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An Empty Seat At The Table: Addiction At The Holidays

For families struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, what were once some of the best days of the year may now feel like the worst.

Often times, the holidays are a season for the whole family to come together. Everyone travels from near and far to gather, laugh, eat, play and relax. You visit with family you haven’t seen since the last holiday season, you see how much young nieces or nephews have grown, and laugh with siblings about the good old days.

Holidays have a way of making the family feel whole and complete. But when addiction is involved – the holidays can have the opposite effect: Family feels awkward, disjointed and painfully small.

When addiction is involved during the holidays, family can be separated for various reasons:

  • A family member is behind bars for a drug arrest or DUI

  • A family member is out on the streets due to drug problems

  • A family member is isolated due to addiction, stigma and shame

  • A family member is too intoxicated, high or hungover to attend

  • A family member makes promises to show up, but bails

  • A family member has been lost to a drug overdose

The division of family, the arguments, the awkward questions and avoidance can be difficult to bear.

Holidays have a way of reminding us what we don’t have. Nothing is more blatantly visible than the empty chair where your loved one used to sit.

So what can you do when the holidays hurt? When giving thanks seems to be counterintuitive, when all you want to do is cry? When guilt mounts as the rest of the world seems to rejoice?

When Holidays Hurt

During the holiday season, our memories allow our pasts become more present. Parents remember being woken up early by excited on Christmas morning; Children remember when their dads strung lights around the house; We remember meals our grandmothers prepared; Opening gifts and playing holiday music.

Cherished holiday memories have a way of hurting us when our lives are turned upside-down by addiction. Addiction doesn’t just affect the son who is incarcerated on drug charges at the holidays – or the sister who is on meth and too high to join the festivities. Addiction reaches into the lives of those who aren’t addicted – and those with the memories of better times.

If you’re experiencing pain this holiday season, it’s crucial to know that while you are hurting – you are not helpless. There are ways for you to take control of how your loved one’s addiction affects you.

Whether it is your son, daughter, spouse, sibling, parent or friend who is struggling with addiction this holiday season – understand that you don’t need to walk this path alone. Often times, families adopt a “cone of silence” and avoid conversation, questions, and emotions in order to protect their loved ones. However, when a family becomes silent, destructive feelings of shame, remorse and guilt gather into the household.

Silence can lead to overpowering separation and isolation.

This holiday season, instead of pretending like everything is fine, show unity within your family and take care of yourself. Doing so won’t be easy, but here is where to start:

Communicate Clearly. So often in addicted families, the addiction becomes the family’s “dirty little secret” – and everyone tiptoes around the subject lightly. Do you worry about serving wine with dinner? Do you wonder if you set a place for your nephew who may or may not be too intoxicated to show up? Do you dread having to explain why your son isn’t at the table this year?

  • It may be surprising to know that the most loving approach isn’t bottling up your fears and concerns and pretending that everything is fine. The most loving approach is being honest and communicating with other family members – ahead of time. Be proactive in diffusing potential problems; talk to family members before the holidays to let them know your son has been sick; ask family members in recovery if they’re comfortable with open bottles of wine in the room. Bring up the potentially uncomfortable situations before the big celebrations – and reduce the chances of full-blown scuffles or breakdowns

  • Keep Expectations In Check.

  • If a loved one is struggling with addiction, chances are that at some point, you’ve been hurt by their behaviors, words and actions when they are high, drunk or hungover. Expecting failure or anticipating disappointment isn’t helpful to anyone. Instead, set realistic goals for the holidays – and work lovingly to accomplish those goals. By expecting that the holidays may not be what they once were, but still working to make the most of this time – you’ll find greater comfort.

  • Feel Your Feelings.

  • Maybe your loved one had a certain favorite food at the holidays – and the smell brings you to tears in their memory. Perhaps a certain song reminds you that they will not be at your table this year. Maybe you are angry that they are behind bars for yet another holiday – or feel guilty for something in their past. Whatever emotions you are feeling this holiday season – allow yourself to feel them. Rather than burying or bottling up those emotions, acknowledge the way you feel and let those feelings pass naturally.

  • Start A New Tradition. Part of what makes the holidays either joyous or painful – is memories. Memories can trigger us to dwell on better times and find grief in our current situations. While it’s okay to ‘feel your feelings’, it’s also okay to ‘change the channel’. Instead of cooking the meal that used to be your loved one’s favorite – try a new recipe or go out to dinner. By creating new traditions, you’ll slowly be able to move out of a place of hurt.​

  • Connect. There is no rule that you only have to spend time with family at the holidays. There are millions of other families struggling with addiction right now, too. By reaching out to a local support group for families of addiction, you’ll find plenty of meetings all through the holidays, as other families look to ease some of the pain of the season. Find power in numbers and comfort in connection by attending a local family support group such as Al-Anon or Nar-Anon

Finding an empty seat at your table during the holidays can be particularly painful. While you may be feeling the pressure to feel an instant holiday cheer – it isn’t always a reality. Even though you are hurting, you aren’t helpless. We know first hand that there is hope and there is healing, and we’re here to walk that journey with you.

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