Navigating the Holiday Minefield

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Ah, the holidays! The time of year when worries are sent packing and the world is bright with cheer, love, and lots and lots of temptation, triggers and potential traps for those struggling with addiction. 

When families are embroiled in a loved one’s addiction, the holidays can resemble a minefield more than a joy-filled wonderland. How can we manage such a time of excess and self-indulgence without putting our loved one at risk? Are we in charge of policing those struggling with addictions? Should anything be off-limits? Should we expect others to keep our loved one’s struggles in mind when celebrating? 

During my son David’s active addiction, we wrestled with all the above. And there is no playbook, nor instructions to follow to ensure the holidays will remain joyful, safe, and not lead our loved one back to active addiction or encourage an already active user to slip further into peril. 

So, what to do? While every family and situation are different, a few guidelines may help to allow celebration without encouraging harmful excess.

Think about the following: 

Have a conversation.
Your loved one is involved in a very real fight for his/her life. 
Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

Set expectations and boundaries. Let your loved one know in advance what’s happening with celebrations and what you expect in terms of their behavior. Don’t be afraid to say no to drinking in your home or even having them not attend celebrations if you believe it will put their sobriety in jeopardy. Be sensitive to others hosting celebrations and respect their boundaries involving your loved one.

Be flexible. God willing, your current circumstances will not be permanent. If your loved one is struggling, consider modifying your traditions to respect their current struggles. For example, instead of hosting a large gathering with opportunities to over-indulge, consider having a smaller family gathering with no or limited alcohol—perhaps a brunch instead of evening party. You may need to make this the year where celebrations are a bit more subdued.  

Encourage mutual respect. Clearly, you want anyone struggling with addiction to respect your rules. Consider, then, also mutually respecting their struggle by not placing them in compromising situations. For example, when our son was in early recovery, my husband and I chose not to drink alcohol in his presence.

We did not impose that restriction on anyone else, but we told him that we knew how challenging his situation was and we wanted to offer a sign of support by not drinking in front of him. A little solidarity with someone struggling is a holiday gift worth giving. 

With some thought, honest conversation, flexibility and mutual respect, the holidays can still be a time of joy and shared experience with all families, including those struggling with addiction.

Mary Fran Bontempo is a 2x TEDx speaker, author and humorist.

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