Ah... the holidays. To some the season starts with the tension of preparing the Thanksgiving feast. This is immediately followed by the arduous chore of buying gifts for people that you may not care about, attending parties out of obligation rather than desire and connecting with family members that you haven't seen all year and would probably be happy not to see for another five. Others embrace every bit of the holiday spirit commencing well before Thanksgiving and ending with a crescendo of Jimmy Stewart's "It's a Wonderful Life".
No matter how you view the holidays, there is added pressure and anxiety if you want your loved one to be part of the picture, but they are struggling with a substance abuse issue.
During this time of year, I have had many clients look for guidance on how to establish and secure their boundaries with the alcoholic/addict whether it is a spouse, child or friend. They want to include them in the family festivites, but are anxious nonetheless; torn between the pull of family unity and the possibility of uncertain behavior. They have witnessed all too often the other occasions like birthdays, anniversaries or just plain Sunday night dinners when the alcoholic/addict arrived in their addiction, or became intoxicated and all hell broke lose due to... well, anything. Since the past is a teacher, we can't help but be on guard. And yet we hope that maybe this time will be different.
It can be if you take an active role in establishing fair, yet concrete boundaries prior to the scheduled event; NOT a few days or even hours before they come through the front door.
Here are some boundaries/guidelines that you might want to consider:
Pick a boundary or boundaries that are important to you and MUST be adhered to by the alcoholic/addict or they will not be welcome to participate in the family festivities. Keep it simple and doable. Like with any boundary or condition, it must be accompanied with clear ramifications if those boundaries are not met. IMPORTANT...make sure that you both understand what those consequences are so no one can dispute a misunderstanding or feign innocence as to the intention of the plan. Don't let your boundaries be built on quicksand where you acquiesce because the alcoholic/addict spins an excuse as to why they have not lived up to their end of the bargain. Don't give in even if they resort to tugging at your heartstrings or yell and scream until their veins pop out of their neck.
Nothing is more disastrous or can ruin everyone's holiday spirit faster than family and friends witnessing the alcoholic/addict's outrageous behavior or uncontrolled actions.
Besides the obvious like arriving on time or dressing appropriately, if you are concerned that your loved one may not be clean and sober, tell them you want to test them a day or two before the event as well as the actual day. If you smell alcohol on their breath or they act intoxicated, you will not let them in, or if they live there, you will ask them to stay away from the festivities until the event is over.
If they are secure in their sobriety, they won't care if you test them; they may actually welcome it to show that their word is now their bond. If they are not, you will hear protesting from "Oh that's great...you don't even trust me" or "I swear I'm clean, but I'm not going to let you subject me to that." Your response is "Ok, that's your choice, but my conditions and boundaries are what I stated and if you can't or don't want to accept them, then it makes me sad and it's unfortunate, but you are not welcome to this holiday event." They will either agree or spend their holiday elsewhere. As disheartening as that outcome may be, you are taking care of yourself and the other members of your family. After all, the good of the many outweighs the good of one.
If your loved one's clean and sober program is in its infancy, ask them if they have reservations about the evening. Maybe they are anxious about "Uncle Joe" attending, because he always gets intoxicated before dinner. This could pose a strong trigger of relapse. Respect the recovering alcoholic/addict's discomfort if they share that a specific individual's presence generates a strong resentment. For example, someone they used to party with can push them toward a "slippery slope." It might be wise to formulate options that both you and your loved one are comfortable with; not inviting "Uncle Joe" or others where the alcoholic/addicts sobriety may be tested or compromised.
Involving them in a plan creates a unity between the two of you and respect for each other's emotions and sense of fair play.
When discussing your needs, desires and expectations with the alcoholic/addict, keep your voice calm, stay neutral and don't engage. Please don't bring up old examples of how the alcoholic/addict let you down in the past or defend your position. In doing so, you might provoke an argument which serves no purpose.
You may want to let the other family members or friends know of your boundary plans so that everyone is on the same page and prepared for any outcome.
Holidays can be wonderful and fun. But they are certainly more enjoyable if there is warmth and love, coupled with respect and dignity toward each other. After all, it should be a time of reflection on the abundance of gratitude that the year has brought. Hopefully the alcoholic/addict can participate with their family and friends as they would like and as you would like as well. However, it's ok if it doesn't happen this year, for there is always next year.
My next blog will be on "The art of communicating with the alcoholic/addict". It is a valuable follow-up as I will discuss specific words and phrases that can be empowering when communicating with the alcoholic/addict.
If I can be of service to you or your family, please e-mail me at Carole@familyrecoverysolution.com or go to http://familyrecoverysolutions.com/free_one_hour_session.html