Navigating Addiction during the Holidays

With Thanksgiving 2016 one week away, the holiday season kicks off. This can be a particularly challenging time for families whose loved ones are using drugs and alcohol. Today’s guest blogger is Sherry Gaugler-Stewart, Director of Family and Spiritual Recovery at The Retreat.  She share first-hand experience as well as professional guidance to help families, and was one of our panel speakers at our conference this past year. Thank you, Sherry, for your blog post!

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Oh, the holidays!  When we think of them, so many thoughts and images pop into our heads!  Snow!  Family!  Food!  Togetherness!  Traditions, old and new!  Excitement is in the air, and we start planning how and when our ideal holiday will come together.  Unfortunately, for those who have a loved one struggling with alcoholism or addiction, an additional level of stress typically accompanies the holidays: worry that our imagined holiday will turn into our worst-case scenario.

When Our Young Addicts asked me to write a blog post on how to navigate the holidays when addiction is present, my first thought was “Yes!  What a great topic!  This will be so helpful!”  As I thought about it more, the task became a little more overwhelming.

As someone who works with family members in the addiction recovery field, as well as being a family member myself, I know there is no right or wrong way to navigate the holidays when addiction is present.  But, there may be a way that’s right for you, which is what I hope to address.

My husband and I live in a different states than our families, and we make it a point to be with them over the holidays.  For a number of years, we would get caught off guard by the ups and downs of addiction.  Each year we would start out with our vision of the holiday and prepare for it.  We’d ask for Christmas lists, and go shopping for the perfect presents.  We’d be in contact with everyone in advance to make sure we could all get together.  We would plan festive menus, and listen to holiday music on our drive across the Midwest.  We wanted to experience what so many of us want to experience: family.  We wanted to be in the midst of the love and connection, and thought if we could just plan far enough in advance that we’d get exactly that.

Unfortunately, the addiction in our family wasn’t playing along.  Although there are a few in our family who have struggled with alcoholism and addiction, when I think about the holidays, I often think of my step-son, who is a meth addict.

We would embark into our greeting-card-worthy vision of the holiday, but addiction would stand in our way.  There would be times when we’d reach out to him, and not hear back.  There would be times when he would come, and show up despondent.  There were other times when he would show up and would be angry at the world.  There were times when he left on an evening saying that he’d be back tomorrow, and we didn’t see him again for the rest of the time that we were there (we once found out later that he ended up in jail for a while).  There were visits that ended in loud arguments.  And, then there were the times that he showed up as his incredibly witty, big-hearted, intelligent self – and the family would try to figure out how we had magically set the stage for this to happen so we could be sure to recreate it again, and again.  Of course, we were always confused when we tried to reenact the situation at another time, only to have a completely different, and often heart-breaking, outcome.

One of the things we needed to do as a family was to know what we were up against.  Sometimes the fact that someone is struggling with addiction becomes apparent during the holidays, especially since we usually see each other more at this time than other times throughout the year.

At times families fall into the trap of thinking that someone who is struggling with addiction is just behaving badly.  It’s helpful to know the signs of addiction and alcoholism.

Both the National Institute on Drug Abuse (www.drugabuse.gov) and the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (www.ncadd.org) have helpful information.   Educating yourself allows you the opportunity to know what you’re dealing with, and will be helpful in understanding what to do next.

As a family member, I have found that getting support for myself has been imperative.

There is no way that you can watch someone become entangled with alcoholism and addiction without being affected.  Family members often feel that if they love someone enough, and say and do the right things, they’ll be able to fix their loved one so they no longer have the struggles that they have.  To be around others who have had a similar experience in their reactions, and who have found a way to cope with it, helps to break the shame and stigma we often carry where addiction is concerned.  The easiest and most accessible way to find support from others who have been there, too, is through Al-Anon (www.al-anon.org) or Nar-Anon (www.nar-anon.org).  So many family members keep the addiction in their family a secret.  Al-Anon and Nar-Anon provide safe places to talk about it.

Talking about the holidays was important for our family, as well.  We needed to decide what we wanted our holiday to look like, and be focused on what was realistic.  If your loved one is actively using, what is realistic may be different than at other times.

Some families decide that they need to set some clear boundaries: that their loved one is only invited if the can be clean and sober during the gathering.  They also need to have a plan in place on how they’ll honor that boundary if it’s not met.

Some find that they want their loved one included in everything regardless, so that they know that they are in a safe place.

Some families decide to change how they will celebrate so that they can all meet at a place where anyone can easily leave from if they feel uncomfortable.

As I stated before, there is no right or wrong in deciding this.  There is only what is best for you and for your family.  These decisions are more easily made with an understanding of addiction, and remembering that the person you love is still the person you love, even though their disease may bring unwanted attitudes or behavior.  These decisions are also more easily made when you have support.

Families have choices, and they get to make them – including during the holiday season.

Our family feels blessed that we have received the gift that so many of us hope and pray for, the gift of my step-son’s recovery.  He’s been clean with the help of Narcotics Anonymous for more than three years, and we love watching his life unfold.  That witty, big-hearted, intelligent guy shows up most of the time, and even when he shows up occasionally as someone who’s going through a difficult time for whatever situation is happening in his life, we trust that he will navigate in whatever way that he needs to with the support of his people in his recovery circle.  And, yet, we may have gotten a little too excited when our first holiday came around and we thought “Finally!  We get to have our ideal holiday!  There will be SO much togetherness!  We’ll be a Norman Rockwell painting!”

We found that going through the holiday in early recovery was going to take some navigation, as well.

My step-son did a great job of talking to us about what he needed, which wasn’t non-stop family time.  For many folks, the holidays can trigger or exacerbate addiction.  My step-son needed to find his own balance.  His primary focus was to continue to build the foundation of recovery, and we needed to honor that.  We listened, and we trusted that he would show up for what was important for him, and that he would do what he needed to support himself when he needed to do so.  And, we stayed focused on taking care of ourselves, and being grateful for the time we got to have with this wonderful, clean, clear-eyed young man.

Even if the gift of recovery hasn’t happened in your family, my hope for each of you is that you’ll find moments of peace and joy.  I believe that they are there and accessible to all of us, even if our loved one is actively struggling.  Remember to learn what you are up against, find support for yourself, talk about it – and listen.  Be gentle with yourself and your loved one.  I believe that we are all doing the best that we can with the tools that we have, and I’m hopeful that these new tools will be helpful to you as you embark on this holiday season.

Guest blog posts are welcome additions to the content on this website. Guest blog posts represent the views, opinions and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent Our Young Addicts. Together, we provide parents and professionals with a variety of perspectives and information.

©2016 Our Young Addicts   All Rights Reserved.

Guest blog posts are welcome additions to the content on this website. Guest blog posts represent the views, opinions and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent Our Young Addicts. Together, we provide parents and professionals with a variety of perspectives and information.

©2016 Our Young Addicts   All Rights Reserved.

Parents: Doing the Best They Can with What They Have

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By Sherry Gaugler-Stewart, Director of Family and Spiritual Recovery at The Retreat.

Thank you, Sherry, for being part of #fsts16. We are pleased to have you elaborate on many of the points from the panel discussion that took place at From Statistics to Solutions: Addressing the Underlying Issues of Youth Substance Use. MWM

When parents arrive at our Family Program, they are typically experiencing a variety of different emotions.  Some of them arrive feeling desperate, as they are tremendously fearful for the well-being of their child, and are out of ideas about what to do.  Some of them arrive confused, as it makes no sense that they have raised this beautiful child with their best efforts and values, and, yet, the disease of addiction is still present.  Some of them arrive angry, because it’s really frustrating to deal with the behaviors that happen when someone is actively using.  And, some of them are just exhausted, because standing guard over your child’s life is all-consuming.

To say it’s not easy to be a parent of a child who struggles with alcoholism or addiction is an extreme understatement.  When the dreams and aspirations for the person you love are side-tracked by addiction, what is left behind is the stuff most parental nightmares are made of.

Our society doesn’t help with these nightmares.  In fact, someone outside of the situation who hasn’t had firsthand experience with alcoholism or addiction may easily make judgements.  It’s a common belief that if a child is “good” or “bad” it has to do with how they have been parented.  Most people look at alcoholism and addiction as a moral failing, rather than a disease or disorder.  There is much stigma placed on families who are impacted by addiction, even though alcoholism was first declared a disease by the American Medical Association in 1956, and, addiction has been placed in this category, as well.  This information alone doesn’t seem to stop the judgements, or stop a parent from taking their child’s addiction personally.

I know it was something my husband took personally.  Even though he understood the disease of addiction better than most because he is in long-term recovery himself, understanding what to do as two out of three of his children struggled with their own addictions, and the consequences that surrounded them, escaped him.  I took it personally, as well, thinking that if I had a different role in their lives, or maybe if his prior marriage was still intact, something would be different for these two.

Despite the stories we create in our heads about all of this, the facts remain the same.

Good parenting doesn’t stop addiction.  There is no amount of loving someone that can change their physiology or propensity for alcoholism or addiction.  Bad parenting doesn’t create addiction. 

There are many who have survived less than ideal childhoods who have grown up to live happy, productive lives without the cloud of addiction.

And, yet, most of us still want to blame something or someone for this issue.  I was recently involved in a conversation where a question was posed: What are some of the road blocks and challenges that hinder collaboration with working with youth struggling with addiction?  With so many obstacles that stand in the way, I was looking forward to the answers, so we could start addressing them!  I was surprised to hear that one of the people involved believed the major obstacle was parents.

As she explained, I understood her standpoint.  Sometimes parents, in their confusion around the situation, get caught up in denial.  They want to believe that their beloved child would know better.  They want to believe that addiction couldn’t possibly touch their family.  They want to believe that it’s just a phase.  They don’t want to live in the embarrassment and shame associated with alcoholism or addiction, and who can blame them, really?

But, sometimes we still blame.  It’s fairly common in the world today that when something goes “awry” we want answers and to know who is responsible.  If it’s a child, then the parent must be at fault.  Even those of us working in the addiction recovery field we hear the comments about the parents that are more of a problem than their child.  We may have even made those comments.

The truth of the situation is that parents are doing the best they can with the information that they have.  They are doing their very best.  They want the very best for their child.  The assumption should not be that they are to blame.  The assumption should always be that they are loving their child as much as they possibly can.

The question for those of us who work with these parents is: How do we help families from blaming themselves?

In my experience, the best place to start is creating a safe place for them to talk.  Isolation is a key symptom of addiction, and is present on both sides of the disease.  Parents who have a child struggling with addiction often isolate themselves trying to protect their child and their reputation, not realizing this is also blocking them from receiving help.  If a parent starts talking, they will share information on how we can best help them.  They’ll talk about their fears, their confusion, their hopes and their plans.  The best thing anyone can do is listen.

When we listen, we will hear when a parent is ready to learn more.  The next important thing we can do for a parent is help them to really understand addiction.  Education around chemical dependency, how it happens and what it looks like, can help to clear up some of the confusion families have.  Although families typically understand addiction on an intellectual basis, their emotions haven’t always caught up yet, and these emotions add to their underlying reactions.  In my experience, when families have the opportunity to really learn about addiction, and have the questions that they have answered, it helps them to navigate the situation better.

However, as stated earlier, education isn’t enough.  Although it’s extremely helpful, it doesn’t answer the question most parents want answered “So, now what do I do?”  How do I get my loved one into recovery?  How am I supposed to be as they navigate early recovery?  How am I supposed to show up if my loved one relapses?

Typically, parents with a child who is actively using have one major fear: their child will not stop using and won’t be able to find recovery. 

Often times that fear continues after a child is getting help, but it turns to fear that their child may not be able to maintain their recovery.  Although their child may be doing everything they had hoped that they would do, parents may still be having the same reactions as they did when their child was using.  It is imperative families find support for themselves, as well.

A study by Laudet, Morgen, and White, (The Role of Social Supports) states “Support, in particular, recovery-oriented support, is likely to be critical to alcohol and other drug users, especially early on…”  It would stand to reason that recovery-oriented support would be helpful for parents and families, as well.  In fact, John Kelly, Ph.D. and Director of the Recovery Research Institute, was recently quoted to have said “Social support is good, but recovery specific social support is more important.”,  which also can be interpreted that a parent’s love is good, but a parent’s love with the support of recovery is more important.

The greatest gift I’ve received is something that can be passed along to others: the gift of family recovery. 

Recovery is community.  It is the support of other people who know what it’s like to love someone who struggles with addiction.  Recovery offers ideas and resources based on the experience of others.  Recovery offers a common language to talk about addiction, and the communication skills to reconnect with each other.  Recovery offers opportunity for healing.  Recovery offers hope.  The same process that helps our children recover can help other family members, too.  Family recovery offers answers to the question, “So, now what do I do?”

When my husband’s son started his recovery journey from his meth use, we were cautiously optimistic.  He was doing better than we’d seen him do in recent years, but we weren’t sure it would last.  We understand that this disease is chronic and can be fatal.  Through recovery, we also knew that placing our fears on him would not be helpful.  We also knew that the time that he spent in a facility was just the beginning of the journey.  The real work would happen for him in his own recovery community.

Three years later, we get to see the gifts of recovery turn into a full blown miracle.  We’ve watched him walk through the highs and lows of early recovery.  We’ve watched him take ownership.  We’ve watched him make decisions, good and bad.  We’ve watched that he’s let us know what’s going on in his world.  He did it in his own time, with his own support around him.  And, we needed our support around us.

Parents don’t have to do it alone.  Talk to someone.  Learn more about addiction.  Find others who understand addiction who can support you in this process.  And, please, remember that everyone is doing the best that they can with what they have, including you.

About Sherry Gaugler-Stewart

Sherry Gaugler-Stewart is the Director of Family & Spiritual Recovery at The Retreat in Wayzata, Minnesota. She has worked with The Retreat’s Family Program since its inception. Sherry is a certified spiritual director and has been an active participant in Twelve-Step recovery since 1999.  In addition to her work at The Retreat, she has lead spiritual retreats and is a meditation teacher.  She is also involved in the Kids’ Programming at The Retreat, for children aged 7-12 years old who are growing up in families affected by chemical dependency.

Side note: The Retreat offers a generous scholarship program to help defray the cost of participation in its programs.

Guest blog posts are welcome additions to the content on this website. Guest blog posts represent the views, opinions and experiences of the author and do not necessarily represent Our Young Addicts. Together, we provide parents and professionals with a variety of perspectives and information.

©2016 Our Young Addicts   All Rights Reserved.