The holiday season is almost upon us.
Thanksgiving is right around the corner.
That marks the beginning of the holiday season in the U.S. From the third Thursday in November until the first day of the New Year, the holidays dominate virtually everything in our public and private lives. Work schedules and school schedules make room for the holidays. TV networks push the holiday favorites in favor of typical broadcast schedules, while communities everywhere – from small towns to big cities – deck out their shopping districts and neighborhoods with seasonal decorations. Holiday events take center stage. Kids visit Santa at the malls, festivals of lights appear in countless locations, and in musical concerts and celebrations feature the sounds of the season: you can rock around the clock at a non-traditional concert, or visit the symphony to enjoy the high culture of an offering like Handel’s Messiah.
That’s the magic of the season, and it’s what most of us look forward to.
However, families with a loved one in active addiction may view the upcoming holiday season with mix of stress and fear. We’ll narrow this down to something specific, which can serve as a template for how to approach the rest of the holidays. Here’s what we mean by specific: if you plan to host a family Thanksgiving dinner this year, you have a family member in active addiction, and you don’t know what to do about it – invite them, not invite them, cancel the whole thing – then this article is for you.
First Things First: Defining Active Addiction
We’ll clarify what we mean by active addiction:
The loved one you’re concerned about has an alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD) and is not currently in treatment or living a recovery lifestyle.
When a person is in the active, untreated phase of an alcohol or substance use disorder, they may experience or display negative signs and behaviors such as:
- Impaired work or school performance
- Decreased interest or participation in loved activities
- Withdrawal from family, friends, and peers
- Hiding alcohol or drug use
- Financial/relationship instability/disruption
That’s an incomplete list, because in reality, active addiction is not a clinical term. What it means is a person with AUD or SUD who displays the clinical symptoms of AUD/SUD but is not in treatment and not working toward resolve the symptoms, meaning they’re not seeking sobriety and have not yet started their recovery journey. We list primary symptoms above. For a complete list of the 12 clinical criteria established by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Volume Five (DSM-5) to identify mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder (SUD), please navigate to our Substance Use Disorder treatment page.
Now that we have our terms – or rather term – defined, we can move on to the topic of this article: if you’re going to host Thanksgiving dinner, how do you handle a loved one in active addiction?
Before we offer our five helpful tips on how to approach this situation, we have a disclaimer that may be frustrating. In all cases, the best answer to this question is:
Depends on what?
It depends on you, it depends on who’s coming to dinner, it depends on the loved one in question, but mostly, it depends on what’s happened before and how that impacts your current relationship with your loved one. If they’ve crossed lines, caused harm, and you’ve decided their participation in your family events will cause additional harm, then there’s your answer: you’ve likely read articles like this before, considered all the options, and arrived at your decision.
If you have not reached that place with your loved one – but they’re still drinking, using drugs, or both, and you know it – then this article is for you. Our hope is that the tips we offer will help you host a Thanksgiving dinner – and perhaps manage a full holiday season – that’s happy, healthy, and fulfilling for everyone involved.
Your Home, Your Rules: You Get to Decide
That’s the most important thing to remember, here.
If you host, you’re the boss. You get to make the rules, set the schedule, and define the parameters of the event, from the food on the table to the behavior you allow around it. That gives you the power to guide what happens, and, in most cases, determine the outcome beforehand. While it’s true you can’t dictate exactly what and won’t happen – because humans are unpredictable – you can set the contours of the situation to increase the likelihood that Thanksgiving dinner will be about what it should be about: the love of family, gratitude, and of course – lots of delicious food.
Here are our tips.
Five Tips For Handling A Loved One In Active Addiction at Thanksgiving Dinner
(And Throughout the Holidays)
Tip # 1: Resist the Urge to Cancel Your Events
We can rephrase that.
Don’t cancel dinner or other planned holiday events because a loved one is in active addiction.
That gives the addiction power over your life and the lives of everyone you want cook for and invite to dinner. We understand there may be exceptions in some cases: those revolve around physical and emotional safety, which we’ll discuss below.
We also encourage you to resist proactively banning a family member from family events. This could increase their sense of isolation, loss, hopelessness, and other feelings that increase risk of escalating alcohol or drug use. There’s a balancing act here, though. Your job is to weigh the benefits of their absence against the possible negative consequences for them, and weigh the potential benefits of their presence against the possible negative consequences for you and the rest of your family.
You do all that without giving their AUD/SUD the power to determine your choice.
We admit that’s not an easy task. The best answer is the one that gives you a sense of peace, and makes the most sense to you.
In addition, with regards to whether or not to invite your loved one to your family dinner, it’s important to remember they may not want to participate in family activities. In that case, it may be best to respect their wishes. Forcing the issue may result in conflict, since the person with AUD/SUD may resent being there in the first place. In that case, it’s okay to reach an agreement that this year, at least, you’ll respect their wishes and not demand their presence.
Tip # 2: Manage Your Own Expectations
While you want the best for your loved one, it’s best for your personal psychological and emotional health to be cautious. You may believe the magic of the holiday – let’s take Thanksgiving, for instance – will lead to a change in your loved one. Perhaps you harbor the hope that the love of family, gratitude for the meal, gratitude for the gift of life and family in general, and the compassion and understanding you extend will somehow cure them.
This is not a realistic expectation.
We believe in hope, and we believe in miracles. At the same time, we know that in most cases, recovery involves time, energy, and commitment, and rarely happens overnight. Therefore, if your loved one has yet to put time, energy and commitment to recovery and/or achieving sobriety, we suggest you temper your expectations: if you expect them to arrive as a completely different person, you may be disappointed.
Tip #3: Set Clear Boundaries
If you go through your mental checklists – and consider our input above – and decide to invite your loved one to your Thanksgiving dinner or events planned throughout the rest of the holidays, it’s essential to have an open and honest discussion about your expectations for their behavior. You can be completely up-front about why you need to have the conversation.
You can say you have legitimate concerns for the physical and emotional safety of your guests, and in particular, the impact any inappropriate behavior may have on the children present. We can’t tell you which behaviors are acceptable, and which aren’t. You need to decide that, based on your history with your loved one and clear evidence of their behavior at previous family/holiday dinners or events.
With regards to behavioral expectations and consequences for not meeting them:
- Define them clearly
- Communicate them clearly
- Enact and follow through on consequences every time
That last bullet point is crucial: if you don’t’ follow through on consequences, your expectations will lose both power and meaning. In other words, they won’t be effective.
Tip #3a: Regarding Holiday Interventions
We have a subtopic to discuss here: interventions.
Many families think the holidays are an ideal time for an intervention, and many families have used the holidays to stage an intervention. Intervention is a complex topic. If you don’t know what one is, here’s the short version: it’s when a group of concerned individuals get together in an organized manner with the goal of convincing the person they’re concerned about to seek treatment for AUD or SUD. The holidays seem like an ideal time for an intervention. If you plan an intervention during this holiday season, we advise you to:
- Understand it will probably dominate the holidays and be the main thing your family remembers from the year it happens
- Whether this is positive or negative depends, largely, on the reaction of the person who needs treatment, and the eventual treatment outcome
- Get professional support:
- There are several types of interventions, from the compassionate to the confrontational. AUD/SUD treatment experts recognize relative merits for both approaches. Tough love has its place and works for some people, while softness and empathy are equally valid and work for others.
- We strongly recommend against impromptu, spur-of-the-moment, unplanned interventions. Experts agree most successful interventions require prior planning, and the help and support of a trained, experienced professional. Consider this advice from the article “Families and Addiction – Surviving the Season of Stress” published on the website Social Work Today:
“Intervention is an art because you need to know who the key players are, which family member can move things along, which family member may sabotage things. An intervention that is not planned sets you up for failure, which can be seen as one more black mark for the family or for the individual.”
- Finally, if you’re seriously interested in staging an intervention, we advise taking the time to research these two examples:
- The Johnson Model is the tough love approach most people know about, as the result of the TV show “Intervention.”
- The Community Reinforcement Model (CRAFT) is a non-confrontational alternative to the Johnson Model
Tip #4: Seek Support for Yourself
This tip applies regardless of the season, and whether or not you plan to host a family Thanksgiving dinner or series of family and friends events at your home this holiday season. Here’s the gist:
If a loved one is in active addiction, seek support for you.
You can and probably will help them – but you have to take care of yourself. Millions of people have been in your shoes, and the knowledge they have about your situation can help you. Help groups founded specifically for individuals with family members with AUD/SUD include Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. Al-Anon is for families of people with a loved on with AUD, while Nar-Anon is for families of people with SUD.
In addition, the holidays are an important time for you to double down on any other type of self-care you do, including exercise, mindfulness, socializing with close friends, or engaging in fulfilling hobbies.
Tip #5 Model Appropriate Compassion and Inclusion
Let’s say you weigh your options and decide to invite your loved one to Thanksgiving dinner and events over the rest of the December holidays.
You tell another family member, who responds, “Why did you do that? They’re going to [drink or be high] and embarrass themselves and everyone, plus they’re a bad example to the kids.”
Now – unless you’ve had to ban them before – this is the time when you get to lead by example. While the sentence above is not necessarily stigmatizing, it is judgmental. It assumes your loved one will make mistakes, do something negative, and ruin the occasion. All that might be true. Another thing that’s true is that we need to give our loved ones the opportunity to be the best version of themselves. We need to give them the chance to participate in a family dinner without behavior related to their AUD or SUD causing problems.
That’s why you welcome them with open arms. You hope and you believe – and when they see that hope and belief in your eyes, it may make them hope and believe, too. You have to be realistic, of course, and temper your expectations, as we say above, but you can do all that and welcome your loved one to the table – and that place, made for them, may be just what they need this year.
Final Thoughts: Celebrate Gratitude
We hope you get to spend your Thanksgiving and holiday season with the people you love the most, and that everyone who sits at your table feels loved and appreciated for who they are, as they are. It may be very hard to keep loving someone in active addiction. Let’s correct that: it may hurt to love someone in active addiction – yet in most cases, you’ll keep loving them. You can love them without enabling them: that’s why you set clear boundaries. And those boundaries can be in place and you can also invite them to dinner. No, you won’t pay their rent – but yes, they’re invited to dinner. No, perhaps you can’t recommend them for a job at your friend’s store, because they’ve let down other friend in the past – but yes, they’re invited to dinner.
Your compassion and gratitude – combined with clear boundary setting – can serve as an example to them and the rest of your family. You can show them how to love and support someone without judging them, without stigmatizing them, while accepting for who they are, and at the same time, showing them how you can help them move forward and change when they’re ready.
NOTE: IF A LOVED ONE HAS OPIOID USE DISORDER (OUD) AND YOU PLAN TO HOST THEM IN YOUR HOME, PLEASE PARTICIPATE IN NARCAN ADMINISTRATION TRAINING AND HAVE NARCAN ON HAND AT HOME. THIS DRUG CAN SAVE THEIR LIFE IN CASE OF AN ACCIDENTAL OPIOID OVERDOSE. IN THE EVENT OF AN OVERDOSE OR ALCOHOL/SUBSTANCE RELATED EMERGENCY, DIAL THE MENTAL HEALTH EMERGENCY LINE @988.