Navigating Addiction in the Holiday Season

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Holiday decorations and champagne glasses

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With the holiday season upon us, people across the globe are preparing for family gatherings and holiday parties with both excitement and anxiety. For families impacted by addiction, there is an additional challenge that plagues party plans and guest lists. Do you invite that person? Will they be sober? Will they over-indulge and create drama? Will other people be upset if you invite them? If they come, do you serve alcohol or not? As an addiction psychologist with 20 years of experience providing evidence-based therapy, these questions flood my sessions when the holidays approach.

When someone close to you struggles with problematic substance use or addiction, the holiday tension can be palpable and overwhelming. Here are some things to consider about how to navigate holiday festivities when addiction is part of the picture.

Let your values guide you instead of your fears.

Many people struggle with whether or not to invite those who are dealing with addiction, particularly if previous experiences have been turbulent. I encourage people to let their values influence holiday decisions more than their fears. That doesn’t mean that you should invite disaster to your holiday gatherings, but you can consider appropriate precautions for health and safety. Sometimes, it simply isn’t safe to invite someone, but if your primary reason for excluding someone is based on fear that could be exaggerated, you may want to reconsider implementing appropriate boundaries and precautions instead of outright excluding the person.

Social support is a powerful resource for people struggling with addiction, so consider whether you really want to withhold that from someone during the holidays out of fear that could be mitigated. There is no one-size-fits-all boundary here, so it’s something to explore openly and honestly. What values do you want to embody? What messages do you want to send about how to respond to people who are struggling in their lives?

De-emphasize alcohol at holiday gatherings, but don’t eliminate it begrudgingly.

Many people think that you can’t serve alcohol at a gathering if someone in attendance has a history of alcohol or drug addiction, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, sometimes, that well-meaning decision can backfire and make the person feel untrusted, infantilized, or like they’re ruining the party for others. The fact is, if someone really wants to drink alcohol or use drugs, they will find a way whether you serve alcohol or not. And if someone really wants to avoid drinking alcohol, they will use their coping skills, boundaries, and judgment to meet that goal.

So unless the person has explicitly requested that the event be alcohol-free, it’s often better to de-emphasize alcohol instead of omitting it entirely. Make sure to provide alcohol-free options that are comparable, exciting, and festive. Maybe you have an alcohol-free “mocktail” version alongside the cocktail or include some of the growing variety of alcohol-free specialty drinks. Get creative with it, and it won’t be just the people with a history of alcohol problems who appreciate the effort and sentiment.

Connect instead of control.

Whether you invite the person to the gatherings or not, try to approach your interactions with them with a goal of connection instead of control. If you don’t invite them, consider trying to connect in a different way. Maybe you invite them at a different time for a smaller gathering, or maybe you send them a thoughtful gift and note. You can use the holidays as an opportunity to express your love, concern, and hopes that they can be more involved in the future.

Most people struggling with addiction know that it impacts their loved ones, and they might appreciate your honest and compassionate response instead of a non-specific excuse that feels phony. Whatever your decision, remember that you are not responsible for whether the person stays sober or not. You can’t control their addiction or recovery, but you can choose to connect with them in meaningful ways.

Reframe addiction with compassion and kindness.

One of the most impactful and important things to consider in these situations is your perspective on addiction. Do you think substance use is a voluntary choice that shows disregard for others? Do you react with anger and resentment? Are you trying to teach them a lesson by excluding them?

Alcohol and drug use disorders are highly stigmatized, and many people think that the “tough love” approach is the only viable option. As discussed in my article on how to talk to children about addiction, I encourage people to experiment with a paradigm shift that fosters compassion and kindness instead of anger and outrage—what would you do if the person struggling with addiction were instead struggling with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or Alzheimer’s disease?

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Once you remove the presumed fault from the equation, would your holiday choices change? Would you still exclude the person? Or would you formulate ways to minimize risk and include them safely? Would you invite them to join on the condition that they are “in a good place” or “clear-headed”? Would you hope for the best and have a plan for how to get them to leave safely if they arrived impaired? Would you wait until the day of the event to gauge their state of mind before inviting them? Would you plan to see them separately instead of including them in certain holiday festivities? How would it feel to view addiction as more of a mental illness than a deviant behavior? See if this paradigm shift can help you navigate the holidays with loved ones struggling with addiction.

Copyright 2023, Kelly E. Green, Ph.D.

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