WHEN THE HOLIDAYS GET A BIT TOO MERRY
© November, 2004 by Jim Robinson
Oh boy! The holidays are coming! The season of good cheer, of celebration and toasts, a time of lifting the ol’ cup of kindness to our lips in anticipation of…of…
What do these thoughts bring to your mind? Glad anticipation? Or dread?
As a recovering alcoholic, I know all too well how potentially awkward and downright embarrassing the holidays can be for the family and loved ones of problem drinkers. Alcoholics are always primed and ready for any good excuse to party—I drank to ease my pain when things went badly, and drank to celebrate victory when things went well. I drank because it was Christmas, and I drank because it was Tuesday. I drank. It’s what I did. And I did it well.
For those who love someone like me, though, the anticipation of an upcoming holiday gathering can be daunting. In my counseling office, things really pick up in the weeks leading into Thanksgiving and Christmas. Spouses, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers…they all file in with haggard looks and hopeful eyes. They know what’s coming, and they wonder what to do about it. How can they avoid another horrific experience like last year? Sadly, the joy of the season is already compromised for them, because they can’t enjoy the coming festive events for fear of what might happen…and for anticipating all the incredible effort they will have to exert just to keep things from flying completely out of control.
Alcoholism is, of course, a serious disease. The disease, however, is never limited to the alcoholic himself; the entire family is affected. And because the focus is often limited to the primary addict, those who love the addict often feel helpless and confused. In my counseling practice, I deal more often with those who love the addicted person than I do the addict. There are ways to protect ourselves, and to avoid remaining a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution.
What’s the right/wrong thing to do? What kind of limits should we make, and how do we enforce such a thing when the alcoholic is the “head of the household?” There is far too little space here to delve into the deeply complicated dynamics of addiction and the related codependency involved, but here is a basic primer for initiating healthier emotional boundaries within the alcoholic home:
Get some help. This deal is way too big for you to handle. You’re going to need a pro to walk through this thing with you. In many ways, the immediate family members are the worst candidates to help the alcoholic—there is too much emotional involvement, and usually a long and tortured history of going about things in very unhealthy ways. If the alcoholic isn’t yet at a place where they will willingly enter treatment or see a counselor about their problem, take control of your own life by seeking help for your problem—loving someone with the disease of addiction.
Don’t Enable. Allowing an alcoholic to drink is like letting a pyromaniac play with matches. Often, we try to “love” the drunk in the most dangerous ways, by unintentionally “helping” them to stay in bondage to the illness. These behaviors might seem loving, especially when we’re being manipulated by those masters of deception—active alcoholics. But real help often looks rigid and uncaring. It’s not. Seek professional help from an addiction counselor on how to create new house rules. If the alcoholic is unwilling to seek treatment, the family must learn to protect itself from the disease by learning all they can about alcoholism. In certain situations, and following specific guidelines, a family can be involved in an Intervention process. But this should only be attempted with a highly experienced guide trained in this technique.
Don’t be insane. A guy sits in his doctor’s office. “Hey Doc,” he says. “It hurts when I lift me arm.” And the doctor says, “So, don’t lift your arm. That’ll be a hundred bucks.” You’ve heard the definition of insanity: Repeating the same behavior expecting different results. Change things! Refuse to put yourself in the same situations that are prime for abuse. If your home is to host an event, lay down the law about not drinking. If you’re going to someone else’s house, do the same. Obviously, someone truly caught in his or her disease mechanism will not put up with any of these restrictions without a fight. And this is why you’re going to need help. Either way, it’s up to you to make up your own mind. Maybe everyone in the family won’t be ready to get on board with you regarding some of these tough decisions. But you can still protect yourself, even if it means letting everyone else repeat the madness while you sit it out at a friend’s house this year.
In my book, Prodigal Song: A Memoir, I write about my own dysfunctional childhood, and describe some of the internal dynamics of the addicted family. And for practical, experienced-based wisdom for the loved ones of those suffering from addiction, check out this site: www.al-anon.alateen.org. AL-ANON excels as an organization that has been helping people for decades.
Above all, ask God to grant you the courage to reach out. It’s our secrets that kill us. And God often moves powerfully through the helping touch of those who share our wounds.