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Holiday gatherings can reveal addictions. An expert talks about how to cope.

The story’s been played out in movies and books — and at many real-life holiday events: A family gathers to celebrate the season, and before long the festivities turn sour when it becomes clear that one member’s struggle with addiction has become too obvious to ignore. Trouble may have been brewing for years, but under the seasonal microscope, the struggle is out there for everyone to see.

How should a family respond when a loved one’s addiction issues flare? And why is the holiday season a time when these problems often become apparent? 

I spoke with Sherry Gaugler-Stewart, director of family and spiritual recovery at The Retreat, a residential addiction recovery program based in Wayzata. She told me that while this time of year can be rich with happy memories, it can also be a petri dish of dysfunction where intense annual togetherness breeds unhealthy behavior.

“When you haven’t seen somebody for a while, things can feel like they have changed drastically,” Gaugler-Stewart said. “A little distance can put a situation in relief, and make problems that you were able to ignore before more apparent.”  The positive that comes out of this togetherness is an opportunity to finally address addiction issues before they get out of hand.

MinnPost: Why are the holidays often a time when people realize that their loved ones are struggling with addiction?

Sherry Gaugler-Stewart: Many of us don’t see much of our family members until the holidays. The rest of the year, when we are all out and about doing our own thing, it may not be apparent just how serious our loved one’s addiction problems have gotten. But then, when we are all together for extended times at family gatherings, people may be able to see the reality of where someone’s addiction may have taken them.

MP: So you begin to notice that Grandma is having one too many glasses of wine? Or your brother seems to grow foggy and combative as the evening wears on? 

SGS: Those are common examples. It could also be a younger person, like a young adult just back from college. When kids go away, the holidays may be the first time they’ve been home since late summer. Over holiday break a parent might notice that their child is acting differently. Parents may tell themselves, “It’s just a phase” and try to ignore those troubling behaviors. Some people do that because they are afraid to upset the apple cart and they want to keep the holidays free of conflict. But if you notice a change in your loved one it is important that you mention it.

MP: Why would a person think that keeping the holidays conflict free is more important than addressing a potential addiction problem? 

SGS: Families get so wrapped up into this hard-to-achieve holiday ideal. They want everything about these celebrations to be perfect, and that added pressure sets individuals up for some incredibly stressful interactions. If you have a loved one who is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, things just aren’t going to be perfect, and it’s better to address it head on than to just avoid conflict and let it slide.

MP: When’s the best time to speak with a family member about your concerns?

SGS: If they are actively using, it’s not productive to have a conversation while someone is inebriated or high, especially if that person regularly experiences blackouts. If possible, I think it’s best to find a quiet time to talk seriously with your loved one about your concerns.

MP: Confronting someone about their addiction must take a lot of bravery. How does a person prepare for the task?

SGS: One of the things that is really important in the process of helping someone realize their own addition is for family members to educate themselves about this disease and find support for themselves. Research shows that this helps improve recovery outcomes for everyone. It helps to be around people who understand alcoholism and can offer support for the important conversations they need to have. When family members understand the impact of this disease it helps them treat themselves and their loved one with love and compassion.

MP: Do these conversations really need to happen right away? Couldn’t it wait until after the celebrations are over?

CGS: Sometimes it’s important to take action. What really scares me right now is opioid addiction. If you have reason to believe a loved one is abusing opioids it is important to have a conversation now and not wait because of fear of conflict. I’d rather know that I took the time and energy to say something to someone even if it causes conflict than to wait and deal with the guilt if they have died.

MP: If you have a family member who is abusing alcohol or drugs, should you remove those substances from your home before they arrive?

CGS: If someone is actively in addiction you have to look for the approach that is going to feel the most productive for you and your family. If you are going to be constantly concerned about the medicine above the bathroom sink or the liquor in the liquor cabinet, maybe you might to want to take the time to remove those substances from your house. But that approach is not always the answer. What it comes down to is asking yourself the question, “Can I be truly present in the holiday with whatever choice I make?” There is not a right or wrong choice to make in all of this.

MP: Could there ever be a situation where it is best not to invite a family member with addiction to the holiday celebrations? 

SGS: Some families have decided not to invite their loved one who is struggling with addiction to their holiday celebrations. They have decided they do not want to put up with the behavior over the holidays. But then others say it is more important to have their loved ones there, no matter what state they are in.

Sherry Gaugler-Stewart
Photo by Emily Tobin
Sherry Gaugler-Stewart: "I try to tell families that they get to have a good holiday even if their loved one doesn’t. They get to decide what a good holiday means to them."

MP: It sounds like families have to make some really tough calls at this time of year.

SGS: They do. Family members sometimes get so caught up in thinking about the right thing to do for their loved one that they lose perspective about what they should do for themselves. I try to tell families that they get to have a good holiday even if their loved one doesn’t. They get to decide what a good holiday means to them. Oftentimes when there is someone in the family who is struggling with addiction, all of the energy is directed to that person. Other family members need to pause and ask themselves questions, like “What do I need to be happy?” “How do I want to show up for this holiday?” “How can I find joy and meaning for myself?” There is no way that you can love someone who is struggling with addiction without feeling a personal impact.

MP: Are there particular support programs that you’d recommend for families?

SGS: Going it alone is really hard. There are many choices for support in Minnesota. There’s Al-Anon. There are different independent counselors in Minnesota who work with family members with a loved one who struggles. And most places that serve as treatment centers also have a family component. At The Retreat, families don’t have to have someone taking part in our addiction programs to participate in our family programs. Whoever wants support can come. And Minnesota Recovery Connection also has an excellent family support group.

MP: Do you have advice about healthy ways to celebrate the holidays when a family member is in active addiction treatment?

SGS: Take it slow. Sometimes a loved one will graduate from a treatment program not long before the holidays. They’ve been gone for 30 days, and when they return everybody in the family thinks, ‘They’re recovered now. Life can go on like normal.” But recovery is a long-term event. Recovery only really starts when a person leaves a treatment program.

Who can blame families for wanting a return to normal? But it’s important to remember that from here on out, life will have a new normal, and there is some getting used to that. Sometimes an individual in recovery will find ways to avoid addiction triggers. They might choose to stay away from family events — or they will attend, but bring their own vehicle so they can leave on their own power. Or they might bring along someone who is also in recovery for moral support. It is important to support your loved ones as they make it through this massive personal change, and to understand that even during the holiday season, change can be good.

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