By Wesley Gallagher
Oh, the holidays. They’re often filled with joy and merriment, love and thanksgiving, laughter and relaxation with family and friends. For many, however, time with family and friends is more likely to bring stress and tension than laughter and merriment, and the mere anticipation of time together creates anxiety.
This is especially true for people with loved ones who struggle with substance use and addiction. Dealing with fears of what might happen at a gathering with these loved ones can be enough to put a damper on the holidays.
Fortunately, if you’re one of these people, there are steps you can take to prepare yourself for hosting your loved one this holiday season.
Why Are the Holidays a Difficult Time for People Struggling with Addiction?
While the idea of hosting someone who has an addiction may bring you stress, the holidays are likely to be a particularly hard time for the individual with an addiction as well.
Drug and alcohol abuse are often caused or exacerbated by issues related to money, relationships and stress, and the holidays bring all these issues to the forefront. There may be family issues that haven’t been dealt with, and even for someone in recovery, confronting these issues can resurface dormant behavior. A person battling addiction may also feel pressure to hide or downplay their struggles around family and friends, which can actually intensify addictive behavior. The holidays can be extremely isolating for someone battling addiction, as well.1
On top of these amplified stressors, alcohol is a central part of many holiday celebrations, which can bring even more stress and risk to an addicted individual, whether they are actively using or not.2 Even seeing certain familiar places or faces can be triggers for relapse.1
With that in mind, here are some ways to set yourself up for success as you host your loved one over the holidays.
Be Prepared, Plan Ahead
One of the best things you can do to prepare for hosting an addicted loved one or a loved one in recovery is to think ahead and be prepared. Whether for an evening of festivities or a weeklong visit, consider taking some of the following steps in preparation for hosting.
- Depending on where your loved one is in their journey, you may want to talk to them beforehand. If they know they have a problem and you’re close with them, talk to them about their plans, and share your concerns or expectations.
- If your loved one is in recovery, ask them what their preferences are and what would make them most comfortable, or whether there is anything that may trigger cravings that you can help them avoid.
- If you can’t speak directly with the individual, discuss it with anyone who is accompanying them.
- Talk with any co-hosts about expectations and how to respond if a situation arises. This will prevent any disagreement in the moment, which can make a stressful situation even worse.
- Consider making your event or home alcohol-free. This would likely be a welcome change for someone who is in recovery from alcoholism. Feel free to discuss preferences with them too. Depending on how long they’ve been in recovery, banning alcohol completely might not be necessary.
- Another option is to limit the availability of alcohol by only serving wine at dinner and eliminating cocktail hour, for instance. In general, the more prolonged and visible drinking is at an event, the greater risk of triggering relapse or at least causing your loved one to feel uncomfortable.3
Should I Stage An Intervention?
Experts disagree on whether the holidays are a good time to stage an intervention, but the thought certainly may arise as you foresee family and friends gathering together around a loved one who is addicted to alcohol or drugs. It’s also tempting to intervene when you’re confronted with the struggles of the addicted individual.2
The important thing to remember is that any intervention must be carefully planned in advance in order to have the greatest chance at success. Consider carefully whether the holidays are the best time to have such an event with your particular loved one and family situation.
If your loved one is in recovery, take the threat of relapse seriously, but don’t let it be a cloud hanging over the holiday. Take steps, like those mentioned above, to prevent relapse, and be ready to take helpful action if relapse happens. Contact their sponsor, take them to a meeting, offer to take them to treatment, but don’t crush them with shame and disappointment. Realize it’s a slip, it happens and it can be addressed appropriately.2
Take Care of Yourself
Don’t let taking care of others get in the way of taking care of yourself. Minimize stress, eat well, exercise and get plenty of rest. Find people who can support you through the holidays, and have someone you can call if an incident occurs.2
Remember that, when all’s said and done, it’s up to your loved one to get and stay well, and they may need to reach a personal low in order to make positive, lasting changes.2 You can only do so much, and coming to peace with that reality will ultimately make your holidays, and your relationship with your loved one, healthier and more enjoyable.
1 Jaffe, Adi, PhD. “Addiction During the Holidays: Recovered or Not, It’s Important to be Prepared.” Psychology Today, December 23, 2010.
2 Reardon, Christina, MSW, LSW. “Families and Addiction—Surviving the Season of Stress.” Social Work Today, November/December 2011.
3 “How Should Families Deal With Substance Abuse During the Holidays? A Q&A With Dr. Sam Ball.” Center on Addiction, December 23, 2014.