Today is Christmas Eve. Tomorrow is Christmas. Shortly, it will be New Year’s Eve and then we begin 2014. For many people, this is the most wonderful time of year. A time of family and friends, a time to give thanks and be merry, a time to look back and contemplate and look forward and hope. However, for many people the holiday season is one of stress and fear. Of uncomfortable situations and feeling overwhelmed. This can happen to anyone but it seems that it regularly happens to many addicts and alcoholics. The stress that is magnified this time of year for anyone may ultimately lead to a dangerous situation for someone dealing with drug and alcohol issues. Jamison Monroe Jr., Founder and CEO of teen residential treatment program Newport Academy, says this can be even more so for teens struggling with substance abuse, in a blog for the Huffington Post titled “Holiday Stress Can Amplify Mental Health and Substance Abuse Issues.”
“Drug abuse can seem like a logical escape from the drama for many teens,” Monroe writes. He’s not wrong. And that escape of holiday family drama isn’t just a behavior seen in teens. Adults that suffer from drug and alcohol issues often justify using and drinking around the holidays because of the stress they go through. And for those people ill equipped to deal with such fearful and anxious situations, it is not surprising that they would turn to old answers like drugs and alcohol for escape, for comfort or for just enough help to get through the day.
The Pressure of a Relapse
However, the truth is that the holiday season is stressful for almost anyone. Regardless of what many people would have us believe, no family is perfect. Every family has their issues, some are just able to deal with those issues in a healthy way. There are very few Lexus Commercial Families, where mom is surprised by dad on Christmas morning with a big red bow on her new Lexus LX 570 and her two perfect children run around happy barefoot in the snow. What those commercials may not show you is how perhaps that present was dad’s way of apologizing for screaming at mom in front of their friends at a dinner party, how dad almost broke his computer because he couldn’t find on Google where to purchase a gigantic red bow, how they have been in couples therapy for a year and how the kids regularly are carted off to their grandparents because mom and dad need “alone time” to “process things.” This is obviously just a fictitious situation, but probably more likely than what you’re watching during the commercials of your local NFL game.
The point is, every person and every family gets stressed during the holidays. Unfortunately, people suffering from drug addiction, alcoholism, substance abuse and chemical dependency are at a much greater danger when stressed. Because for a normal person without those issues, a beer or a glass of scotch or a joint or prescribed Xanax may be a stress reliever for that night and tomorrow they wake up and take care of their Christmas shopping list and prepare a holiday feast. For a drug addict or alcoholic, they may plan on only having one beer or one glass or one pill, but it sets off a chain reaction that ends up with them having spent all the Christmas present money on crack, or they show up for dinner too drunk to stand. And then being the looks of disgust. Their families and loved ones begin to yell and cry and ask them why they couldn’t hold it together, why do they keep doing this, and how could they have done this again. And for most drug addicts and alcoholics, if they were honest with themselves, they wouldn’t know the answer to those questions. They would say their intentions were just to have one, to “take the edge of”, that they wanted to be the good father, the good mother, the good son or daughter and show up and be a part of the family. But in their heart of hearts they wouldn’t have an answer. And the guilt and shame that they feel would set of a long course of using and/or drinking that often would only end up in a detox, a rehab, a jail, or at worse, a funeral.
So the stressful holiday season can be a dangerous time for someone with substance abuse issues. But it doesn’t have to be. Drug addicts and alcoholics that are in recovery do not need to fear the holiday season. For those that have been clean and sober for awhile, at this point in their recovery they should have the tools to deal with such stressful situations. They should not be fearful or run from them. Through their own treatment and recovery, they should have the ability not to worry about the stress or the fact that everyone else is drinking. The holiday season should be like it is for any other person, a wonderful time of being with friends and family. Some stress may occur, but it is much lessened by the ability to actually be a part of the family, to bring something to the occasion, to be a participant in the lives of their friends and family.
However, for someone that is newly clean and sober, the stress during the holiday season can be worrisome but there are many things that can be done to feel safe and protected from a drink or a drug. First, if needed, a person can go to detox, make sure they are physically cleared of all drugs and alcohol. Second, if a person is still in treatment, they should make sure they speak honestly with their treatment center and their therapist. A plan should be in place for what to do during the holidays. Open communication and honesty is key. If someone feels stress or in fear of using, that should be discussed openly with no fear of judgment or repercussion. Drug addicts get high. Alcoholics drink. It’s what we do. To chastise someone for thinking about such things is ridiculous, and can be hurtful to their recovery. OF COURSE THEY ARE WORRIED ABOUT GETTING HIGH DURING THE HOLIDAYS. THEY’VE ALWAYS GOTTEN HIGH DURING THE HOLIDAYS! But they need to articulate those feelings. They’ll need to be discussed in a therapeutic treatment setting. The family also needs to be brought up to speed. Explain the situation and how they can be helpful. And many times, it is not by the family doing a 180 and changing their behavior. The addict is the one that needs to change, because the world will not change for them. But the family will also need counsel by a the treatment provider. Actions also will need to be taken outside of a treatment facility. Regular attendance at a Twelve Step fellowship such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous is vital but so is being connected to recovered members of those fellowships. A newly clean and sober person must also be transparent with those people in their circle of friends in recovery. And they should make sure to spend much time with those friends as well. Not just an hour at a meeting, but time before and after, with people happy about their recovery that are not newly clean and sober themselves. These relationships are key for people newly free from alcohol and drugs.
For some with a substance abuse or chemical dependence issue, the holidays CAN be a stressful time. But managing that stress is not a difficult thing. And a relapse back to using drugs or alcohol is easily preventable, as long as the addict or alcoholic is willing to follow the suggestions and directions of those people who have his or her best interests at heart AND who have the education and the experience of dealing with these situations in the past. Open communication, transparency, honesty, willing to follow direction- these are all things that will lessen the stress of the holiday season and make it much more secure that a relapse doesn’t happen. The holiday season should be a season of happiness of joyfulness and of family and friends. Stress and fear and discomfort should not be the primary feelings of such a happy time. So make sure that if you or a loved one is suffering from addiction or alcoholism during this time, that they get the help they need AND the continued help that they’ll need throughout the holiday season. After all, being able to participate with your family and friends holiday season is infinitely more enjoyable than escaping to dark room with the shades drawn, depressed with a bottle or a crack stem or a needle. Trust me.