Tips for an Easier, Gentler Holiday Season…If You Love an Addict

By Candace Plattor, M.A.

Even though we have been conditioned to believe that this time of year is wonderful and sparkling and amazing, many people know it isn’t that way for everyone. Our TV commercials show “families” and groups of “friends” smiling, drinking, diving into piles of presents, and eating sumptuous meals – because this is the societal template we have grown up believing. Yes, some families have wonderful holiday experiences, and some people have friend groups who are truly happy to see each other, of course – yet there are many others who feel lonely, sad, and anxious at this time of year. For those folks, the holiday ads we watch – made for television and full of fantasy – can make the pain even greater. If any of you who are reading this are experiencing those emotions, it could be easy for you to think “I’m the only one who feels like this.” Please know that you’re not the only one – you are definitely not alone in this.

And when a family is struggling and suffering because of someone’s addiction, things become even more difficult. When addiction is present, so are feelings of confusion, anger, frustration, and disappointment. When planning family events, there can be a lot of questions that are very hard to find answers to. The most common generally has to do with whether to invite the addict they love so dearly to the event – and if so, how to handle what could result from that. It’s very possible that past holidays have been compromised – or even ruined – due to someone’s addiction running rampant, especially if no boundaries were set to counteract the potential fallout.

In this article, I’m going to show you a way to deal with this situation proactively – before any catastrophes strike as a result of addiction.

There is Another Way:

The reality is that your family doesn’t have to allow the addict’s potentially ‘bad behaviour’ be the overarching theme of your gathering.

Choosing to do that isn’t helpful to anyone – not to you or the addict you love. In fact, when we let the addict call the shots that we all then react to, we are enabling that person to feel entitled to grab all the attention, and not for any positive reason. This is how holiday gatherings can implode upon themselves.

Remember: If nothing changes, nothing changes. If you choose to do this the same way this year that you may have done so often in years past, you will inevitably get the same results you’ve always gotten.

But there is another way.

The most important thing for a family to do, if at all possible, is to first talk with each other and see how everyone is feeling about this. It’s good to take the temperature of the group: Are they in alignment about inviting the addict to their gathering or do some have different thoughts and opinions? Everyone matters – yes, the addict you love matters, but so do the rest of you. What is the consensus?

If you’ve decided you do want to invite someone who is choosing to stay in active addiction and who might behave in negative ways, then it will be up to you to set very clear boundaries about what you will – and
won’t — put up with this year.

I know that it can feel absolutely overwhelming for family members to set boundaries with an unruly, entitled addict who is used to being enabled to have all his/her needs met. One problem is that many loved
ones of addicts have codependent tendencies, and this means that they generally put their own needs on the back burner while allowing others’ needs to take priority. In many cases, people who are still in active addiction may have become quite used to getting their own way or at the very least believing that it’s ok for them to behave in angry ways when they don’t. People who are codependent are notorious for trying to avoid conflict, because it’s something they have not yet learned how to deal with in a positive way. Self-absorbed addicts who are still in active addiction are a lot more willing to deal with conflict – in fact, sometimes they set up conflict in order to have a disagreement go in their favour.

This is how it works: Practicing addicts want what they want when they want it. They want it right now and they’re willing to step on anyone who gets in the way of them having it. People-pleasing family members
who are trying to avoid this kind of conflict will tend to say Yes when they really want to say No. These responses are basically opposed to each other, so it’s easy to see why there is tension. This can lead into
fear around saying No to the addict they love – even though they don’t always like their behaviour.

How to Set a Proactive Boundary:

For those of you who are wanting to invite your addicted loved ones to your holiday gathering this year – but who want it to go differently than it has in the past, I will give you an example of how you can set a much more loving, self-respecting boundary. It’s important to set this boundary proactively, in a non-charged moment, so that you’re not in an angry, frustrated frame of mind when you do this – and if you have another family member present who is supportive of this plan, it will work best.

This is what you can say:

“John / Mary, we love you so much and we would like to invite you to
our family gathering this year. We would be very happy if you wanted
to attend. What you need to know is that this year will be a little
different from how it’s been before. This year, our expectation is that
you will arrive clean and sober, and that you will stay that way for the
duration of the time you’re with us. This means that you won’t drink
alcohol or escape into another room to smoke a joint or snort a line of
cocaine. We hope you are willing to do this so that you can be with us.
We all love you very much.

“If you decide to come and be with us for Christmas Eve dinner,” you
can then explain to the addict you love – even though you sometimes
don’t like their behaviour – “and if you decide to use or drink while
you’re here, this is what will happen: We will take your car keys and we
will call you a cab or an Uber. We will pour you into that car and make
sure you get home safely. You won’t be driving under the influence
while you’re on our watch, because we love you. And maybe we can
try again next year, or at another family gathering. Please understand
that none of this is a punishment for you – rather, we will look out for
your safety because we care about you.”

Give them some time to consider which choice they’ll make…

“Feel free to take a little time to think about it. If you want to come
and believe you can stay clean and sober while you’re here, that’s
great. If you feel like you may not be ready yet, that’s ok too – we will
still love you if you choose not to come. Let us know as soon as you’ve
decided, so we know how many people will be at the dinner.”

Then you can leave it up to your loved one to make their own decision. They have all the information – they know the expectations and why you’re setting them, and they know what the consequences will be if they choose to not abide by your boundaries. It’s all very clear, and everyone is on the same page.

By the way, if the addict in your life does make the choice to come, as a family you might want to strongly consider supporting them by not having alcohol at your table and to not smoke a joint as you sit by the
fire afterwards. It’s up to you but… fair is fair, and they may feel very loved by being supported in this way.

An enabled addict doesn’t recover because – why should they?

Putting out clear, respectful boundaries will allow you to begin to love your addict in the most positive way, instead of enabling them to get away with continuous bad behaviour. Even if they try and don’t succeed this time, if you come from a space of love as you put the already discussed consequences in place, they will feel more personally respected and they will begin to respect you more as well. This is how positive change can start to happen, one step at a time.

Candace Plattor, M.A., is an Addictions Therapist specializing in working with the family of people who are struggling with addiction. As a former addict with 35 years clean and sober, Candace knows that overcoming addiction is a family condition: everyone in the family is affected by addiction and everyone needs to heal. Learn more about Candace here:

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