Surviving and thriving during the holiday season
The end of each year is marked by celebrations, family gatherings and seasonal festivities.
But for the 24 million Americans who face a drug or alcohol use disorder—and their families—holidays can be a difficult time. Tension, anxiety, and reconnection with unhealthy habits and relationships are especially common in November and December.
For one thing, holiday celebrations can trigger memories of prior drug use. In addition, present-day celebrations may bring more temptations than other points in the year.
“People in recovery often face challenges in December that they don’t face in May,” says Charles Folks, LCSW, Director of Community Integration and Strategic Partnerships. “For instance, an open bar can be a trigger for someone in recovery, even if alcohol wasn’t their drug of choice.”
The effects of attending such an event can show up hours or even days after the celebration ends.
“Sometimes it’s not the presence of the substance itself but simply the stress of getting through events where people in attendance are aware of your recovery,” Folks says. “That’s why support is key before, during and after the holiday season.”
Sponsors, family members, and peers can all play a role.
“We encourage our clients in recovery and their families to be thoughtful and plan ahead,” Folks says. “That may involve keeping parties alcohol-free. It may involve respecting a loved one’s choice to not attend a party. And, for those in recovery, it often involves planning to attend 12-step meetings, which tend to ramp up during the holiday season.”
Advice for Families
Folks suggests three ways that families can support a loved one in recovery during the holiday season.
1. Offer verbal support
Remind the person in recovery that they are loved and supported. Don’t isolate them or give unsolicited advice. “A simple ‘I’m glad you’re doing well and will do whatever I can to support you’ can go a long way toward helping someone feel less alone at this time of the year,” Folks says.
2. Shift the focus to drug-free festivities
Instead of making alcohol a focus of a party, center celebrations on other activities and celebrations. Plan a holiday movie night, dinner, ice-skating outing, or even a day of volunteering.
“A family celebration doesn’t have to include alcohol,” Folks says. “Even if your loved one in recovery abstains from drinking, it could be more difficult to avoid relapse than you realize.”
3. Accommodate their boundaries
If your loved one in recovery does not attend your event, remember that they are setting boundaries to manage their health. Avoid placing blame or demanding their presence. Instead, remind them that you accept the choices they make in the name of health and sobriety.
“You and your loved one in recovery want the same thing,” Folks says. “If something will make them uncomfortable, honor that and allow them to guide you toward a solution—even if that means they do not attend.”