When you think of “the holidays” do you picture shiny packages, warm hugs from seldom-seen relatives and satisfying visits with cherished friends? Hopefully your holiday season is all joy, warmth and kindness.
But, if Mom drinks too much or if Dad is struggling with prescription pain pills, this time of year may conjure a less pleasant image.
When a loved-one is actively using drugs or abusing alcohol the holidays are more likely defined by uncertainty then joy. How can you possibly enjoy dinner at Grandma’s house when Cousin Sally is likely (or maybe very likely) to get drunk and raise who-knows-what kind of hell?
So, how do you move forward with a family holiday function when someone on the guest list is likely to set off an emotional bomb?
Whether the addict you love is trying to quit or they are happy with their current level of functioning, any family gathering will be more difficult for those around him…just because he’s there.
If you do nothing, you are likely in for yet another ruined season. But, following a few simple suggestions may save the day for your family.
Communication Within The Family
You are likely not proud of the fact that a member of your family is struggling mightily with an addition. In fact, you’re probably heartbroken to watch their battle with alcohol or drugs. Your instinct may be to keep everything quiet.
Secrets keep your addict sick just as much as they keep you from being healthy. Make no mistake…addiction IS a family disease. Just like a body with a damaged organ is not fully well, the health of a family is impacted by the presence of an active addict.
Creating open lines of communication within the family is critical. You will be able to learn who is going to be supportive and who might sabotage any plans you make.
Speak openly with concerned relatives and develop an action plan for dealing with your impaired relative and saving your family function. Never “wing it”.
Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries
When I use the word “boundaries” many of my clients roll their eyes. Somehow that term has become “one of those therapy words”. You can roll your eyes as much as you want…healthy boundaries lead to healthy families. If someone in your family is in active addiction, strong boundaries are even more critical.
Work with those family members who are on board with your plan to manage the upcoming holidays. First, decide if the addicted member will be invited at all. If she is to be included, come up with some guidelines that must be followed.
For example, you might make abstinence part of the package. You could say, “Uncle Joe, we would really like to have you over for Christmas dinner. However, based on the way things went last year (and the year before that) we have some ground rules. If you are to join us, which we really hope you will, you can’t be intoxicated when you arrive and you cant drink any alcohol while here.”
You will also need an “or else” option. For instance, you might tell Uncle Joe that if he is impaired at the function he will be asked to leave.
The most important part of setting boundaries is following through. If you put a guideline in place and it is violated, you MUST implement the consequence!
Be reassured that while setting boundaries sometimes feels mean, it’s actually a very kind way to live. If we have healthy boundaries, those around us feel safe and secure since they always know how we will react.
Take Care Of Yourself
I was working with a client who happened to be a pilot. During a session with he and his wife, I was talking to her about the importance of self-care. She came up with the best analogy I’ve ever heard. She said, “it’s kind of like when you are on a plane and they tell you to put your Oxygen mask on first if there is an emergency.”
If you are not healthy, you have no chance of being able to support those around you. So, find ways of caring for yourself. This might look like developing healthy hobbies or taking time for you. Or maybe you will work on eating healthier foods and getting a bit more exercise. Perhaps working with a therapist would help you sort through your situation and re-focus. Whatever you choose, please find some way to be kind to yourself.
You cannot save, fix, rescue, etc. your loved-one from the ravages of addiction. But…you can make sure you are healthy enough to offer tons of support whenever he is read to change.
Put on your Oxygen mask first!
Fish swim, birds fly, and alcoholics drink booze. These are some of the laws of nature. If you expect someone who struggles with addiction to magically stop drinking/drugging just because today is Christmas (or Thanksgiving, or any other day) you are setting yourself up for disappointment.
Be realistic about what you can expect. Maybe a sober fifteen minute visit is the very best your relative can manage today. Resist the urge to set everyone up for disappointment and failure by expecting her to hang out with the family all day. It may not be possible.
Reframe your definition of victory and go for the small wins.
Love One Another
A ‘Norman Rockwell’ Christmas may not be possible for you and those close to you. But a peaceful gathering is within your reach. And at the end of the day, the holidays are about peace, joy, family, and togetherness.
You may have to do a bit more planning than other families, but the outcome is worth the effort. With some organization and cooperation, you can have a wonderful time together. Everyone can walk away feeling supported and accepted rather than isolated and resentful.
And don’t forget to love each other. Without love none of this matters much anyway…does it?