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Expert Advice

Support a loved one working through addiction

It’s painful when someone you care about is dealing with addiction—and this disease doesn’t take a break over the holidays. If your loved one is addicted to a substance like alcohol, medications, tobacco, or illegal drugs, know that you’re not alone. Substance use disorders affect about 14 percent of Americans (one in seven) at some point in their lives and also affect the people who care about them.1

Laura Thunell is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and recovery coach with the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit organization for addiction prevention, treatment, and recovery. As Thunell tells us, “Often, those with substance use disorders struggle with shame and guilt. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma associated with addiction, and some people see addiction as a moral failing rather than accepting it as the disease it is.”

We don’t blame loved ones for having diabetes or cancer. We shouldn’t blame them for addiction, either. It’s a chronic disease that affects the brain and decision-making. Like many other chronic conditions, it can’t be “cured”—but it can be managed. If your loved one has started seeking treatment, that’s a huge step in a healthy direction. Recovery is a process. Slips can happen, but that doesn’t mean treatment has failed or that overcoming the addiction is impossible.

Holiday stress can make it harder to stay sober

Stress and hard feelings that might surface over the holidays can lead people to think they deserve to blow off steam—for example, by drinking or misusing drugs, either during or after the holidays. According to Thunell, a number of stressors can make it hard to stay sober:

  • Family gatherings can stir up unresolved feelings or conflicts
  • The holidays can be a reminder of loved ones who have died or highlight relationships that are somehow unfulfilling or incomplete
  • Time can feel like a fleeting resource amid all the holiday obligations
  • As an adult, there are expectations that we’ll buy gifts, volunteer, bake, and plan holiday events—and those expectations come with pressure to perform
  • Many events have alcohol on hand, and it can be hard to say no when friends and family are drinking

As Thunell explains, “Friends in early recovery might make statements about having just one drink or using. They may rationalize that everyone else drinks or uses on holidays, or that it’s okay on a special occasion. That can be a sign they are tempted to drink or use substances and are trying to justify it.”

How you can support a loved one’s recovery

Your friend or family member who is working to stay sober may need extra support during the holidays; below are some ways you can be there for them. (And since stressful situations and the temptation to drink or use can happen anytime, you can also call on these strategies to foster their recovery once the holidays are over.)

1. Learn the basics about recovery. Once you have a better understanding of addiction, you can learn how you can help someone stay sober.

2. Offer your assistance—or an escape route. Ask how you can support them to stay sober and safe. Suggest that you work together to create a plan for avoiding triggers to drink or use. For example, you can offer to help them “escape” a social gathering if they give you a cue that they’d like to go. Or you can offer to pick them up as soon as they need to leave.

3. Trust them if they turn down your offer to lend a hand. A key part of recovery is learning how to identify and voice one’s own needs. Don’t try to force them to accept your assistance. Respecting their recovery process is a way of showing you care.

4. Accept the limits of your power to control another person’s choices. Do what you can to support your recovering loved ones, but understand that you are not responsible for what they ultimately decide to do. Once you’ve offered your help, separate yourself from the outcome of their choice. Thunell advises that “we can’t dictate if others choose to use substances or show up to holiday gatherings under the influence, but we can choose how we respond.”

5. Model good self-care. Make one healthy change of your own: use some time at lunch for a walk or meditate for ten minutes. Changing your own behavior can show self-awareness, respect, and good communication. Putting in hard work yourself might inspire your loved one to stay committed to their own recovery.

6. Store any medications you do use somewhere safe or carry them with you. Get rid of unused medications around the house safely.

7. Address slips if they happen, but wait until the person is sober. As Thunell puts it, “The best thing a friend or family member can do is address the situation and offer support. Don’t ignore the issue out of fear that it will ruin the holiday—avoidance and denial are not healthy behaviors that support recovery.” Use “I” statements and “and” instead of “but.” For example, “I feel scared for your safety when you hang out with friends who use drugs. I love you AND I want you to go to a group meeting.” Parents of youths with substance use disorders need to follow through on established consequences—and back each other up when multiple parents or stepparents are involved.

8. Consider having a sober holiday gathering, and if you do, be sure to communicate that ahead of time to everyone involved. This way, sober loved ones will know it’s a safe place for them to be, and others aren’t surprised or disappointed that there’s no wine. Even people who aren’t struggling with addiction may enjoy the change.

Addiction doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does recovery. It’s important to remind friends who are in recovery how much you respect them for putting in the hard work to face this disease. Encourage people you care about to stick with their plan, and remember that your support matters just as much once the holidays are over.

Endnotes

  1. U.S. Surgeon General, Facing Addiction in America: The Surgeon General’s Report on Alcohol, Drugs, and Health, “General Facts and Recommendations,” Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://addiction.surgeongeneral.gov/sites/default/files/fact-sheet-general.pdf