Addiction Affects the Whole Family: Tips for Surviving the Holidays

Addiction Affects the Whole Family: Tips for Surviving the Holidays

Sad Gingerbread Boy with Hands Up to FaceThe holidays can be loaded with expectations. Connecting with family, feeling the true spirit of this time, giving the perfect gift, making the perfect meal and creating the perfect family memories can be daunting for even the most organized and holiday loving person.

For example, I used to have this vision of our family decorating our tree as if we are part of a Norman Rockwell painting. The children will share the ornaments, with our oldest helping the youngest to secure a safe and beautifully appointed spot. We will sing carols, eat cookies, laugh and beautiful memories will be made.

What actually happens is closer to an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos. At least two ornaments have been smashed by exuberant decorating. One or both children have cried or are crying because someone stole “their” ornament. The ornaments are clumped on one side only and trying to move one will result in more crying. Hubby and I are busy sweeping up broken shards of holiday delight and all pictures have at least one grumpy face in it. And it may be mine.

I have learned that lowering my expectations from Norman Rockwell-like success, which is probably 100 out of 100 on the perfect meter, to a 70 out of 100 on the perfect meter. This allows me to laugh at the mishaps and cherish the chaos. Often, when I expect perfection, I end up assuming I have failed when it does not work out.

When we add addiction to the high expectations we place for ourselves, a stress overload is imminent.

In a family with addiction, there is an added element of dread about how potential relapse or ongoing use may affect these memory-making moments.  Family members may experience shame and guilt at not being able to stop the relapse from occurring and/or anger at the ongoing pressure that this use can cause.  Though the disease resides in the other person, it greatly affects the non addicts, too, changing how we feel life should actually go.

We cannot control addiction but we can control our expectation of the moment and of ourselves.

Accept your situation.

If I focus on my hope that my loved one(s) will not use or relapse and things will be perfect, I am setting myself up for emotional disaster. We can believe that this time of year should inspire change within the addict and that this change leads to great growth and awareness.

Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. The holidays can be stressful. Your person with addiction may harbor the same unrealistic expectations of him or herself which causes further stress. And stress is the number one trigger for relapse.

Choose self-care over additional responsibilities and activities.

Two women chatting over coffeeEveryone in the family can benefit from seeking more realistic expectations that allow for time for self-care (i.e. meetings, spending time with a friend who recharges you, a nap) and limiting holiday activities and unnecessary responsibilities (i.e. attending EVERY holiday party, volunteering for one more project, baking cookies for everyone on your block) in favor of self-care.

Accept you are not superwoman or superman.

I must accept myself for who I am. Holiday books and movies often revolve around the ordinary Joe becoming the hero of the story. The love that this person has saves the day, changes the “villain”, and produces a miracle. In a way, this is true, but the miracle is internal. If I practice love and grace towards myself, I can often make a bad day much better. When I practice loving myself, I am kinder and give more grace to myself and others.

You cannot love someone out of addiction.

Addiction is a disease that is not connected to your ability to love them, fix them or save them. The miracle can only occur within you. Things may or may not go well, but you can practice loving yourself.

Addiction leads to loneliness. Reach out for help.

Unhappy man sitting next to unhappy wife on Christmas morningAddiction can be very messy and disruptive. You cannot fix the situation or cover it up forever. Allowing people to support you during this time, by sharing your worries and concerns, can give you the needed strength to move forward.

In order to hide your situation in the past, you may have avoided all other people or said “yes” to everything while plastering on a fake smile. This leads to increased loneliness and shame as we pretend everything is fine. To become shame resilient, we must stop keeping secrets.

The fear of judgment can be so strong as to make this seem like it’s not an option. Judgmental people will tell you what you have done wrong to cause this chaos in your life. What they say will prey upon your secret belief that if you were a better person, tried harder, did or did not do the thing that you are most convinced caused this addiction, your person would be healthy and life would be good. These are not truths but are based out of fear. Those people exist but they are not the majority.

Addiction touches at least two-thirds of families.

Most people are amazed at how often they will hear a “me, too” when they decide to tell people what they and their loved one have been going through. There are support groups, such as Al-Anon Family Groups, that can also offer connection and support during the holidays and any other time of the year.

You can make good memories and celebrate again.

Unfortunately, the chronic disease of addiction can negatively impact our lives. It can cause chaos, fear and self-recrimination. However, it also opens the door to great opportunities to grow as the old system of high expectations of self and shame fails to work, and we begin to understand that we can choose to practice self-care and love as well as connection with others even in difficult times. You did not cause your loved one’s addiction and you cannot control it. But you can continue to grow, to make good memories and to celebrate life during this most magical time of year.


Stacey Williamson Nichols, LMSW, CAADC is a Licensed Master of Social Work (LMSW) and is also a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor (CAADC) with more than 10 years of experience in the social work field. She received both her undergraduate and graduate degrees from Grand Valley State University.

Stacey’s experience includes working in the areas of domestic violence, childhood abuse and neglect and its effect in adulthood, chronic mental illness, substance use and dual diagnosis. Areas of expertise include work with several disorders – mood, anxiety, co-occurring, trauma and personality.



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