Though we often think of the holidays as a time of giving and sharing they can also be extremely stressful. This stress can lead to an increase in substance use or a relapse by someone in recovery. What are some of the symptoms of a problem in a family member? In yourself? What can you do to protect your own sobriety?
Family dynamics are often at the heart of holiday stress. Add to this the hustle and bustle of trying to organize and fund festivities and the stress climbs even higher. To a former addict or alcoholic holidays can prove to be a difficult time. They may face a lot of guilt about embarrassing behavior during previous holidays or family events which was caused by drinking or drug use. Family relationships may be strained because of their behavior while using drugs or alcohol. Trying to fit in during family events in which others are drinking or using drugs can also be stressful. None of these reasons are an excuse to destroy a family event by being so high or drunk that you create a scene or start a fight. But they are factors to be aware of.
If a family member has a history of disrupting Christmas dinner because of their addiction there may be a lot of fear from everyone else that this will occur again even though they are now sober. So people are entering the dinner expecting a problem which may not even occur. There may also be a lot of resentment toward the now sober person for previous events which were ruined due to their substance use.
If the person’s role in the family as the scapegoat was largely cemented by their drug use – and they are now clean and sober – there may be a panic in the family system as everyone anticipates having the scapegoat role transferred to them. The sober person may find themselves being sabotaged by family members who actually hope they will relapse so the blaming and finger pointing can resume. So the family may say they are happy the person is getting control of their substance abuse while working to undermine it at the same time. And this is done unconsciously, making it even harder to address.
Being aware of all of these feelings and owning them is an important factor in changing the family dynamic.
What can you do if you have a family member who is using or has a history of using?
What can you do to protect your own sobriety during the holidays?
For the Family of a Substance Abuser
Can the Self Righteousness
Everyone has their “addictions” and human foibles. I’ve literally watched someone who weighed 300 lbs. and was stuffing the 3rd piece of pumpkin pie into his face go off on a relative for their drug use. Before you decide to fill yourself with self righteous indignation and stand in judgment of others, check yourself. If you’re not perfect, ease up on everyone else.
Do You Want to be Right, or be Happy?
I actually read one article this year which recommended drug testing relatives. Oh my gosh! What are you, the police?? What possible purpose could that serve? Is determining the chemical in their bloodstream going to accomplish anything other than to prove that you were right and they were wrong? What is in someone else’s bloodstream is not the problem. The behavior is the problem. If someone is stumbling around, falling over things, slurring their speech, talking too loudly and getting aggressive – what difference does it make what is causing it? If you want to be right, go ahead, administer drug tests and wave them over people’s heads in self righteous triumph. But if you want to be happy, focus on the behavior.
Most addicts with whom I have worked don’t realize how impaired they are. Their denial allows them to convince themselves that they are pulling it off, that they are “O.K.”. Giving them kind, but honest feedback about how they appear usually works quite well, without getting into a debate about what is causing it. Use words that come naturally to you, the language of your family. And try to give constructive feedback without blaming. Do not have this conversation at the dinner table or in the middle of the living room. Take the person aside and talk to them privately to avoid embarrassing everyone.
“Hey man, I’m kind of worried about you. You’re look really sedated, your speech is really slurred and you’re stumbling around a lot.”
Suggest a constructive solution that doesn’t blame.
“Would you like to go lay down upstairs for a bit?”
“Do you want to go home and get it together and come back later?”
If they are too impaired to be at the Christmas dinner, they are too impaired to be driving.
Offer to give them a ride or get them a cab. If they are from out of town, help them navigate the public transportation system in your area.
Let Bygones be Bygones
If past Christmases have been disturbed by someone’s drug use, but they are now trying to get it together, try to find it in your heart to let it go. Don’t keep throwing in their face “what happened” when they were 17 – when they’re now 45 and have been clean and sober for 3 years.
This does not mean you continue to tolerate the behavior.
If a family member has a history of substance abuse which disrupts the holidays and they appear to be under the influence, stay in the present. Talk about what is going on right now and deal with that. Hitting them over the head with, “you always”, “you never”, “this always happens” and “every time you…” serves no constructive purpose. First of all, they are impaired. Do you really think they are going to remember this lecture when they sober up? Second of all it only fuels the fire and does nothing to address the situation. Deal with the situation in front of you right now. Give them constructive feedback about how they appear and work together to find a solution: they leave and come back later, they leave and come back tomorrow, they skip the festivities this year, they go for a walk and clear their head, they go upstairs and sleep it off, etc.
I think a lot of family members feel like a substance abuser messes up the family gathering on purpose. In most cases, this really is not the case. Because of the emotional stressors I mentioned earlier, a former alcoholic or addict can be really stressed about going to Christmas dinner. They may sabotage themselves by resorting to old methods of dealing with emotional stress; alcohol, drugs or prescription medications. They may think, “I’ll just have one to calm my nerves” and they have absolutely no intention of getting drunk or high. They are often trying very hard just to “act right” and not disrupt or disappoint everyone. But one pill or one drink becomes five and off we go. Recognizing that it is a weakness rather than a conspiratorial plot to destroy the dinner you worked hard to prepare will help you avoid resentment and hostility and focus on solving the problem while still being conscious of everyone’s feelings.
If they are impaired they need to leave. Don’t allow the family to sit and sweat bullets about what Uncle Fred is going to do next and if, or when, he is going to be so drunk that he becomes violent. If Uncle Fred is drunk, he needs to leave so everyone else can relax. Be kind about addressing the behavior, but don’t put up with it. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. This is the family Christmas dinner. Protect it. If it has been ruined every year by someone being drunk, stoned or high just say “No”. Say it with understanding and kindness, but say it.
If You are the Former Alcoholic or Addict
Be Aware of Family Dynamics
Is there a scapegoating function being perpetuated by your former substance abuse? If so, the family will be highly motivated to keep you in that role. It’s important to realize that they are not doing this on purpose. Family patterns are handed down from generation to generation but people are totally unaware of them. It’s important to recognize the dynamics to understand how they might trip you up. The Christmas dinner is not the time to educate the family on these dynamics. Just be aware of them, how they might play out and what effect they might have on your sobriety so you can make choices about how to address them.
Whatever happened before, you did it. Own it. If you have thrown up on people, started a fight or passed out in the cranberry sauce, acknowledge it. Apologize and move on. Don’t make excuses for it or try to deny it. The family gathering was disturbed by this event and you are responsible.
Stay in the Present
However, regardless of what happened before, this is this Christmas and you are sober right now. Bring your family back to this point as many times as you have to. “I am not doing that right now.” “I am perfectly sober right now.” Keep bringing them back and don’t allow it to become a blaming or guilting contest.
Realize their behavior may come from fear. They may not be telling you what you are doing right now, they may be telling you what they fear you will do. If your instincts tell you this is the case, try to confront the fear. “Could it be that you are afraid I’m going to get drunk and embarrass everyone like I did last year?” If your family uses humor as a coping technique this would be a good time to use it. Put the fear on the table. Then address it by keeping it in the present. “But I’m absolutely sober, right now.” Then negotiate a compromise. “O.K., you’re afraid I’m going to get drunk. But I’m not drunk right now, right? What if you tell me if you sense that I’m getting drunk at any point in the dinner and I will be happy to leave. Will that work?” That keeps them focused on what you are doing right now and lets them know that you have agreed to leave if a problem erupts. If you stay sober, which you will, you stay at the dinner. Problem solved.
If your family refuses to address the fear and refuses to keep it in the present and let the past go, they may be heavily invested in keeping you in the role of the family drug abuser for some reason. If this is the situation, you may just have to excuse yourself from the gathering. Do not allow yourself to be kept in that role.
Be Aware of Saboteurs
If your family needs you to be a screw up for some reason, they may use ingenious ways of sabotaging you: “Just one drink won’t hurt.” “What are you, a holy roller now?” “Ohhhhh, you think you’re better than us now??” First realize that this is not consciously done. Whatever their reasons for needing you to be a drug addict or an alcoholic they would probably be the last ones to realize it. Getting them to own their motives or behavior may be impossible for this reason. Whether they can or will take responsibility for it, the Christmas dinner is probably not the time to try to hash it out. If you are being sabotaged try not to take it personally, but do not allow it to continue. Just say “No” to sabotaging. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries. Excuse yourself and have a Plan B.
Have a Plan B or an Escape Plan
Decide what you will do if things start to go awry. Look at what possible reactions your family may have to your sobriety. If there is a potential for any type of sabotaging or blaming, decide ahead of time what you will do. Decide how far you will let it go before you leave. Don’t leave with a lot of fighting, blaming or finger pointing. Just tell them quietly you think it would be better if you leave and quietly leave.
Ask a friend or family member if you can join their Christmas dinner if your family gathering becomes untenable. You may have a support group you can attend. You may just want to go home and practice self soothing techniques to get your peace of mind back. But have some kind of back up plan so you don’t get caught off guard. If you plan to go to home you might want to check yourself. Loneliness is a big problem this time of year. If you are an introvert, going home to self soothe may be a good idea. If you are an extrovert, you may want to have a backup plan that involves being around other people.
If your family drinks or if you think drugs will be present at the gathering decide ahead of time how you will handle it. If alcohol is the problem, take your own beverages so you know you’ll have something non-alcoholic available. Decide how to establish a boundary with your cousin who is still using should she invite you to join her. Take a friend who is also in recovery who can support you and help you realize insidious family dynamics which might threaten your sobriety. Be very aware of which self soothing techniques help to calm you and arm yourself with them. Take a time out if the stress starts to rise. Excuse yourself to take a walk. Invite a “safe” family member who is supportive of your efforts to join you on the walk. This eliminates speculation that you are going to the liquor store or going to score. Practice good self care throughout the holiday season.
If you don’t know what I mean by self care or self soothing you might want to take a crash course in these two concepts. Here are some articles which might help.
“Building Sellf Esteem through Self Care”
“Satir’s Mandala: The Components of Happiness”
“Self Soothing Techniques”
You may also want to review the entire section on Self Care to see all the articles.
Remember to HALT
Not allowing yourself to be emotionally compromised in ways which put you at risk of relapse is important. Stop and take a breath if you are:
Breathe. Also be aware of boredom, guilt, fear or stress. Stay in touch with your feelings if you are tempted to relapse and see what is going on. Keeping Satir’s Mandala in mind at the holidays can be a great coping mechanism. If you have worked hard to fill every one of those areas you will be much less likely to relapse. If you attend your family gathering and a lot of painful emotions erupt, check the mandala. What has been compromised? What needs to be replenished? Know which techniques you personally use to replenish them. See the self soothing articles for ideas if you need help.
Don’t Take a Holiday from Self Care
See the Self Esteem through Self Care article for a list of basic requirements to maintain simple mental health. These apply to everyone whether they are in recovery or not. Be sure you continue good self care throughout the holidays. This is when you need it the most! Check yourself. If your self care starts to lapse you may be sabotaging yourself or allowing others to sabotage you. Don’t beat yourself up, just fix it. If you start eating a bunch of sweets and carbs, stop going to the gym and stop doing your daily meditations – and these have kept you sane in the past – don’t beat yourself up for having lapsed. Just get back on the treadmill and congratulate yourself for catching it and fixing it.
Learn to Relapse
Some hard core AA folks may ream me for this one, but I think it is important. Many times, someone will have a simple slip. They will stop and have one beer, or take one pill, or one hit. There is now a chance for a choice. Do they continue or stop? Unfortunately many addicts and alcoholics have very black and white thinking. They are either perfectly clean or totally messed up. If they have a little slip, they immediately think, “F— it” and go on a binge.
Learning to stop this behavior, and this kind of thinking, can really save you. If you relapse, own it. “Dang it. I did it again.” Stop and listen to your body, your feelings and your thoughts and see if you can identify what tripped you up. Congratulate yourself for stopping after 3 beers instead of 20; or 4 pills instead of the entire bottle; or one night, instead of an entire weekend. Get back on the horse. Check your self care. Correct anything which has lapsed. Practice self soothing to soothe whatever hurt caused you to relapse. And get back on track.
Forgive yourself, but take responsibility. Find the loophole in your self care strategy and plug it. Then move on. Stay in the present. Learn from the mistake and figure out how to avoid it in the future.
If you have a hard time with this you may be a perfectionist. If you tend to beat yourself over the head for not being perfect, please read my article, “Progress not Perfection” which gives you a new way to think about things which may be more conducive to getting better and staying sober.
See other articles on mental health at my blog: www.kellevision.com.