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How to Support Loved Ones in Recovery Through the Holiday Season

Group of friend pray before having food and drinks

The holidays offer rare opportunities to come together in joy and celebration and can create unique stressors that we all feel as we schedule family gatherings and holiday parties. For those in early recovery who may have recently completed rehab treatment, these celebrations can be daunting and full of challenges to their sobriety.

If you have a friend or family member who is preparing for their first holiday without alcohol or drugs, there are meaningful steps you can take to support them during this time and repair or restore strong bonds of caring and fellowship in the spirit of the season. It is normal to feel some uncertainty about how to help or to worry about the consequences of a relapse, but there are ways you can make this transition easier for those you care about.

Why Are the Holidays So Challenging for People in Recovery?

We all experience and can understand the normal sources of stress during the holidays. Shopping, travel, and social commitments can feel overwhelming for everyone. Those in early recovery have additional stress because:

  • They may have financial difficulties that they have had very little time to address.
  • Their brains and bodies are still learning to process situations and emotions without the numbing effect of drugs or alcohol.
  • They must navigate the season without the “social lubricant” of alcohol and deal with feelings of guilt or shame they may feel about past holiday behavior.
  • They must summon the courage to overcome anxiety, face trigger situations, and defend their decision to remain sober.

Practice Understanding

Addiction is a chronic, relapsing disease, which must be managed. Like diabetes, asthma, or high blood pressure, lifestyle changes are required to keep the disease from becoming life-threatening.  As you gather with a loved one in recovery, the most supportive thing you can do is help them avoid the substances and activities that are likely to trigger a relapse.

Your loved one may have spent months in detox, counseling, and therapy to reach a place of self-awareness and clear decision-making, but their disease is still present. This may be the first serious test of the skills they gained in their drug or alcohol recovery center. Your support and encouragement is the greatest gift you can offer at this time when it is so deeply needed.

Be a Beacon of Honesty

There can be a tendency to sweep concerns and questions under the rug and avoid discussing anything about these challenges, but doing so isolates you from your loved one. There is no need to walk on eggshells and wonder what your loved one wants or needs. Be the person in their life who asks honestly and openly how to help.

Opening a difficult discussion gives the person in recovery a known ally—someone who seeks to understand what they are going through and can be depended on for honest feedback if/when things become difficult. Be clear about your support for their sobriety, shine a light on a dark subject, and be the sounding board your friend or loved one needs.

Schedule Smaller Celebrations

Dial back expectations that increase holiday stress, scheduling smaller and more relaxed celebrations. Avoid large gatherings with open bars, events that last for hours, and returning to places and activities associated with using. This year, host a non-alcoholic event where your friend or loved one can socialize without the added pressure of intoxicated onlookers.

Keep expectations in line with reality, and celebrate the small things that matter so much—being together, healing, and overcoming obstacles. This is not the time to dredge up past injuries or romanticize the party days. Focus on the future and the blessings of the year, and express your pride in the accomplishments of all of your family members.

Recognize the Risk of Relapse

Group of people with different ages celebrating with sparkler at night party outdoor

Taking action to support your loved one during the holidays is a concrete sign of your caring and open intentions, but it is important to remind yourself that you cannot control your loved one’s recovery. You are not to blame if they relapse, and you do not need to accept excuses about “having just one.”

If a relapse seems likely or occurs, you can support their return to treatment, drive them to a meeting, remind them of their reasons for staying sober, or remove yourself from the situation, as you see fit. Avoid old patterns of co-dependency—do not hold yourself accountable for their sobriety, and do not blame yourself for their drug use.

Keep the House Clean

If previous holiday traditions involved drinking alcohol, change drinks to something everyone can enjoy—like sparkling water or punch. Remove gifts of wine or booze from your home as soon as possible, and eliminate visual reminders of alcohol or drug use. Seeing commercials for alcohol, smelling it, or even listening to music associated with addiction can trigger cravings for your loved one.

Consider this parallel: If one of your family members had a shellfish allergy, you would remove shellfish from your home, you wouldn’t serve it at dinner, and you would not allow others to bring that substance in the door because it represents a very real threat to your loved one’s health and safety. You would politely decline to attend parties serving a seafood buffet. This is the way you should treat alcohol and drugs when a recovering person is part of your family.

Plan for a Fast Getaway

If you and your recovering companion do decide to attend events where alcohol may be served or drugs might be present, plan an exit strategy and a cover story to be ready for a polite retreat to safer ground if things get too challenging. Decide how you will respond to offers of intoxicants, and be prepared with a polite response.

Let your hosts know that you may need to leave early, bring your own non-alcoholic beverages, and be ready to leave with that established excuse on a moment’s notice. You might use early morning commitments, conflicting medications, your babysitter’s schedule, needing to drive, or any other reasonable story for avoiding offers of alcohol or drugs and making discreet departures as needed.

Seek as Much Support as You Both Need

The person you care about is likely to face unexpected challenges during the holiday season, and you can help by knowing where the closest treatment center is and where meetings are held in your area. If your loved one faces mental health issues like depression or anxiety, they may need to meet with their therapist on short notice.

There are also support groups for the family and friends of those struggling with addiction and, if you have never attended such a meeting, now may be a perfect time. In this open forum, you can discuss your concerns and challenges without worrying about judgment and learn how to better support yourself, your family, and your loved one.

Welcoming Recovery into Your Life

Group of friends sitting on the floor next to a Christmas tree

Celebrating the recovery of a friend or loved one this year can be an inspiring experience and expand your understanding of the hard work and commitment we all face when we seek to change our lives for the better. In this season of charity and new hope, reach out to someone you know who is on the path to recovery.

Every person deserves support and encouragement as they strive to improve. While not every person in early recovery succeeds the first time they attend treatment, even a single friend or loved one who believes in their ability to triumph over addiction is a powerful and positive force that empowers them to return to treatment and eventually overcome their disease.

At Dedicato Treatment Center, we wish all of our clients and their families a happy holiday season, and we stand behind your commitment to overcome substance use disorders with smart recovery choices. If a crisis arises, contact our compassionate and accredited rehab center in the Los Angeles area for immediate help and guidance.