How to cope with addiction battles at Yuletide

Christmas is a time of joy and plenty, but for families dealing with addiction it can be a particularly difficult time of year, writes Con Cremin, Executive Director of Talbot Grove
How to cope with addiction battles at Yuletide
Christmas and New year mean lots of social events, where drink is often present. It can prove a difficult time for people with addiction issues.

CHRISTMAS lies just around the corner, and in the final days of festive preparation many are anticipating a joyous and restorative time of year.

Work is winding down, the last of the presents are purchased and families look forward to gathering together amid an abundance of food, drinks and life’s other pleasures.

However in families affected by addiction the approach of Christmas may be viewed with dread rather than anticipation.

For individuals struggling with their own addictions, and especially those in recovery, the Christmas period is a challenging time.

There are many social situations — staff Christmas parties, family meals, and (‘12 pubs’-type excursions) — in which the pressure to drink is heightened, and the effort to maintain recovery can be considerable. It’s not just alcohol that flows in abundance at this time of year; Christmas is also a time for food-laden tables and headline sporting events, so those managing eating disorders or gambling addictions are equally confronted with situations and events that can be challenging.

Christmas is also a time when much of the social focus revolves around the family. For some people this may amplify feelings of loss and loneliness which are often more keenly felt at Christmas.

Even in the happiest of families, the experience of being cooped up together over the Christmas period — obliged into proximity by free time and often inclement weather — can be the touch paper for tension and conflict. For those with addiction issues this is only exacerbated, and indeed the fear of alcohol and drug-related negative behaviour may be a source of deep concern.

As an addiction counsellor, I and others in my profession tend to downplay Christmas, advising those in recovery to treat it as just a series of 24 hours in turn, each like any other. But of course, this is not easy to achieve, and it is commonplace here at Talbot Grove to experience a surge in enquiries in December and January, the Christmas period having drawn to the surface issues which can remain less visible at other times of the year.

For individuals and families dealing with addiction it is possible to survive and indeed enjoy the Christmas period, bearing some key points in mind.

For those in recovery I would advise them to plan their social activities carefully, you do not have an obligation to attend many of them, and to make full use of the supports that are available as part of their recovery programme.

For adult family members I strongly advise them to be conscious of their own drinking festive period around children and teenagers in the house.

Too often festive activities revolve around alcohol, leaving it difficult for people who aren’t drinking — for whatever reason — to feel involved. Make a conscious effort to include these people, ideally by organising family activities in which alcohol is not present. Getting people out in the fresh air at Christmas has many benefits, removing the focus from alcohol but also releasing some of the pressure generated when people are thrust together indoors. It is important to be able to have fun without needing alcohol or drugs to make it happen

If addictive behaviours become an issue, intervention is warranted, but I would urge caution — there is no point, for example, in talking to somebody when they are drunk as the conversation will not be remembered and the situation may be escalated. I would advise having conversations like this early the following day, when the person may be more open to discussion and may indeed be feeling guilt about the consequences of their behaviour. If conversations like this do happen among family members, I would advise people to come to them with an understanding of the nature of addiction — it is an illness, and usually requires professional intervention. No matter how many times a person may promise that they will change, or they will abstain, it is not within their power to do so without the appropriate help and support offered by services such as Talbot Grove.

Finally, I would also emphasise to family members who are concerned about or affected by the behaviour of a relative, that there is also help and support available to the family members themselves. It is often a family member that makes the first approach to us about someone they are concerned about, and one of the things we urge is that the family member also avails of professional counselling such as in the form of our Family Support Programme. This can be of invaluable assistance in helping the person to understand the nature of addiction, to cope with the behaviours of the other person, to cease their own negative behaviours which may be enabling that person’s addiction, and to reduce the feelings of guilt or shame that they may have about the situation.

Have a peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and fulfilling New Year.

Con Cremin is Executive Director of Talbot Grove, a residential addiction treatment facility in Castleisland, Co. Kerry. For more information call 061 7141511 or visit www.talbotgrove.ie.

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