Why the Holidays Are Difficult for People With Addictions

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The holidays can herald challenges for everyone: awkward family issues, travel stress, gift expenses, religious conflicts. Those with mental illnesses might encounter triggers for various symptoms and issues. Addiction is no exception and can be especially burdensome.

During a time of excess and indulgence, it takes even more self-control for people in recovery to abstain from substances. Friends and family members might offer them a drink or invite them to smoke. There is a higher frequency of ads for alcohol. It seems the entire world is consuming without a care, yet those in recovery need to be more cautious than at any other time of year.

These aspects of the holidays can be isolating for people with addiction problems. They often feel lonely and anxious regarding the increased chance of relapse, according to therapist Laura MacLeod, who has run several addiction support groups. If they do break their sobriety or promise to consume in moderation — even if it doesn’t lead to a full relapse — the resulting guilt can be devastating.

Hiding the Addiction from Family Members

Because of the fear of shame, judgment, or even excommunication, some people in recovery or with an active addiction hide their issue from family. This deception can be nearly impossible to maintain during the holidays. Relatives are in close quarters. It can be difficult to sneak away to attend a sobriety-related meeting. Diverting attention from the problem can be stressful and, ironically, lead to further abuse, psychologist Adi Jaffe, Ph.D. wrote in an article for Psychology Today.

If some family members are aware of the addiction while others are not, the person with the issue may experience anxiety regarding being exposed. They might feel like they need to constantly do damage control and monitor what everyone is saying.

Judgment from Those Who Know About the Addiction or Recovery

If family members know about the addiction or recovery, they may talk about it inappropriately or make passive aggressive comments. The holidays are a time when people often air long withheld criticisms or grievances, often with the assistance of alcohol. These circumstances increase the chance of someone bringing up issues related to the addiction. The resulting shame can exacerbate substance abuse issues or feelings of isolation.

On the other hand, some families expressly forbid their immediate members from discussing certain issues. This silencing tactic is usually an effort to contain the chatter and prevent other relatives from gossiping. If the strategy is successful, the person with the addiction might not need to worry about hiding anything.

The mandate of silence or secrecy, however, is not necessarily preferable. This attitude can be stigmatizing and make the person in recovery feel like they are an embarrassment to the family.

Physical and Emotional Triggers

Imagine a young man who is in recovery for an addiction to opioids. He returns home for the holidays and remembers he is staying in his old bedroom, the place where the addiction started. Every detail of the room fills him with shame and forces him to recall painful memories.

At the same time, he is tempted to use again. The nostalgia is seductive. There were some good times in that room. The familiarity with the environment might make him comfortable and facilitate a tantalizing high.

He manages to resist and head downstairs to the living room to hang out with this family. After an hour, however, his father begins behaving in a way that makes him ruminate on why he began abusing opioids in the first place. He feels trapped in a house designed to test his emotional endurance and self-control.

Many people in recovery have similar experiences during the holidays. The environment where they grew up can be very triggering and stressful.

What People in Recovery Can Do to Prepare

If you are recovering from an addiction, consider connecting with a therapist and working on a mental health plan before the height of the holiday season. Texting therapy can be especially helpful because clients can send a message the moment they feel triggered or distressed.

Remember to maintain your routines, even during travel and family visits. Stay in constant communication with sponsors or members of a recovery group. These people can offer guidance and remind you that you are not alone.

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