Families, Addiction and the Holidays – A Difficult Mix

You know those holiday letters you get from friends and relatives letting you know how wonderful everything is in their lives? “Bradley is in his fourth year at medical school.” “Susan just made partner at her law firm.” And the writer of the letter is about to retire at the age of 59 – while your kid, spouse or partner has been struggling with addiction for who knows how long, and it feels like you’ll never retire for all it’s cost you.

What do families with an addicted love one say when it comes to his or her paragraph in the annual letter? “Scott decided to take a year off from college and do some traveling.” “Henry is taking some time off from work to find himself.” What if you really told the truth? Unfortunately, the stigma of addiction is prohibitive. Yet many wouldn’t hesitate to share if a loved one had cancer, a heart attack, or the like.

Then there are cases where locally, it’s common knowledge that your loved one has had addiction-related struggles. Perhaps your spouse has had multiple well-publicized drunk-driving offenses or is in drug court.

I just spoke with a businesswoman whose young adult child made local headlines related to legal problems related to addiction. Her clients keep asking her, “How’s Chad doing?” In fact, Chad isn’t doing well, so how in the world is this mother to respond?

What about those holiday parties and extended family gatherings where people ask how your year was and how specific family members are doing? If you have a loved one with addiction, you might feel like saying, “Do you really want to know?” But usually you just fake it and muddle through.

As friends tell them about their Billy graduating from Cornell and then ask how your Sarah is doing, you say things like, “Oh, you know free-spirited Sarah. She’s had an interesting year, doing some traveling.” But you leave out the part about how the traveling has been to three rehabs, with some time in between living on the streets.

These issues apply year-round, but they are especially difficult at holiday time.

More From the Family’s Perspective

The pain radiating from a mother’s eyes was palpable when I recently re-encountered someone whose son, after years of struggling with heroin addiction, had had a long period off drugs but was using again. She talked about a recent holiday family gathering in which her daughter, who had long distanced herself from her brother, was now (at this occasion) happy just to see him present, functioning, and interacting pleasantly with her children. It was something the mother had deeply longed for.

If they want to have any kind of relationship, sometimes families have to accept their addicted loved ones where they are, perhaps still using, grasping the good times when they can. At these moments and for any positive changes, no matter how small, praise from family members can go a long way. (See my two articles on the evidence-based CRAFT approach. It not only greatly increases the likelihood of family members helping addicted loved ones enter treatment but also teaches highly effective communication strategies.)

Certainly, siblings and children of an addicted parent can be deeply affected. Older siblings get sick and tired of all the time and energy the addicted person takes and become protective of their parents for all the wear and tear. -Anne Fletcher

Siblings and children of an addicted parent commonly see themselves neglected (and they often are) because of the time and energy that goes into dealing with the issues parents and spouses have to address. And there’s the humiliation of dealing with issues such as the addicted family member who regularly comes home under-the-influence and/or embarrasses them in front of friends. It’s important to carve out time for siblings and children of addicted parents and to try to maintain holiday traditions.

To Hold On or Let Go?

In a  2011 study in the American Journal on Addictions, family members reported that four significant others were directly affected by a person’s addiction-related problems. Such family members often wonder whether to let go or to not let go of their addicted loved one, particularly when addiction has dragged on for a long time. People who attend the 12-step-based support group Al-Anon commonly talk about “detaching with love,” but some family members go so far as to change their locks and put loved ones on the street. There’s no question that the battle can be exhausting.

As shared in a previous column, in the late senator George McGovern’s book, Terry: My Daughter’s Life-and-Death Struggle with Alcoholism, in which he talks about Terry’s many relapses after stints in expensive relapses, he shares his deep regrets about following the advice of a counselor to limit contact with her during what turned out to be the final six months of her life. After spending much of her last month in and out of a detox center, Terry was found frozen in a snow bank.

There is no guidebook for how to handle life with an addicted loved one, and family members often feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t when making decisions…

In writing Inside Rehab, I turned to the University of Washington’s Daniel Kivlahan, PhD, for advice about whether there’s research to guide the decision about which way to go with an addicted loved one. There really isn’t, but I noted previously that Dr. Kivlahan stated, “There is good evidence that being abandoned by loved ones in fact hurts one’s chances of recovery.” He added, however, that loved ones have their limits, which need to be respected.

John Bollig, a nurse who works with me at Minnesota Alternatives, said, “Chronic homeless clients I work with often experience great feelings of loneliness, isolation, and, many times, desperation during the holidays. This pain can trigger memories about what they’ve done to traumatize their loved ones so seriously that the families have walked away from them. As painful as it is, this can be a golden opportunity for such clients to look at their responsibility for their current predicaments during the holidays, offering a serious opportunity for growth.”

Finally, no matter what family members decide to do, they have to deal with the judgment of others. There is no guidebook for how to handle life with an addicted loved one, and family members often feel damned if they do and damned if they don’t when making decisions such as allowing their loved one to remain in their homes, forcing them to go to rehab, bailing or not bailing them out of jail, or setting boundaries such as limiting contact with the person with addiction.

From the Addicted Person’s Perspective

Last, but certainly not least, families need to be mindful of the countless ways the holidays can impact addicted people themselves. Many are fighting tooth and nail to stay sober while the rest of the world is partying with cocktails and champagne.

…families need to be mindful of the countless ways the holidays can impact addicted people themselves. Many are fighting tooth and nail to stay sober while the rest of the world is partying with cocktails and champagne.-Anne Fletcher Television commercials and TV shows don’t help. Childhood memories – both good and bad – come back to haunt, as do thoughts of time and opportunities lost to using. Well-intentioned family members give gift money with conditions, perhaps understandably, but not “getting” the sting incurred to the addicted loved one.

At family gatherings, there can be direct and indirect reminders not only of how an addicted person’s behavior has affected the family, but also feelings of tremendous guilt and shame about it. (Comments by relatives who, after a few stiff drinks, make a dig about how their tax dollars are paying for the addicted person’s many stints in treatment, as well as mental and social services certainly don’t help.)

For those in residential treatment over the holidays, it can be an incredibly lonely time. A loved one of mine was recently in rehab and not a single relative or friend sent a card or reached out to the person. My husband and I were the only visitors. (Would this happen if someone were in a hospital after back surgery?) Since then, the person said, “Not once has a sibling called to ask me how I’m doing or if they can help. And everyone makes assumptions about how I’m doing, how I’m feeling, and what’s best for me. But they never ask ME.”

I work with Kelley Murphy, a licensed addiction counselor (she also happens to be an attorney), whose passion is working with clients with complex co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders. Her message for clients at this time of year is this:

“Holidays tend to be a high-risk time for those of us struggling with substance use and mental health challenges. There is enormous pressure in American society to live up to being like the Norman Rockwell family gatherings we see in the media. Most of us have experienced or are experiencing difficult relationship dynamics in our families, and we end up feeling like we’ve failed when we’re not able to create the merriment and connection we believe others are enjoying. Add to this the numerous alcohol-laden holiday parties, and we have a potential recipe for disaster.”

“Sticking to a solid self-care practice is imperative in order to decrease vulnerability to making unhealthy choices. That means making sure you get enough rest, fresh air, healthy foods, physical activity, and adequate sleep. This will improve your ability to navigate potentially difficult environments. And, remember, you are not alone.”



It’s important for family members to do what they can to support this process and at the same time to maintain their own self-care and set boundaries as best they can.




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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Rehabs.com. We do believe in healthy dialogue on all topics and we welcome the opinions of our professional contributors.

What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • Jerry Costley

    When talking to family members regarding the issue of when to extend help to a loved one with an addiction, I completely avoid the use of the term “enabling”. Rather, I talk about this as a very personal decision that is theirs alone to make. I note that if they become too enmeshed in their loved ones addiction they risk being pulled under and “drowned.” If they distance themselves they risk that something tragic may happen to their loved one and that they may end up living with guilt. As a guideline, I refer them to the American Red Cross lifesaving rules, which recommends that we do everything we can to rescue a drowning person short of putting our own lives at risk. If we can’t swim, we should try throwing a lifeline or flotation devices or reaching out with a branch to pull them in. If we can swim, we can try entering the water with the drowning person, but if they grab a hold and start drowning us, as painful as it is we have an obligation and right to kick ourselves free, even if it means the person will drown (which would probably be the outcome anyway, only they would drown us with them). I talk about what a painful decision this is and then talk about whether the person may also be drowning siblings and other loved ones.

    I note that in making this decision, families should focus on what they need to do for self preservation and what consequences of their decision they can best live with long-term, rather than on what is best for the persons with the addiction, as we can never predict what that is. As Ms. Fletcher notes in her article, the effect of “tough love” is often to make recovery and survival more difficult. As with my analogy, it also makes these decisions less black and white. Rather than asking if the family should extend help, they can begin asking how they can extend help and encouragement while still protecting themselves and their family. Referring back to my analogy, the question is often not whether I should or shouldn’t help the drowning person, but should I throw them a lifesaving ring or jump in with them. Certainly professionals should never glibly denounce “enabling” about such a very personal decision.