A friend told me a story recently that seemed emblematic of the challenges of the holiday season. He was at the check-out line at a grocery store on Thanksgiving eve and the woman in front of him was complaining about a very long, difficult shift she had just worked. The cashier asked where she worked and she replied, “The liquor store — it’s the worst time of year.”
Indeed, though the holiday season is a festive time, and alcohol can be an ever-present element of the festivities, it can also be an emotionally painful time for many. Alcohol and other substances are used and even abused to dull the pain of difficult holiday memories, challenging family dynamics, and the stresses around shopping and gift giving, budgeting, cooking large meals, hectic travel, office parties and more.
As stress and anxiety are heightened, so too are the rates of depression and substance abuse. The CDC points to a sharp rise in drug- and alcohol-related deaths during this time of year.
In all but the most intimate of holiday gatherings, chances are good that someone will be present who is either actively grappling with addition, or in recovery. According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, nearly half of all Americans know a friend or family member who has struggled with addiction.
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Be aware that for people wrestling with addiction and even those who have maintained many years of sobriety, the stresses of the holidays provide numerous triggers for addictive behavior or relapse for those in recovery. Often, holidays conjure up memories of overindulgence that may have led to regrettable behavior, pain caused to family or friends, or great loss.
Some advice and coping strategies shared with people in recovery can actually serve as general advice for anyone trying to manage holiday stress. First, engage in self-care: Make sure you’re sleeping sufficiently, eating well, and getting exercise, and find some quiet time for relaxation and perhaps meditation. We also urge people to adjust their attitude and perhaps their expectations as they enter circumstances and family dynamics that may seem all too familiar. Lowering your expectations of friends and family, letting go of both idealized visions of the holidays and judgments, and understanding that others are also experiencing stress and pain can help you to be more forgiving of loved ones and yourself.
Also understand that if someone you know is recovering from addiction, that doesn’t mean they’ve become an entirely different person overnight. Maintaining an open and accepting mind will keep in check judgments and prevent unrealistic expectations of a transformed holiday.
Perhaps most importantly, remember that your loved one with an addiction is not and has never been deliberately trying to ruin your day. Rather, addiction is a disease. As a person’s brain starts to heal from substance abuse, he will, over time, come to react to circumstances and family in a healthier manner, though such progress is not always rapid or linear.
Perhaps the greatest holiday gift you can give to anyone in recovery is to detach from expectations and practice acceptance and forgiveness. Families can help people dealing with addiction navigate the holidays in a supportive way and pave the way for long-term recovery by leading with love rather than disappointment, resentment or anger.
Robert Castan is the founder and president of Northpoint Recovery, which provides inpatient and outpatient treatment at recovery centers in Idaho and Washington.