Considering a dry Christmas? How to support an addict through the holidays
Alcohol consumption caused more than 700,000 new cancer cases and around 366,000 cancer deaths in 2012, mainly in rich countries, according to data reported Wednesday to the World Cancer Congress in Paris. (Jonathan Austin Daniels/istockphoto.com)
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press
Published Tuesday, December 13, 2016 2:49PM EST
TORONTO -- Ben Overvoorde's heavy drinking spoiled too many Christmas and New Years gatherings. And so he looked forward to his first holiday season in recovery.
But it was miserable.
"I think we still ate in silence because I had said something insensitive," recalls Overvoorde, who sought treatment for alcoholism in 2008.
Old wounds would take years to heal, and today Overvoorde still cringes at how bad things got with his parents and siblings.
"It's easy for me to talk about being rude and being drunk at Christmas but it still hurts hearing what my sister's experience was like when I was drinking at Christmastime, or my mother's," he says from Nanaimo, B.C.
The holidays can be tough for addicts trying to avoid temptation, but they're also rough on the friends and family members who often feel helpless, he acknowledges.
It's for that reason experts call alcoholism a family disease, and why they encourage relatives to join an addict's recovery efforts, says one treatment expert who volunteers at Bellwood Health Services in Toronto.
Margaret, a recovering alcoholic who requested anonymity, says families need a chance to heal, too.
"Family members are in such a sorry state," she says.
"They feel betrayed, they are lacking in trust, they are angry, they are sad, they feel manipulated. There are just so many emotions that family members experience as a result of someone in their family being an alcoholic -- and those are all things that my family felt."
Margaret's daughter Anne recalls giving guests excuses when her drunk mother would appear glassy-eyed at holiday dinners, or fall asleep at the table.
"You'd feel embarrassed because she'd be at the dinner table and she'd be drunk, and what I thought was too drunk. Not over-the-top embarrassed but just like, 'Oh God, this is my mom. Sorry,"' she says.
"I'd say: 'She's just tired. She's been cooking all day."'
She says it took one especially bad Christmas for the family to recognize their matriarch had a problem.
Margaret admitted she needed help and entered treatment.
Margaret says this will be her fourth dry Christmas: "And I would say it gets easier, for me."
The 65-year-old is thankful she didn't lose her house or family or job, but says she was certainly heading that way.
"I am trusted with my grandchildren. Those are all things I would have lost and I know that."
Elizabeth Loudon, clinical director of Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, B.C., says the holidays are stressful enough for most people. Add in addiction and the season can be overwhelming. Still, her facility usually sees a drop-off at this time of year.
"So many families just want to have that image of the family and (say): 'Look at how well we're doing,' and so they have their addict just kind of hold it together. And come Christmastime there's the fights, the arguments, the expectations aren't being met and then by New Year's, the disregulation is happening and people are coming to treatment."
Families might be tempted to demand a dry Christmas, but that would be hard to force on a compulsive drinker who is not in treatment, she says. But concerned friends and family members can set boundaries, while being prepared for the possibility they will be broken.
"(Say something) along the lines of: 'We're having wine with dinner. We're going to ask you not to drink because last year when you drank, you put your foot in the turkey.' Whatever it may be, it's having clear expectations and consequences, but also having clear understanding that with this illness they might not be able to hold that," she says.
"It doesn't mean they don't love the family. It doesn't mean that they don't want to be part of the celebration. It's just how strong this illness is."
Someone in recovery should have "a holiday plan" that could include a request that festivities stay dry, that their sponsor be available on speed dial, and having the time and location of the next available support meeting.
Above all, the addict and family should work together on an agreeable plan. Relatives who unilaterally decide to change the annual boozy dinner to a dry brunch could end up shaming their loved one while annoying relatives who cherish their traditions, says Loudon.
Dennis Long, executive director of the Toronto treatment centre Breakaway Addictions, says hosts should be aware of any guests in recovery -- but don't make a big deal of it.
"Don't acknowledge it in any way, just proceed and provide that person with whatever refreshments they may require -- so make sure that when there's a gathering there are non-alcoholic drinks available, coffee, pop and juices," he says.
And if you believe things will get out of hand despite your best efforts, consider not inviting them at all.
"One of the things we do in treatment is to really help people understand the consequences of what they're doing," he says.
"Maybe at some point the penny will drop and they'll say, 'Maybe it's because I was dancing on the dining room table when nobody else was doing that kind of behaviour."'
Anne and her family still have wine with dinner, but now the bottle sits on the floor, out of her mother's sight, she says.
"I knew that she was not comfortable being around alcohol and I think she still isn't that comfortable with it, to be honest," says Anne.
Margaret admits that some alcoholics fear being a burden to their families.
"Alcoholics like me sometimes find it difficult ... because they don't want other people's lives to be disrupted because of their alcoholism. And what happens is they tend to say it's all right when in fact it's not. Especially in early sobriety."