Loved Ones in Recovery During The Holidays

Tis the week of holiday celebrations and maybe you have a family member or a friend who is in recovery from a mental illness or substance use disorder. Maybe you have just learned about this person's recovery status or maybe they are newly recovered. Either way, it can feel awkward preparing to spend time with this person. You may be asking yourself: Should I act differently? Should I bring it up? Should I eliminate the environment of anything that could be triggering to their condition? What If I do or say something wrong? Wondering the answers to these questions and more can spark anxiety which can lead us to accidently embarrassing our loved one or worse, actually triggering them. Here is a simple list that will guide you through the uncertainty of appropriate behavior and conversations when spending time with a loved one in recovery for the first time.

What NOT to do:

  • Initiate discussion about the person's recovery status- Let the person decide whether the moment is right to share their personal experiences with recovery. They will bring it up if they feel ready or comfortable to do so and not a moment before.
  • Talk about the person's recovery status with others-Even if you are inquiring about the person's recovery status for genuine motives like concern or for hope to provide help and support; it can be too easily misinterpreted as gossiping or passing judgment. If someone else initiates the conversation first, try becoming comfortable with responding that you're not willing to speculate on their life without them around, or change the subject if that is easier for you.
  • Rid the environment of what you perceive as triggering- People in recovery are building or maintaining skills that keep them emotionally healthy. This includes being able to address the host of an event or party about potentially triggering cues or items in the environment that they may ask not be present if necessary. They also may be working on coping with such triggers and are able to handle them without needing to be rescued. Recovery is the car they are leasing, let them stay in the driver's seat.
  • Treat them as though they are fragile- People in recovery are often times tougher than those who are not, after all it took a lot to get them to where they are today. Treating them like they are made out of glass, or going out of your way publically to accommodate them may embarrass them or call unwanted attention to them.
  • Keep tabs on them- It may be tempting to keep your eye on the person in recovery whether due to concern or curiosity but remember it is not your job to police their behaviors or interactions. Pressing them about their absence from a particular moment during a get together or following them when they excuse themselves may be intruding and upsetting. Many individuals in recovery are taught to practice techniques such as taking "mini vacations" from stressful situations or times where their ability to cope becomes temporarily overwhelmed.

What TO do:

  • Treat them like the person you have always known/loved- People in recovery usually want nothing more than to be treated by others the same as they always have, like one of the gang.
  • Take them out of a stressful situation- If the person does decide to open up to you about struggling with a particular moment during a holiday party and you want to help, ask them to go for a walk with you, or enter a room where others are not congregating as to avoid causing a scene or overwhelming the person with additional people becoming involved.
  • Listen- Once more, if the person does want to open up to you about what they have gone through then listen. Most of the time they do not want advice and are already practicing their recovery skills but it may be therapeutic for them to share their experiences with you. Your role in that moment is to provide a lending ear and welcome the experiences they are willing to share with you.
  • Check your motives-Make sure that your interactions with this person are genuine and your behaviors are appropriately motivated. Curiosity can influence us to eaves drop on conversations that are not meant for us or cause us to sit next to someone we normally wouldn't sit next to when food is being served.  If you find yourself talking to this person more than usual or attempting to occupy space around them more so than you would have before, ask yourself whether you may just be attempting to satisfy your own curiosities. These types of behaviors are usually transparent to the person in recovery and can make them feel extremely uncomfortable.  
  • Make plans for the future-Future planning is a great indicator that you're not just being polite around this person because of the season, but that you do still care about them and want to spend time with them even when there is not a holiday obligating you to do so. Do this only if you genuinely want to of course.
  • Act normal- If you're a social drinker and your loved one is now in recovery for alcohol do not go out of your way to avoid it completely. If you usually load up on holiday food and your friend is in recovery for binge eating do not stick to munching on only a handful of carrots. This type of behavior modification around the person in recovery sticks out like a sore thumb and is anxiety inducing. Just behave like you normally do, it will keep everyone at ease and avoid awkward moments such as someone else asking why you are not behaving like you did the year before in front of the person.
  • Give them space- As alluded to previously, sometimes people in recovery need to practice skills that involve taking breaks from social situations. This does not mean they are having a melt down or need assistance but that they may just need to spend a few moments grounding themselves before they can return to the event. Of course, if safety is an issue then please find a way to verify they are ok without calling attention to the inquiry or making a big deal out of it to them when you find them safe and sound.

In Emergency Situations Only:

If your friend or loved one enters a state of stress that is beyond consolable by you or any other loved one, or if they threaten to harm themselves or others, you can do the following:

  1. Tell them you are worried that they are not being safe and you are going to have to do something to make sure they become safe
  2. Call 211 and ask for mobile crisis services to come to your location to evaluate them. They can then make a determination if your friend or loved one needs to be admitted for inpatient treatment services.
  3. Remain calm, speak slowly, and clearly and offer your friend support until services arrive. Getting their identification and insurance information ready is helpful if possible. 

This can be an uncomfortable time of the year for those who are new in recovery or sharing their recovery status with friends or loved ones, and whatever you can do or NOT do to help reduce the awkwardness and anxiety around this time of year for them, will benefit the both of you.