How can those struggling with addiction stay safe during the holidays?
Adi Jaffe Ph.D.
The holidays are a stressful time for everyone. Between gift-giving, travel, and keeping up with all parts of the ever-complicated modern family unit, nearly anyone can find themselves driven towards the nearest coping mechanism, whatever that may be. However, for recovering addicts, or those still struggling with an active addiction, the holidays can be a particularly troubling season that can invite a destructive relapse. As with all mental and physical health issues, education and awareness are a powerful first line of defense. By going over some of the most frequently asked questions about addiction and the holidays, we can attempt to shed some light on these issues for addicts and their families to help combat them before, not after, they become bigger problems (like a relapse).
Why Are The Holidays So Difficult For Addicts?
Obviously, as just mentioned, the pressures of the holidays are difficult for everyone. But for addicts, these same issues of money, family and general stress are amplified, often because they are the same age-old issues that lie at the root of the addiction and the beginning of drug use and abuse in the first place. If the recovering addict has not had the opportunity to openly confront family issues in the past, either with the family itself or with a therapist or counselor, the potential for relapse can be great. A vast amount of research shows how stress can bring even long-dormant behavior back to the surface, which should serve as a warning to substance and behavioral addicts alike (like sex addicts or compulsive gamblers). On the other end of the spectrum, addicts without a stable family or group of friends are often left feeling alone and isolated during the holidays, another powerful source of the shame and boredom that can drive addictive behavior.
What Are Some Of The Hidden Struggles That Can Intensify Addiction/Trigger A Relapse?
Most often, these struggles emerge from one of two likely scenarios. In the event of a still active addiction, attempts to hide the problem from friends and family and the resulting stress can, paradoxically, intensify the addictive behavior. And whether the addiction has been treated or not, gathering with family in a familiar place can frequently cause someone to face many of the underlying issues that can be the root causes of a drug addiction or compulsive behavior. To paraphrase Tolstoy, all unhappy families are unhappy in their own unique way, and whether one’s particular family is overly judgmental, enabling, angry, or whatever else, it can serve to restart self-destructive patterns of behavior. For some recovering addicts, there may be a family-imposed secrecy around the recovery itself, which can be trying at a time when the whole family is gathering, ostensibly to celebrate one another. Even the house (including the room where an addict used to act out) and certain family members (like that cousin they used to smoke weed with) can be important cues that may re-trigger cravings and old behavioral patterns. Additionally and importantly, if there is a family history of any kind of past abuse, this can obviously serve as a particularly powerful and insidious trigger for addicts, whether recovering or not. In fact, recent research suggests that these old, root stimuli may be much more powerful for drug addicts than re-experiencing the drug itself.
What Are Some Strategies For Surviving The Holidays?
First and foremost, one must be prepared. Since most people at least know and are aware of the potential issues that might arise within their own families, it is crucial not to try to “wing it.” If you know that your family is going to be asking lots of uncomfortable questions, practice some appropriate answers and don’t feel obligated to discuss any aspect of your recovery that you’re not comfortable discussing. If your family is overly focused on achievement or likes to bring up stories from the past that are triggering or shameful, rehearse your reactions to them. If you have a friend or significant someone who can help, do a little role-play trying out different answers and see how they feel as you actually say them out loud. It will never be exactly the same as you practice, but being prepared can go a long way towards taming the body and brain‘s natural stress responses. Just as importantly, if you know you’re liable to encounter events or people that formerly facilitated addictive behavior, role play those likely scenarios and know how you plan on turning down or avoiding those substances or behaviors. For instance, figure out how exactly you’re going to tell your cousin you aren’t going to smoke in the basement with him before you have to actually do it. It will sound a lot less forced and strange the second time around and you will have already experienced some of the associated anxiety. If you’re going to be alone, make distinct plans for your activities and do the best you can to find healthy situations to participate in, even if they seem new or slightly uncomfortable at first. For instance, go ahead and join that group of strangers for a Christmas eve dinner or Christmas day movie instead of spending those times along. After all, uncomfortable or not, a new, healthy experience will be vastly preferable to sliding back into the same old destructive patterns of the past.
Most everyone is familiar with the New Year’s Resolution as a method of planning major life changes. Of course, most everyone is also familiar with the limited success rate of these resolutions, and of the effectiveness of “going cold turkey” in general. Depending on the addiction, there are certainly things that individuals can do to help themselves- for example, research suggests that when trying to quit smoking setting a quit date and beginning to use replacement patches or supplements in anticipation of that date (in other words, while still smoking) can help reduce the amount of smoking while approaching that quit date, making it easier when the day finally arrives. If you’re planning to quit a “harder” drug than nicotine, you may want to set a whole schedule for reducing drug use prior to the quit date itself. The important thing is to be completely realistic in order for the change to stick. If you’re drinking a bottle of vodka a day, attempting to go completely dry within a week can be extremely dangerous to your health, and will not likely result in a permanent change. Once again, education and preparation are key. Prepare for any sort of quitting by looking online on sites like AllAboutAddiction and WebMD, and identify the medical and psychological issues that are likely to accompany your attempt. Look to see if your problem is one that you can handle alone, or if it is recommended that a doctor help you with the process. Remember that your goal should be lifetime change, not a temporary one. Though it might seem counter-intuitive, if your holidays promise to be especially difficult or stressful, you may want to hold off on trying to quit during them and look at them as a time to lay the groundwork for your post New Year quit attempt rather than going for a full on cold turkey try. Such pragmatism may well help you achieve your true goal.