointment and dread, as years of symptomatic disease have built up negative experiences that can make the holiday season particularly threatening. Ironically, it can also be a time of unfulfilled expectations fraught with dysfunctional family dynamics, precisely because the holidays are presumed to be a time of reflection, intimacy and family connectedness.

In order to change the outcome of the holidays, both the family and the person struggling with addiction have to try something different. Here are a few ideas for making the changes that might just lead to a new holiday tradition—actually enjoying the season.                

FOR THE PERSON STRUGGLING WITH ADDICTION

In order to be responsible, you have to be realistic about what you are capable of. If you are active in your addiction, the chances of the day going well are not good. Even for those in early recovery, spending that much time with family can be a struggle. Of course they push your buttons. They installed most of them! So the first suggestion is simply this: If you can’t be the person you want to be in a family holiday situation, spare yourself and your family the inevitable disappointment—don’t go. Find some friends who are supportive and spend the time with them instead. As you continue to grow in your recovery, you will eventually be able to find a way to participate in family functions in a way that does not threaten your sobriety. Until then, it’s important to remember that staying clean and sober, by staying away, is a better outcome than showing up. Your family will be disappointed, but it won't be as traumatic as if you put yourself in a situation that you’re not ready for and things explode. If you do decide to attend, here are several things that you can do to make the visits go more smoothly. 

Take your own transportation

This is a big one. If the day becomes too stressful, or things start to turn sour, having a way to leave the situation is vitally important. This advice applies to more than just holiday activities. It’s always a good idea. The last thing you want is to feel trapped in a bad place with no way out. And oddly enough, being able to remove yourself from the situation can actually make things more tolerable. 

Know your limits

Well before you go, consider your previous experiences with family and friends on holiday visits and make an honest assessment of how long you can reasonably stay before you begin to be adversely affected by the stress of the situation. If your family drinks at these events, consider planning to leave before people begin to get intoxicated. It’s better to put in a short, successful appearance than to overstay your welcome and fall into old patterns.

Pause and assess.

While you are at the gathering, it’s a good idea to step away every so often and do a quick spot-check on how things are going. Find someplace quiet (the bathroom is always a good spot) and reflect on how the last couple of hours have gone, how you are feeling and how things seem to be progressing. By doing this, you are much more likely to realize that it may be time to leave before things start to unravel.

FOR THE FAMILY

Everyone wants to have a joy-filled holiday season, but wanting to won’t make it happen, especially for a family who has been repeatedly disappointed by a loved one’s addiction. There are a number of actions and attitudes that will help change the negatives of the past.

Realistic expectations are the key to making a good start

Is your family member a daily drinker or a drug user? If they are, it is unreasonable to expect them to stop just because it is a holiday. If you honestly believe that they will not be able to refrain from drinking or using while at the family gathering, and that their behavior will have a deleterious impact on the event, do not invite them. Simple rules such as ‘no drinking’ or ‘everyone is expected to be on their best behavior’ are a great idea, but if your loved one has not shown the ability to actually do those things, the boundaries will be meaningless. 

If your loved one is in the early stages of recovery, you may want to discuss the family holiday plans with them well in advance. Come to an agreement about what works for all concerned. No family gathering is more important than supporting a loved one's recovery. Do not pressure them into attending if they feel like it might not be a good idea. As they grow in their recovery, they will surely become an active part of the family again, and it’s worth sacrificing their participation in this year’s festivities to help them reach that goal.  

Set clear boundaries

It is imperative to state clear, succinct, realistic expectations, behavioral boundaries, and consequences. A clear plan of action, agreed upon ahead of time, can actually rescue the day. You’re in a position to simply say, for example: “We agreed that if you picked up we would take you back to the hotel right away, so let’s just go.” Hopefully, this scenario will avoid the hurtful drama that might otherwise have occurred.

Let go of judgments, hurt feelings and disappointments of the past

It is entirely appropriate to be mindful of your past experiences with your loved one during the holidays, but it is imperative that you stay present and try to have a new experience with them if you want to develop a successful holiday tradition. Their disease flaring up may have wrecked any number of holiday gatherings in the past, but you can’t punish them for that now and expect the day to go well. Meeting them where they are in their recovery will allow you to form more realistic expectations for the day, and hopefully this will allow you to have new, more successful experiences that you can build on in years to come.

Maintaining an open mind and a perspective of acceptance will help ease feelings of guilt and judgment. In contrast, expecting that a perfect holiday meal and family time will ease the symptoms of addiction is unrealistic and potentially catastrophic. 

Manage expectations

Try to keep your outlook for the day simple and based in the reality of your family and not of a perfect family. (Remember, there’s no such thing.) What would a successful holiday visit look like for your family as it exists right now? By asking yourself this question, you may realize that things are better than you think, or you may realize that the best way to spend the holiday is with friends instead of family.

Understand that everyone has emotional triggers and respect the differences

As previously noted, it’s easy for family members to push each other’s buttons. Unfortunately, they may have years of practice already. It is very easy for family members to fall into pre-prescribed roles that may or may not have any basis in fact anymore. Oftentimes, these roles are the cause of much of the stress and resentment that undermines the family’s ability to successfully interact with each other. 

Recognize addiction for what it is

Remember that the family member with an addiction is not being bad, he is being sick. Addiction is a chronic disease, and active addiction is self-perpetuating. He or she is not getting drunk or high to ruin your day. It’s not personal. They are exhibiting symptoms of a stress-induced brain disease. Even when the drugs and alcohol are removed, many of the old behaviors and responses remain. Over time, this will change. But in early recovery, many of the same resentments, false beliefs and grudges will still be present. This is also part of the disease. As the brain heals in recovery, the addict will eventually begin to react to the world (and the family) in a healthy manner, but this takes time. Try to remember that your loved one is making progress, rather than getting frustrated that he or she is not completely better yet.

Every family experiences stress—and to some extent, unmet expectations—over the holidays. For families with a loved one suffering from addiction, a peaceful meal or joyous day can easily devolve into chaos, hurt feelings and disappointment. With a little willingness and some advanced planning, everyone can begin to create a new experience that they can build on for the future. This can greatly increase the probability of a peaceful holiday and can set the stage for all holiday seasons to come.

Dr. Kerby Stewart is the Clinical Director of MAP Recovery Services, which is part of MAP Health Management. He is a researcher studying long-term outcomes of recovery support and other aftercare modalities as well as acute residential and outpatient treatment of substance abuse. Chris Gates is a writer and musician from Austin, Texas with 17 years of long-term recovery. He is the Media Architect for MAP Health Management, a provider of outcome data, aftercare programs and revenue cycle management for addiction treatment facilities. For more information, visit https://mapnetwork.com/

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