Society and pop culture have long portrayed the winter holidays as a celebratory time. And, for many people it is. It’s a time of family gatherings, sharing meals with friends, and attending holiday parties. For the person recovering from substance abuse, however, this season can come with a host of challenges. Newly sober individuals, in particular, often experience a range of difficult emotions around the holidays.
From feeling sad and angry to lonely and misunderstood, people early in recovery also have the added hurdles attached with relapse. But, those recovering from addiction aren’t the only ones who experience difficulties.
For the families of alcoholics and addicts in recovery, fall and winter holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve can elicit uncomfortable feelings and scenarios. It’s not uncommon for family members of an individual with substance abuse (even in recovery) to feel resentful, embarrassed, worried, saddened, or anxious toward or for their family member. In-turn this causes them to question whether they should include the recovering sibling, child, parent, cousin, etc. What if they relapse? Cause a scene? Hurt someone (mentally or physically?)
Or, families may be even more concerned about the repercussions of not inviting them. Could not extending an invitation to a family member in recovery lead to their becoming erratic, violent, suicidal? What if their relationship is forever damaged? And, how could it affect the relationship with other loved ones—perhaps the recovering person has children of their own, and the fear is not being able to see them?
But, despite the gamut of feelings and concerns faced by family members of people in substance abuse recovery, what many of them want most is to be of love and support. How can they best honor the needs of their loved one, while also keeping their physical and emotional health safe and supported?
At Futures Recovery Healthcare, we understand the complexities involved with substance abuse, recovery, and family dynamics—during the winter season and all seasons. We provide multiple pathways of recovery, including family therapy for the individual and his/her family members.
If you have a family member new to recovery this holiday season, you are not alone. Families across the nation are worried about how to best care for and help their loved ones. In an effort to provide guidance to support family members in recovery, we have put together seven helpful tips and strategies for family members.
Seven Ways You Can Help Support a Family Member New to Recovery
Although there are no clear statistics to reflect the number of people in addiction recovery who have a hard time during the winter holidays, what research has revealed is that 64% of people with mental illness express the holidays make their conditions worse. And, since there is a strong correlation between substance abuse and mental illness—of 20.3 million people with substance abuse disorders (SUDs), 37.9% also have a mental illness—we can conclude that millions of individuals in recovery struggle during the holidays, as do their families.
The scenarios mentioned earlier, in which families are unsure how to support their loved ones during major winter holidays (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, etc.), are simply a small sampling of the complexity involved with substance abuse, families, and the recovery process. When a person is active in substance abuse, family dynamics change, leading to possible outcomes such as:
- Family members fall into patterns of “enabling” their loved ones with SUD—not holding them accountable to consequences, overlooking bad behaviors, making excuses for them. Sometimes this is also referred to as “maintaining homeostasis.”
- Family roles are reversed. A child may feel responsible for a parent, causing them to assume a parental role. Or, an elderly parent may feel like they must actively parent their adult child.
- Trauma, either emotionally, physically, or mentally caused by an active addict or alcoholic may have seriously or irrevocably harmed someone in the family, resulting in division and alienation among family members.
These factors (and others) are often exacerbated during the holidays. To help you navigate the winter holidays, the following strategies are designed to help you support a loved one in recovery, while also making sure you honor your needs and boundaries.
1. Make Yourself Aware of Possible Holiday Stressors
First and foremost, understanding holiday stressors and triggers for a family member in recovery will help you in practicing the steps following this one. In addition to complex family issues and relationships, finances, social expectations, and holiday-specific traditions/expectations can be triggers for an alcoholic and addict.
While these can also be a “lay person’s” struggles during the holidays, newly recovering people are often especially vulnerable and impacted by these issues, often either just learning, or have not yet practiced, effective coping skills.
It’s not uncommon, for example, for people with SUDs to have lost a job, acquired debt, and other financial difficulties. Your loved one may feel pressure to financially contribute to holiday events or family gifts.
Additionally, without the crutch of their substance of choice in social settings, newly sober individuals may feel uneasy. Or, they may feel judged by others, or unsure how to behave around those they have been estranged from. Holiday traditions, too, while many times positive and sentimental for many, can represent negative and uncomfortable memories and triggers for a person beginning his/her recovery.
2. Practice Compassion and Lowering Expectations
It’s important to understand that addiction is a disease, not a choice. While you may still hold onto past hurts from when your family member was actively using, he/she is (hopefully) working to right past wrongs. Many 12-Step, therapy strategies, and other types of treatment and formal recovery processes have an amends process, in which the person in recovery acknowledges and accepts responsibility for the way others were wronged. But, the holidays are not an opportune time to have the expectation your loved one will atone for wrongdoing.
Having expectations that your family member in recovery should or will act a certain way, will only garner resentment if he/she falls short—often, for both of you. Instead, practice as much compassion as you can, understanding that your loved one is doing the best he/she can with what has been learned through treatment and/or recovery so far.
Does this mean recovering people who may exhibit inappropriate or hurtful behavior should be completely let off the hook? No. However, this is why having boundaries (which we briefly mentioned earlier, and will explore further later) are vital and will not only help you practice more compassion but will also help keep unrealistic expectations at bay.
3. Invite Open, Judgement-Free Discussion with Your Loved One
Don’t be afraid to ask your loved one how they feel about the holidays. Be sure to begin the conversation with a compassionate, non-judgemental approach. You can even use the terms “compassionate” and “non-judgment.” For example: “Katie, I want you to know that I see how hard you’re working to stay sober, and I want to support you. I want this to be a non-judgemental and supportive conversation about how I can help you during the holidays.”
4. Understand the Dangers of Exposing a Newly Recovering Person to Alcohol
While serving wine, cocktails, and other alcoholic beverages is commonplace for many holiday gatherings, if you want a newly-sober family member to attend an event where alcohol is being served, you may want to reconsider.
While it is by no means the responsibility of family members to “keep” their loved one abstinent from substances, if you want to support them, especially during their first holiday season, it’s best to help limit exposure to any substances.
5. Be Flexible
Embracing a flexible attitude around the holiday season and any gatherings can help your loved one feel more at ease. For example, if in the past you’ve had a strict “family only,” dinner requirement, but your family member in recovery would like to bring a sponsor or friend in recovery along for support this year, consider allowing it.
If you always carpool to grandma’s and grandpa’s, but a family member in recovery would like to drive separately—let her/him! That way, if she/he feels uncomfortable, no one else in the family has to alter their plans or leave earlier.
And, if your loved one attends a family event but begins to feel uncomfortable or at risk of relapse for any reason, support their decision to leave early. Or, even if it’s last-minute, and your family member was supposed to attend your New Year’s Eve party but decided it wasn’t a good idea, consider extending some grace and acceptance. It’s better for individuals early in recovery to put the needs of their sobriety first, rather than risk a relapse.
6. Create New Traditions and Memories
Sometimes the expectation to follow certain traditions can be emotionally triggering for both you and your family member in recovery. Rather than strictly sticking to long-time traditions, follow step-five above, and invite the possibility of making new traditions and holiday customs.
7. Honor Boundaries (Yours, His/Hers) or Let Go
Establishing healthy and reasonable boundaries, as we talked about earlier, can help reduce the likelihood of forming expectations that transform into resentments. If we revisit step three, in which boundaries are approached openly and without judgment, it can help both you and your recovering family member be on the same page.
Using “Katie” as an example, let’s take a look at this scenario:
Katie’s parents fear that she may be tempted to bring alcohol with her to the family party. Katie assures them she won’t and feels hurt by her parent’s distrust. However, in the past, Katie became intoxicated and disrupted many family holiday parties. Formerly, her parents would yell at her in front of other party guests, and chaos would disband the family gathering. So, Katie and her parents establish a boundary that it’s okay for one of her parents to discreetly pull her aside if they suspect she has been drinking and arrange an Uber for her to return to her apartment if it’s confirmed she relapsed.
Together, Katie and her parents came up with a boundary that was acceptable to all of them.
In some cases, you may not be able to form acceptable collective boundaries as Katie did with her parents. Some hurts are too deep and have yet to be healed. In this case, it’s okay to “let go,” meaning that maybe you both make alternative plans. Perhaps your recovering family member has a recovery or religious group that’s hosting a holiday party that feels “safer” to attend. If so, “let-go” and remember it’s for the highest good of your loved one.
Future Holidays with Family Members in Recovery
It’s important, for as much as you should be patient and compassionate toward your loved one, to also extend the same kindness to yourself. It’s likewise valuable and reassuring to remember to take “one holiday at a time.” Many 12-Step recovery programs promote taking it “one day at a time,” in terms of sobriety. The saying works well for families of loved ones in recovery as well. Although it may not be ideal to push the envelope on all being together for the holidays this year, it in no way predicts how future holidays will unfold.
Many people in recovery and their families are able to successfully mend and overcome all manner of grievances, coming together for holidays and other types of family events
What if my Loved One Isn’t in Recovery Yet?
If your loved one needs help for substance abuse now, It’s important to know that you are not alone. Many people seek treatment for SUDs during the holidays. Futures offers multiple pathways of addiction treatment and wellness programming. This includes inpatient detoxification and residential treatment, and outpatient services by qualified, experienced professionals in substance abuse and mental health disorders.
Many people suffering from addiction go on to live fulfilling, joyful lives. Start your journey today.
Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098.