Oh, the holidays! When we think of them, so many thoughts and images pop into our heads! Snow! Family! Food! Togetherness! Traditions, old and new! Excitement is in the air, and we start planning how and when our ideal holiday will come together. Unfortunately, for those who have a loved one struggling with alcoholism or addiction, an additional level of stress typically accompanies the holidays: worry that our imagined holiday will turn into our worst-case scenario.When Our Young Addicts asked me to write a blog post on how to navigate the holidays when addiction is present, my first thought was “Yes! What a great topic! This will be so helpful!” As I thought about it more, the task became a little more overwhelming. As someone who works with family members in the addiction recovery field, as well as being a family member myself, I know there is no right or wrong way to navigate the holidays when addiction is present. But, there may be a way that’s right for you, which is what I hope to address.
My husband and I live in a different states than our families, and we make it a point to be with them over the holidays. For a number of years, we would get caught off guard by the ups and downs of addiction. Each year we would start out with our vision of the holiday and prepare for it. We’d ask for Christmas lists, and go shopping for the perfect presents. We’d be in contact with everyone in advance to make sure we could all get together. We would plan festive menus, and listen to holiday music on our drive across the Midwest. We wanted to experience what so many of us want to experience: family. We wanted to be in the midst of the love and connection, and thought if we could just plan far enough in advance that we’d get exactly that.
Unfortunately, the addiction in our family wasn’t playing along. Although there are a few in our family who have struggled with alcoholism and addiction, when I think about the holidays, I often think of my step-son, who is a meth addict. We would embark into our greeting-card-worthy vision of the holiday, but addiction would stand in our way. There would be times when we’d reach out to him, and not hear back. There would be times when he would come, and show up despondent. There were other times when he would show up and would be angry at the world. There were times when he left on an evening saying that he’d be back tomorrow, and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the time that we were there (we once found out later that he ended up in jail for a while). There were visits that ended in loud arguments. And, then there were the times that he showed up as his incredibly witty, big-hearted, intelligent self – and the family would try to figure out how we had magically set the stage for this to happen so we could be sure to recreate it again, and again. Of course, we were always confused when we tried to reenact the situation at another time, only to have a completely different, and often heart-breaking, outcome.
One of the things we needed to do as a family was to know what we were up against. Sometimes the fact that someone is struggling with addiction becomes apparent during the holidays, especially since we usually see each other more at this time than other times throughout the year. At times families fall into the trap of thinking that someone who is struggling with addiction is just behaving badly. It’s helpful to know the signs of addiction and alcoholism. Both the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov) and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (www.ncadd.org) have helpful information. Educating yourself allows you the opportunity to know what you’re dealing with, and will be helpful in understanding what to do next.
As a family member, I have found that getting support for myself has been imperative. There is no way that you can watch someone become entangled with alcoholism and addiction without being affected. Family members often feel that if they love someone enough, and say and do the right things, they’ll be able to fix their loved one so they no longer have the struggles that they have. To be around others who have had a similar experience in their reactions, and who have found a way to cope with it, helps to break the shame and stigma we often carry where addiction is concerned. The easiest and most accessible way to find support from others who have been there, too, is through Al-Anon (www.al-anon.org) or Nar-Anon (www.nar-anon.org). So many family members keep the addiction in their family a secret. Al-Anon and Nar-Anon provide safe places to talk about it.
Talking about the holidays was important for our family, as well. We needed to decide what we wanted our holiday to look like, and be focused on what was realistic. If your loved one is actively using, what is realistic may be different than at other times. Some families decide that they need to set some clear boundaries: that their loved one is only invited if the can be clean and sober during the gathering. They also need to have a plan in place on how they’ll honor that boundary if it’s not met. Some find that they want their loved one included in everything regardless, so that they know that they are in a safe place. Some families decide to change how they will celebrate so that they can all meet at a place where anyone can easily leave from if they feel uncomfortable. As I stated before, there is no right or wrong in deciding this. There is only what is best for you and for your family. These decisions are more easily made with an understanding of addiction, and remembering that the person you love is still the person you love, even though their disease may bring unwanted attitudes or behavior. These decisions are also more easily made when you have support. Families have choices, and they get to make them – including during the holiday season.
Our family feels blessed that we have received the gift that so many of us hope and pray for, the gift of my step-son’s recovery. He’s been clean with the help of Narcotics Anonymous for more than three years, and we love watching his life unfold. That witty, big-hearted, intelligent guy shows up most of the time, and even when he shows up occasionally as someone who’s going through a difficult time for whatever situation is happening in his life, we trust that he will navigate in whatever way that he needs to with the support of his people in his recovery circle. And, yet, we may have gotten a little too excited when our first holiday came around and we thought “Finally! We get to have our ideal holiday! There will be SO much togetherness! We’ll be a Norman Rockwell painting!” We found that going through the holiday in early recovery was going to take some navigation, as well.
My step-son did a great job of talking to us about what he needed, which wasn’t non-stop family time. For many folks, the holidays can trigger or exacerbate addiction. My step-son needed to find his own balance. His primary focus was to continue to build the foundation of recovery, and we needed to honor that. We listened, and we trusted that he would show up for what was important for him, and that he would do what he needed to support himself when he needed to do so. And, we stayed focused on taking care of ourselves, and being grateful for the time we got to have with this wonderful, clean, clear-eyed young man.
Even if the gift of recovery hasn’t happened in your family, my hope for each of you is that you’ll find moments of peace and joy. I believe that they are there and accessible to all of us, even if our loved one is actively struggling. Remember to learn what you are up against, find support for yourself, talk about it – and listen. Be gentle with yourself and your loved one. I believe that we are all doing the best that we can with the tools that we have, and I’m hopeful that these new tools will be helpful to you as you embark on this holiday season.