Holidays can be joyful, fun-filled celebrations — and they can also be full of pitfalls and setbacks for anyone in recovery from drug or alcohol misuse. While families gather for festivities, those struggling with these issues may find themselves in situations where emotional triggers make staying on the road to sobriety difficult.
According to the CDC, the most dangerous months of the year for drug-and-alcohol-related deaths are December, January and March, and nearly 91,000 deaths have been reported for the month of December since 1999. Beyond the ordinary holiday stresses, the COVID pandemic has made everything more challenging.
In a JAMA survey, about 1/3 of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, and 15% reported new or increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress. These statistics represent a deadly threat: The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reported a record 100,306 drug overdose deaths between April 2020 and April 2021 — a 28.5% increase.
But there are things you can do. If a loved one is on their recovery journey, here are steps you can take to support them, and to remove triggers and temptations from their path.
1. Talk about it
Someone in recovery will be more open and honest with you if you begin a dialogue first. Tell them you’re proud of them for the steps they’ve taken and ask what you can do to support them over the holidays. Make it clear their presence is not required for any events they’re not comfortable attending.
“Creating a judgment-free space is imperative, and this begins with a conversation,” said Dr. Brandee Izquierdo, executive director of the nonprofit SAFE Project, who is in long-term recovery herself. “Engaging a person in recovery with compassion and empathy can lead to a deeper level of understanding of what does and doesn’t work for them.”
2. Get rid of substances that could be tempting
The presence of alcohol, drugs or medications can be triggering for someone in recovery, so consider removing substances from your home prior to the holidays.
- Instead of alcohol, stock up on non-alcoholic beverages like punch, juice and sparkling water. If you want something celebratory, non-alcoholic sparkling cider is a great option.
- Get rid of old, unused medications in the home. Leftover medication in your medicine cabinet can be a powerful temptation for a loved one struggling with substance misuse. Safely dispose of them by using the Deterra Drug Deactivation System, a drug disposal pouch that uses activated carbon to destroy a variety of medications — including pills, patches, liquids, creams and films — with the simple addition of tap water. Easily available via Amazon, Deterra destroys over-the-counter and prescription medications and renders them safe to throw away in household trash without harming the environment.
3. Prepare family members and guests
If you’re hosting a gathering at your home, give your other guests a head’s up that it will be a sober party to support your loved one in recovery. If you’re attending someone else’s event, let the hosts know how important it is not to offer alcohol to someone in recovery. Some people may be unaware that “one little toast” with an alcoholic drink can completely derail someone’s sobriety goals.
4. Plan events not centered on food and drinks
You can enjoy the holidays without overindulging in food or alcohol. Help set up activities such as:
- Ice skating or sledding
- Going on nature walks
- Playing board games or charades
- Making crafts
Planning smaller gatherings is also a good idea, as it allows you more control over the guest list and how the celebration will progress.
5. Actively show support for their recovery
Offer to attend meetings with your loved one (if that is their recovery path) and let them know they can call you when they need a listening ear or a ride to get away from a triggering situation. Reassure them that it’s OK to leave a holiday gathering if they’re uncomfortable, and let them know that it’s normal to have feelings of stress around family communication, comparisons with the past or expectations related to their recovery process — especially over the holidays.
“Showing support to those struggling with substance misuse means a lot, especially coming from family and friends,” said Admiral James Winnefeld, co-founder of SAFE Project. “While you’re not responsible for someone else’s recovery or sobriety, your continued love and support can help them find the strength to cope with everyday challenges and stressors.”