The very thought of it brings to mind warm, loving families, cozy fireplaces, sugar plum fairies, and the very gifts you’ve been secretly hoping for.
Definitely the most wonderful time of the year…
Unless you are the loved one of someone with an addiction—and then that beautiful snapshot can look completely different.
In truth, the Christmas season is the most difficult time of the year for people who love someone struggling with addiction. The anxiety that accompanies the holiday season is often unbearable for both addicts and their loved ones. But the difference is that there is a lot of help out there for people with addictions—and not very much at all for the family and friends who suffer and struggle right along with them. And, of course, the irony is that for every addict, there are numerous loved ones affected by that person’s addiction.
EVERYONE IS AFFECTED
Think about it—for every one person dealing with an addiction, there are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, friends, teachers, fellow students, co-workers, bosses, doctors, therapists, and often countless more people whose lives are touched by this devastating situation—even beloved pets can be affected!
And unless loved ones are going to a support group such as Al-Anon, Ala-Teen, ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families), or CODA (Codependents Anonymous), they are far more likely to keep their emotional turmoil to themselves rather than talk to other people about what they are going through. This creates an increased sense of isolation and shame, because loved ones of people with addictions often don’t realize that a great many other people just like themselves are also isolated in their own feelings of shame and guilt.
OUR SECRETS KEEP US SICK
When we grow up in a climate of addiction—whether the addictive behavior is alcohol, drugs, disordered eating, smoking, gambling, sex or relationship addiction, or compulsive overspending—we learn at an early age how to pretend that everything is okay. We watch others in our families do that, so we basically learn from ‘experts’ how to present that stiff upper lip. Sometimes we keep that façade going well into adulthood, trying desperately to control everyone and everything in our lives so that others won’t know what’s really going on for us behind our closed doors. Essentially, we vow that we won’t let anyone truly know us, so that we won’t be judged or abandoned by our friends—or even by other family members.
HEALING REALLY IS POSSIBLE
When we can begin to understand that keeping these secrets is often a family legacy – one that we don’t have to buy into anymore—we can also begin to heal. We learn that we can make different choices that will actually help the situation instead of just enabling it to continue.
How can we do that? We heal by talking with others about what is truly going on and how we really feel about it, without having to put on that façade of everything being ‘in control’. I deeply believe that our real strength shines through when we decide to be authentic in our relationships with others, allowing ourselves to be emotionally vulnerable—the very thing most of us were taught in our families not to be.
Please know that it takes tremendous courage to go against our family values, to do whatever is necessary to move away from being in the problem and choosing instead to be in the solution. Until that decision is made, even by only one person in the family system, no healing can take place for anyone involved.
WHAT YOU CAN DO DIFFERENTLY
If you are the loved one of an addict or alcoholic, you are most likely facing this upcoming holiday season with equal portions of fear, anxiety, shame, and guilt. Those very feelings fly in the face of the often ridiculous hype we see in the ads portrayed on TV during the months leading up to that one day of the year when we are all supposed to be loving and jolly.
For those of you who have experienced year after year of increasingly stressful and unhappy holiday times, I would like to pose the good ol’ Dr. Phil question: How’s that been working for you? Like most loved ones of addicts, your answer is probably something like “Not very well.” And if that is your answer, then my next question to you is: Are you willing to try something different this time?
Many of you will respond with a resounding “YES!!” followed closely with “But what should I do? How can I make this year’s holiday different than other holidays have been?”
Let me suggest a few guidelines to help you do exactly that:
1. If your friend or family member has an addiction that overtakes the joy of the holiday season, you might want to decide not to have them in attendance. It’s been said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. If, this year, you allow your addicted loved one to once again negatively dominate your family functions, what makes you think you’ll get a different result than the one you had last year, or the year before that?
2. If you find it difficult to set clear and healthy boundaries with your addicted loved one, try to enlist the support of other friends or family members to assist you when you talk with him or her. Although this may mean sharing the truth of your situation for the first time, a united front is generally far more effective when setting boundaries with addicts who may have a tendency to become verbally or physically abusive when challenged. There can be safety in numbers.
3. If you have any questions or confusion about what your boundaries are in this situation, know that there are skilled professionals who can help, such as counselors, therapists, and interventionists. Many counseling services are now also available via telephone, Skype, and email. Try to seek out someone who is trained in dealing with addiction—from the point of view of both the addict and the loved ones. It’s very common to not know what boundaries to set at first—or how to go about maintaining them, which is equally important. Don’t hesitate to reach out to us if you need help—that’s what we’re here for.
4. Once you know what kind of boundaries you want to set, it will be a good idea to tell your addicted loved one before the holidays arrive. For example, you may want to say, “We love you and we’d very much like you to be part of our family gathering this year—as long as you don’t drink or use drugs 24 hours before you arrive, or during the time you’re with us. If you agree to this but you don’t uphold your end of the agreement, you will be asked to leave and escorted out if necessary.”
5. If the addict/alcoholic is likely to become abusive during the holidays—or any other time—and you know they won’t honor your request for them to leave, it may be a good idea to have an exit strategy planned for yourself (and your children) if that becomes necessary. Every time you allow someone else to act this way toward you, your tremendously important self-respect is affected, perhaps more than you realize. You do not have to tolerate anyone else’s verbal or physical abuse, and it’s best to nip it as early as you can to prevent it from escalating.
6. Keep in mind that if you don’t set and maintain clear and healthy boundaries with people who behave inappropriately, you are enabling their dysfunctional behaviors as well as your own codependency. This is not a loving act toward either of you, and creates a definite lose-lose scenario. You can choose to empower yourself to act differently this time around.
GIVE THE GIFT OF SELF-RESPECT
Being the loved one of someone who is actively participating in any self-destructive, addictive behavior is tremendously difficult at the best of times. When we add Christmas festivities to the mix, a great many more anxieties can bubble to the surface for all concerned. It is, therefore, vitally important to have a clear sense of how you’d like your holiday to be this year, and take the steps necessary to help achieve that goal.
Remember—we cannot change or control another person. We can only change our own choices, reactions, and behaviors. Let’s all make the choice to give ourselves the gift of becoming as self-aware and self-respecting as we can possibly be—at Christmas time and all year round.
I wish all of you a wonderful and blessed holiday season.