Surviving the Holidays With an Addict
The Undiscussed Black Sheep Of The Family
When addiction—whether it be to alcohol or to drugs—comes into your life, it's very much like the relative that no one really talks about because everyone understands what a strange and unpleasant person they are. Everyone knows that things are different every single time addiction rears its head. The only consistent thing, more often than not, is that your life will be inconsistent because of the addict.
Even when the addict in your life is sober, there are always questions about how they will behave during your time together—whether they have some sort of secret stash that they are dipping into in the washroom just to cope, or whether your unintended rustling of the chip bag will cause a sudden outburst. You're left wondering when the person's behavior will flip, because that sudden behavior change will almost inevitably occur, and it's often worse during the holidays.
I remember once my sister told me she had asked our father why he drank to excess. He almost never had just one drink to relax and unwind after a long or challenging day; there was no standard shot of rye to go with his rye and ginger ale. The ginger ale, for him, was just for color; that was the running joke between us and the very few that knew of my father's alcoholism.
Dad's response to my sister was quite telling, and I often find myself thinking about it when special times of year come around. He said something to the effect that he drank a lot because it hurt too much to be sober. He found it far too hard to be jovial and participate in the day-to-day easy banter that so many in his life shared. I later learned that depression and anxiety ran in his family going back to my great-great grandfather. Dad didn't understand that, though, and even if he had, he was of the generation that simply didn't talk about it. My sister and I had never known about this family history.
Dad did give up alcohol—or so it seemed, for quite some time, and I remember breathing a little easier when he'd made that decision. There was a span of about 20 years, give or take, where Dad had given up drinking—a move he made, he'd said at the time, because he realized that his excessive drinking upset my sister and me. That didn't mean, though, that things suddenly became awesome, or that he became Father of the Year.
During the period when Dad was drinking, our family didn't talk about his behavior. My mom would still get into a vehicle with him if he'd had a couple of drinks, and because we were still under the legal driving age, we would get in, as well. We didn't know better at the time. We just knew it was much easier not to argue with Dad and just get in the car. There was no discussion about how much he'd had to drink, or what pills he'd taken with the booze; it was you got in and if you said anything about the alcohol, there was a furious undertone to the rest of your dealings with him for the rest of the night.
Addiction Affects Everyone
While I do recall that I was often tense growing up because I couldn't understand the tension that revolved around my father's behavior and could sense how upset my Mom was even though she wouldn't say anything, I don't recall that the holidays were all that bad. In fact, I remember having quite a few laughs.
My mom loved to bake, and she was pretty good at it. One of her specialties was Christmas cake, and she'd leave it on the counter to allow the brandy that the recipe called for to soak into the cake batter. My father would frequently feel as though there was never enough booze in the batter, so when she wasn't looking, he'd add a fair bit more to the batter. It didn't seem to ruin the recipe - I remember Mom's Christmas cake being quite tasty - but those moments of the two of them playing with each other in this way were wonderful.
I also remember the one time my mother tried making Christmas pudding, and I recall that the puddings had to be lit on fire when they were served, like a flambe. It was the one time she couldn't tell that her husband had added more brandy, as he'd often done to her Christmas cakes in the past. When Dad lit the puddings, I remember staring wide eyed and wondering if Dad had planned to nearly set the ceiling - and his eyebrows - on fire. There was no lasting damage, and it remains one of my fondest holiday memories.
However, I also remember as an adult, being pregnant with my youngest daughter. Both my dad and my sister had come out to visit my husband and I, and my sister had brought her husband, whom I'd met only briefly before. My husband had picked up a bottle of rye for both my brother-in-law and my dad, and my brother-in-law had reportedly not gotten too much of the rye, since rye was my dad's liquor of choice. This led to my father's intoxication, which led to him becoming quite belligerent and increasingly loud as he discussed some bone of contention with my husband and brother-in-law. It took me coming downstairs in the very late hours, barking at the three of them to settle down because my oldest daughter was worried that Santa wouldn't come with the three of them being so loud, for my dad to decide to pack it in for the night. I later found out that he'd also gotten into an argument with my husband as a result of his behavior.
We never coordinated for holidays after that. No special occasions. I may have had no choice but to deal with my dad's unpredictable alcoholism as a kid, but my kids had an option. I kept them distant because they needed Christmas to be as sane as I could make it.
Not everyone is so lucky.
An Unfortunate Sport That Everyone Gets To Play
Addiction: The Grinch That Stole Christmas
How can you enjoy the holidays if addiction comes to visit?
Many people ask themselves this question. These are people who don't look at the holidays with joyous anticipation, but with trepidation about what might come their way. They play the "what if" game throughout the holidays in an effort to seem as "normal" as they can. "What if we don't serve alcohol? What if he/she waits until after the kids go to bed to drink? What if they leave the house - how can I keep them so they'd be safe?"
The holidays are already a super-stressful time, and when you throw an addict into the mix, it becomes even more challenging. If you have young kids, you just don't want them to realize that Mom/Dad/Aunt/Uncle/older sibling/Grandparent has a serious health problem that no one really talks about. You don't want them asking questions about why the addict might smell funny, might seem upset, or might seem like they're sick, because those questions are uncomfortable and complicated.
You can almost guarantee that older kids are well aware that the addict has an issue. However, they're probably not quite sure how to deal with it, largely because this may be the way things have been for their entire lives. They may have come to accept that the person is just "that way" and they can look forward to another holiday being torpedoed. Or they may try and find their own fun during the holidays—and hopefully it's safe and healthy.
Grown-ups who deal with addicts during the holidays slowly (or maybe not so slowly) learn that they need to have some fun during the holidays so that their nervous system has a chance to relax from the previous tensions; otherwise, they themselves might become unhealthy. They teach themselves, for their own sake and for the sake of their children, to surround themselves with likeminded people so that the addict does not completely drain the life from the spirit of the holidays.
Finally, one of the most important things that someone who has dealt with an addict over the holidays has learned is that they need to stick to the boundaries they have fought to reassert. Addicts tend not to care much about any sort of boundaries, and they trample over them with little regard for anyone or anything. People who have learned how addicts work have set these boundaries and made it clear when the addict has crossed the line so that they can enjoy the holiday season.
Addiction is certainly a holiday Grinch, but there are ways of navigating addictive behavior so you don't go down with the addict's ship. Surviving the holidays with an addict in your life can be one of the most difficult things you'll ever have to do, but with a determined mindset and a view to keeping yourself healthy, and the addict in your heart, it can be done.