Adolescents, like all humans, are sentient beings--attentive, responsive, and most of all “thinking” beings. On some occasions, however, this gift of sentience appears to exacerbate rather than mollify emotional reactions in a home with addiction facing an approaching holiday season. For an adolescent, this is especially true when considering that the executive functions of the brain—those functions responsible for reasoning, coping, strategizing—will not be fully “on line” until age 25!
In such cases, personal reactions to a family dealing with addiction can cause some adolescents to literally panic and “catastrophize,” especially when, like Scrooge, they are visited by the ghosts of “holidays past.” For many in addicted families, the holiday season functions like a time machine, instantly transporting individuals back to a time when addicted behavior made it seem like they were “home at the holidays” rather than caring and sharing with friends and family.
Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to catastrophizing and when reaching their late teens may actually flee addicted families, perhaps to college, a marriage, or the service. However, even in such cases, the Siren’s call of a traditional holiday instills a longing to be, home at the holidays. On the flip side of this coin are the parents who are torn between a longing to have their children with them for the holidays and the dread that the season will somehow be transformed from an occasion to share warm holiday moments to something akin to a Simpson’s episode storyboard.
Some anxiously await the opportunity to share the season with their addicted loved one(s), believing in true co-dependent style that their time apart will somehow have enabled the family to miraculously resolve its problems. However, for those who return to an addicted family unit, they have been away just long enough for memories of the family’s chaotic behavior to fade. Still others are paralyzed by the fear of what awaits when they return to the all too likely chaos they left. In short, these young adults are all, at the least, anxious about returning home for the holiday season. For too many, being “home at the holidays” is an unfortunate reality.
Reality or not, parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, or significant others of all stripes can prepare to help adolescents “get through” such situations. The good news is that adolescents report that their parents are among the most important influences in their lives and it is not beyond reason to suspect that this impact extends to any trusted adult family member. So, if this holiday season includes sharing it with a family member dealing with a substance use disorder, you can make a difference in how others, especially adolescent family members, view this holiday season. What follow are several thoughts on helping family members prepare for “the holidays”:
- Help them remember: Just as no family member makes the alcohol or other drug dependent individual drink or use, neither can anyone keep him/her from drinking or using. This is arguably the single most frequent irrational belief held by untreated members of an addicted family. On a cognitive level, family members “know this” yet, on an emotional level, they have failed to “accept this.” This point is of paramount importance when helping adolescents prepare for the holidays. If unable to accept the limits of one’s ability to influence another’s drinking or drugging, then they will react to the addiction rather than interact with the person having the disorder.
Case in point: Phyllis was a 17-year-old high school junior, dreading the holiday season because of the all but certain reality that her opiate-dependent brother will ruin Christmas dinner by “Making one of his scenes.” As we spoke it became clear that Phyllis would help her mother prepare the meal all day, clean the house before the company arrived, and, as her number one job imposed by her mother, “Make sure your brother does not get high before dinner.” Phyllis discussed her growing anxiety, knowing that her brother would use, make a scene, and leave her to deal with her mother’s rage over her not having prevented this. When asked for proof that she could accomplish her mother’s directive, she quipped, “Are you kidding, keep my brother from using?” We discussed not setting herself up for a “traditional” Christmas by refusing to accept the task of keeping here brother clean. Instead, we discussed how Phyllis could avoid getting caught in the crossfire between mom and brother. A trusted father, aunt/uncle, or grandparent could have this same conversation with Phyllis.
- Help them remember: The 1st rule of coping with addiction is to challenge the primacy of trying tocontrol the addiction by putting the addicted individual first, in front of all else in one's life. To this end, discuss the merits of inviting the addicted family member to celebrate and socialize with the family, but if he/she refuses, so be it... GO ON AND CELEBRATE YOUR HOLIDAY ANYWAY!
Case in point: An 18-year-old college student who was very anxious to return home for the holidays spoke with me. She came to college in order to escape the chaos of her alcoholic family, but quickly became concerned about her younger brothers and sisters living in that environment…who was making sure they were up for school; who was doing the laundry and cooking for them; who was buffering them from their father’s alcohol-induced rages? This student did not return from the holidays, choosing instead to remain at home, attend community college, and care for the family. You can remind the adolescent that what an addicted family chooses to do does not dictate what he or she…or any member of the family for that matter…must do. Unlike the planets held in orbit around the sun, a family’s holiday celebration does not have to be determined by the addicted member’s absence.
- Help them remember: As difficult as an obnoxious intoxicant may be to deal with, avoid confrontations when the addicted individual is “under the influence.” Confrontation is to the intoxicated person as kerosene is to a flame!
Case in point: A client would plead with his mother not to drink during the holidays yet she would still “have just a couple to celebrate with the family” and eventually become intoxicated, embarrassing my client in front of his friends. This would prompt an angry exchange, resulting in him leaving and vowing to “never let that happen again.” I asked my client to envision walking down a dark street and encountering a mad dog. What were the chances that he would approach the dog in order to stroke it and reason with it in response to his fears? He looked at me like I was insane and said, “I would cross the street and stay as far away from that dog as possible.” I then asked why he thought he could reason with his mother when she was drinking?
- Help them remember: While there is no excuse for addicted behavior, it is understandable. Believe it or not, most addicted individuals do not intend to do what they do. True, they may intentionally drink or drug, but they do not necessarily intend to “act out.” Even a basic understanding of addiction includes an appreciation for how an addicted individual believes that “this time when I use, it will be different.” Individuals with addictions drink/drug, get drunk/high, and do intoxicated things. This thought won’t lessen our frustration but it may help prevent being drawn into the craziness of addiction.
Case in point: A client walks into my office after the holidays and is livid. He unloads about how his “hop-head brother” totally ruined the holidays. After listening to his story, it became clear that the holidays had not been ruined, at least for the rest of the family, it’s just that my client could not understand that his brother was simply doing what he knew how to do. I suggested that if he wanted to continue our conversation, “vous allez avoir à parler français”—he was going to have to speak French. He looked at me like I was insane and said he did not speak French. I suggested I did not care, but if he wanted my attention, he was going to have to speak in the language I wanted to use. He saw my point, smiled, and we talked about how we all know what we learn and learn what we are taught. His brother could no more avoid using simply because it was Christmas than my client could speak French on demand. I ended the discussion by asking if he could learn French given enough time and support. He smiled and said, “Probably.” Addicted families can learn to recover too…given enough time. You can help your loved-one achieve a different vantage point from which to approach the addiction in the family.
- Help them remember: Addiction is a health issue, not one of morality. As the diabetic can no more tolerate sugar during the holidays than at any other time of the year, neither can the addicted person tolerate alcohol or pills any better just because it is Christmas or New Years. Although it is true that the holidays seem like a time of miracles, peace on Earth and goodwill towards all, this does not mean that the addicted reveler is less susceptible or any better able to assuage the effects of intoxicating drink or other drugs.
Case in point: A student was discussing the likelihood that his grandfather would “get drunk” during Christmas and spoil the holiday, “as usual.” When I asked why he was so angry when contemplating this pending event, he replied, “You’d think he could stay sober just one day out of the year and not spoil everything for everybody else.” I simply asked, “What makes you think Christmas would be any different than any other day?” I got the expected litany of reasons, but I reiterated my original question, suggesting that if an addiction is a health issue like diabetes, what is so special about “that” day that could suspend the symptoms of an illness? Our conversation was longer than this brief report, but he was able to see the illogic in his reasoning.
In short, addicted people use alcohol and other drugs because they cannot not use, try as they may; that’s addiction! To this end, if families of addicted individuals don’t expect them to act differently simply because it is a holiday, then an addict’s using on the holiday does not come as a surprise and is therefore, potentially, less frustrating. Again, this does not help family members “like” the behavior, but perhaps it does help them avoid being drawn into the craziness of an addicted person's intoxicated logic.
In this season of great expectations, with media reinforced pictures of the way the holiday “should be,” remember that quote in Luke, Ch. 2:14, in the Christian Bible, "Peace on earth to men/women of good will." Remember: People with addictions are people with health problems, as obnoxious as their behavior may be. Although it may appear they could not drink/use for “just one day if they really wanted to,” addiction does not work that way. As a recovering friend once told me, "Bad things DO happen to good people."
At this holiday time of the year, there are steps that members of an addicted family can take to lessen the likelihood that others in the family, especially adolescents, feel as if they…“are stuck at home for the holidays.