Why are Holidays So Difficult for People with Drug and Alcohol Problems?

Posted on December 23rd, 2013

saying no to a beerFor millions of Americans, the holidays are a time to reconnect with family and friends, to share experiences and make new memories. But the holiday period can be anything but joyous for those who have problems with drugs and alcohol. For them, the time from Thanksgiving through New Year’s can be filled with stress, depression and anxiety and the overwhelming number of triggers to revert to self-destructive behavior they know so well: using.

Specifically, what are the reasons why holidays are so tough for people with drug and alcohol problems?  More important, what can be done about it? Here are some answers.

Your stress level increases when you’re with family members.

Many of those who have a problem with drugs and alcohol also have relatives with drug and/or alcohol problems who have not stopped using and are not supportive of the person in recovery. Being in recovery and working diligently to avoid the persons, places and things associated with past use becomes all the more difficult if family members are drinking and doing drugs right in front of you.

It is often hard for someone in recovery to face parents and children they’ve taken advantage of, lied to, or disappointed in the past. Returning to the family home, seeing everyone gathered together can bring up feelings of shame, guilt and worthlessness.

There’s also the issue of relatives’ long-held resentments.  Families don’t want another holiday season ruined by their drug-addled relative and don’t trust the improvement they may see.  It can be difficult for family members adjust their role expectations.  Imagine the sea change in looking at your loved one who’s in recovery and getting past the belief that they’ve gone from being the black sheep in the family to the white knight.  When you’re in recovery, you may worry and wonder when your relatives will just let the past go.

It’s hard to celebrate when your life is a mess.

Family problems, financial problems, work problems, legal problems all seem to coalesce and take over your focus and concentration.  The abstinent alcoholic is trying to work through these issues and it is often hard.  While other people seem to have so much to be grateful for, you feel as though you are just barely hanging on.

There is alcohol everywhere and everyone is drinking

And even people who seldom drink, ‘loosen’ up for the holidays.  This type of behavior all around you creates cues and initiates craving.  Craving is not just a psychological preoccupation with using but it is a physical stress response.  It’s almost impossible not to be stressed by these cues, as everywhere the alcoholic turns, the cues are there.

You feel pressure to join in.

Most people give themselves a ‘pass’ for the holidays.  The prevailing self-lie is that it is OK to eat too much, drink too much, to stay out late and to engage in other unhealthy behaviors during this time of the year.  When everyone around you is stuffing their face, pouring stiff drinks and urging you to have one, the pressure to join in can be overwhelming.

What can you do? Here are some recommendations:

  • Don’t go it alone.  Talk to sober friends about how they handle the holidays.  Have a sober buddy you can ‘debrief’ with.  If you have a sponsor, discuss what to do if feel like you are going to use. You have a support network for a reason. Now is an appropriate time to enlist their help.
  • Talk to family members and friends about your concerns before visiting.  If your relatives are heavy or problem drinkers, a wise course of action is to remind them you will not be drinking.  You may want to let them know that you may need to leave early (other commitments, work deadlines) so you can make a speedy exit if things become overwhelming. While they may initially insist you stick around, repeat your obligation to your prior commitment or urgent work project that demands your attention and say that you’ll talk with them soon. That should suffice to get you off the hook and out the door.
  • You don’t have to visit with ‘toxic relatives’.  Many people with drug and alcohol problems suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to a history of physical and emotional abuse by relatives.  If you know that someone who abused you is going to be present at a family gathering, consider making arrangement to visit with your other relatives at another time.
  • Binge eating can trigger other compulsive urges.  Plan what and how much you will allow yourself to eat and not eat BEFORE you go to a holiday gathering.  Don’t deviate from your plan.  Remember that you need structure and a plan will give you something positive and specific to follow during a time of temptation.
  • Have a non-alcoholic drink in your hand at all times.  It will spare you the awkward conversation when someone offers to get you a drink. Nobody really knows what’s in your glass but you (and maybe the bartender). Whether it’s water with lime or lemon or cranberry juice or tomato juice with a celery stalk, you’re chatting and being sociable with a drink in hand that won’t get you in trouble.
  • Manage your expectations.   It is OK to feel bad when things are bad.  People will hold grudges.  Relatives can be BOTH angry and concerned.  This year’s New Years Day may be disappointing but things can and will get better. When you acknowledge that these feelings may surface ahead of time, you won’t feel overwhelmed when and if they do come up.
  • Give back.  Doing volunteer work around the holidays, gives you a chance to make a difference, and to be around other people who are giving where alcohol is not involved. If you’re not ready yet to help out at a soup kitchen or are unsure where to volunteer, consider bringing a meal or a small gift to a shut-in or someone in your neighborhood who’s elderly, lives alone, or may just need a visit from a friend. Giving of yourself will not only take your mind off the stress of the holidays, it will make you and the person you’re helping out feel a little better, too.

This year, resolve to plan ahead to make the holidays a little less stressful and more manageable so that your recovery stays on course.

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