Addiction Recovery and Navigating the Holidays

How to Help Family Members Struggling with Substance Abuse During the Holidays

For those living with substance use disorders or addiction, the holidays can be triggering. While most people associate this time of year with happiness and togetherness, for some the holidays dredge up negative feelings and memories. Estrangement or issues within the family system, grief, loneliness, and trauma associated with this time of year are all factors that may dampen the festive mood and leave someone struggling. 

“I think the holidays are challenging for a couple of reasons,” Discovery Point Retreat Clinical Director Greg Powers says, “One being this is the time when we gather with all of our family, or sometimes we don’t have family. And that’s a sore spot or pressure point for some people. When that happens, we seek out comfort in other places. Ultimately, that’s probably why we see more of an influx of substance use during the holidays.”

Holiday Hopes and Expectations Versus Reality

Societal expectations are a major factor in why some struggle during this time of year. We anticipate that most people’s holiday plans involve family gatherings filled with laughter and love, but this isn’t the case for everyone. Tension and conflict within the family system can make attending these gatherings a triggering experience.

“We would all like to feel like we’ve got the textbook loving family, and some people are fortunate that they do have that. There are a lot of families that are not like that. There’s conflict and history there that causes all those negative feelings and memories to resurface. We may try to have that family connection and do things together as a family; sometimes it just doesn’t work.”

Being confronted by the stark reality of a harmful or toxic family environment during the holidays can be a distressing experience. The resulting feelings are complex: we want love, comfort, and validation from our loved ones but also recognize and struggle to cope with the ways they may have harmed us. Conversely, being around family and friends may also highlight the ways our behavior harms those we love, regardless of intention. This emotional turbulence can push someone toward unhealthy self-soothing means like substance use.

“For example, say you are using alcohol and that is a coping mechanism that you typically use. When the family calls and says, ‘hey, come join us for Christmas Eve,’ or Thanksgiving or whatever — you know that you’re not going to stop drinking. You may think, ‘if I go to this family event, it always causes problems.’ Instead you might choose to isolate yourself at the house and not hang out with family. You might decide not to hang out with friends because that causes problems too. It may be a situation of ‘I know that I’m using. I know that I’m drinking to excess, and I’m not at that place to say, “I need help,” yet. So because I don’t want to do that and I don’t want to hear that from all those outside sources, I’m going to isolate myself, and I’m not going to go anywhere.’ Then we have depression related to that because now you’re isolated and it’s the holidays. Everybody else is getting to go and hang out with their family and friends and do stuff. And you don’t feel good enough about yourself to go do that. So you start getting depressed about that. It becomes kind of a vicious cycle.”

How Family Members Can Help a Loved One Struggling with Addiction

For parents, family members, and loved ones on the outside looking in, the tension around the holidays is often associated with the elephant in the room. They want to help their loved one with their drinking or drug use struggles but they’re often ill-equipped to do so themselves. This feeling of helplessness may present itself as anger, frustration, internalized guilt, or blame projection.

“Moms and dads, we see the best in our kids no matter what. And so maybe it comes across as arguing with somebody or causing a fight because, ‘I don’t want you drinking,’ or, ‘I don’t want you using.’ In reality, this is their love coming across, going, ‘I just want the best for you. I want you to be safe. I want you to be with us as a family and to be able to enjoy us as much as we want to enjoy you.’ It’s heartbreak from a parent’s standpoint because we just want them to be okay and the frustration that comes across from a parent is because you can’t make them be okay. They have to want that themselves.

It’s hard on everybody. So when we have our children or even our parents come over and things are not okay, it becomes a difficult situation. It tends to lead to arguments, and that’s not what everybody was hoping Thanksgiving or Christmas was going to be like.”

If you are in this position and your loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol abuse, finding ways to help without pushing them too far away is difficult. Ultimately, it comes down to being earnest in your concern and compassionate in your approach.

“It sounds kind of simplistic, but honestly, it would be as simple as, ‘hey, you know that this is an issue. Do you want to get help? Are you ready for that now?’ Sometimes they’re going to say, ‘yeah, I know it’s a problem, and yes, I need to get help.’ And then at that point, you start searching out, and you find places like Discovery Point Retreat and go, ‘okay, let’s get you in here and get you the help that you want.’ 

Sometimes they’re going to say, ‘I don’t know. I’m not ready.’ Then talk to them and say, ‘okay, well, what is it going to take to get you to that point?’ Sometimes it’s, ‘I need to take care of business. I need to figure out what I’m going to do about work,’ or the pets or whatever. There are always going to be roadblocks or excuses as to why I can’t go and get help right now. That’s why they haven’t done it thus far. And as a loved one, what you’re there to do is to support and go, ‘Okay. Well, let’s figure that out. So you need to figure out what to do with the pets? Okay. Bring them over here and I’ll take care of them while you’re gone.’

Forcing someone into treatment is not super successful. It’s going to lead to fights. It’s going to lead to them refusing treatment. And your job as that loved one is to show them, ‘this is what we all want, and I know that you do as well, and I’m going to be here. I’m going to support you no matter what. This is going to be difficult, but let’s do this together. And 9 times out of 10, that’s what they’re needing to hear.”

It’s hard to seek treatment at this time of year, but keep in mind that this is just one holiday out of a lifetime. How much better would it be to enjoy the rest of your holidays sober with your family? It’s the best gift you can give yourself and your loved ones.

If you struggle with substance use during this time of year, know that you’re not alone. There are people who are here to help you that have gone through this, and they’ve experienced the same thing you are and those same feelings, emotions, everything, and they’ve gotten through it. We’re here to help you navigate through that. Just reach out. It’s worth it.

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