It can be difficult to have an alcoholic or drug addict as a guest for the holidays. With approximately one in 10 Americans having a problem with addiction, the odds are that someone at your holiday celebration this year struggles with substance abuse. How can you make this holiday memorable in positive ways? Take a step back and remember that the season isn’t about what you want, but what you can give. Instead of imagining and creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of a tragic event, here are some ideas that might make your holiday celebration with an addict go more smoothly.
Act like this is your last chance to express your love.
When someone is on their deathbed, we don’t bring up the past wrongs and old hurts that have gone between us. Instead, we express our love for one another. Similarly, there is no need to pick a fight with your addict guest. As the host, be gracious and kind. The addict at your holiday party may have done some terrible things in the past. Don’t talk about that now. Instead, focus on why you love this person, and keep that focus throughout the event. Doing so will soften everyone’s experience and minimize the opportunity for discord.
Recognize your enabling behavior.
In treatment, we call codependency or enabling “loving the addict to death.” When you pay for an addict’s phone, for example, because you want to be able to call them, you are in fact shielding them from the consequences of their addiction and keeping them from treatment. Seek your own treatment to deal with your enabling behavior; it might be the key to saving your loved one’s life.
Set clear boundaries and stick to them.
If you choose to invite an addict to your holiday celebration, assuming that person does not live in the home, be clear about what time you expect them to arrive and leave. If they are late, do not hold up the meal. If they come very late, you do not have to let them into the house. If you are not comfortable serving this person alcohol, don’t. If they don’t like your rules, they can either stay away or leave. The event is on your terms, no theirs. If you ultimately want the person to get help, they will have to conform to the rules of a treatment program. Every engagement is an opportunity to let them know that the world does not run by their whims. Be firm, but compassionate, as you stand by your boundaries.
Forget the presents.
Any gift you give to an addict supports their ability to maintain their lifestyle using. Do not invite the addict over to open gifts, or give gifts to the addict. Be clear about your intention not to have the addict participate in this aspect of the holiday. You want the person to get healthy and cannot support their using behavior.
Lock up medications and alcohol.
It is inevitable that your drug-dependent guest is going to go through the medicine cabinet, grandma’s suitcase, and your bedside tables looking for drugs. It’s an easy score. Before the addict you love arrives at your home, lock up all medications and keep the key on your person. This includes the medications of any guests staying in the home. If your loved one is already known to steal items to sell, it’s probably best not to allow them in the house. That may sound hard, but if you want the presents to make it to the recipients, that’s the only option.
Keep naloxone on hand.
If your loved one is using heroin or opioids, be sure that you have naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, on hand and know how to use it. No addict can go for very long without using, so it is likely that your loved one will arrive at the party high and use at least once during the event. Don’t let your holiday meal turn into a tragedy. Be prepared for overdose, know CPR, and have a plan for how to call emergency services if you are in a remote location.
Don’t feel like you can keep to your boundaries? Then don’t have a holiday feast at your house. Instead, go to a homeless shelter or other facility and help those who are truly in need this season. Collect coats or distribute hot meals to seniors and shut-ins. Take freshly baked cookies to fire houses and police stations. Getting out of your own worries to help others will certainly cheer you up, and your addicted family member probably will choose not to participate in this kind of activity.
This is the time of year to celebrate connection and let family members in trouble know that you want them to get healthy. You can’t let your own desire to relieve your anxiety take precedence over your loved one’s health. Feel your anxiety and pain for your loved one, but keep your boundaries. Let them know, too, that the greatest gift they can give you this holiday season is a real commitment to a high-quality treatment program. You never know what will happen. It is the season of miracles.
Dr. Constance Scharff, PhD, is the research director at Cliffside Malibu, one of the nation’s preeminent addiction treatment centers. She is the co-author of the best-selling book “Ending Addiction for Good.”