Dr Anshul Swami is an experienced consultant psychiatrist, specialising in the area of addiction. Incredibly attuned to the challenges faced by the loved ones of an addict (both in active addiction or recovery) he shares insight below for families and loved ones, in a touching original piece entitled “Dreaming of a sober Christmas”.
Addiction and the holidays: Tips for loved ones
In the rush to sort a million and one things to make it the idealised Christmas, the passing of another year focuses us on the painful reality that the person you love, ravaged by addiction, hasn’t made the changes that you’d hoped for.
Will your loved one this Christmas be present or absent? Will they be engaged with family/friends or absent both mentally and physically? Will they make a scene? Who will keep an eye on them? Should you buy a present that might get pawned for drinks/drugs? How will you support the mother, father, brother, sister and wider family impacted by addiction?
These questions are simple and deserving of an answer but illusive at the same time.
Face the reality of an addiction
Addiction is complex and caring for a loved one in active addiction can be overwhelming. The usual response is to avoid, ignore and hope that it will magically fade away. The person in addiction may try to convince you that it’s not a problem or that you are wrong or blame you. Empower yourself by understanding and learning about the addiction and how it affects you and those around you. This will allow you to encourage the person into treatment and also allow you and others to stay healthy and strong.
It’s tempting to exclude a family member given the risk of them creating a scene but this could reinforce the shame and guilt in your loved one. Encourage them to be part of it but with clear and positive boundaries. Addictions are complex disorders driven by biological, psychological, societal and environmental factors like most physical illnesses. Understanding reality can help us to maintain compassion.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries…
These should be realistic and clear, such as: being sober, well-kept and on time. Boundaries drive recovery but they are also powerful tools to make time together with someone in addiction a constructive experience. Be clear with your loved one about the boundaries. Perhaps write down what you will do if a boundary that makes for positive time together is broken – it’s difficult to know what to do in the heat of the moment. When a loved one is impaired and overwhelmed by addiction, it is important that we are not.
As a family try to discuss our expectations, fears and what we can reasonably expect knowing the unpredictable effects of addiction in our noble efforts to create an enjoyable and valuable time for all.
Live by example
Contrary to society where excess can be legitimised even extolled, encourage yourself and your family/friends in the company of an addicted loved one that meaningful and memorable festive joy can be achieved through restraint and balance.
Don’t be an enabler
A loved one consumed by addiction will not think logically and so drinking, using and acting out in addiction will always take greater priority. Be mindful that giving money at Christmas could inadvertently fuel the addiction. Try and identify other enablers that could inadvertently ‘fuel’ the addiction.
Remember that we can’t fix others
Asking, begging, demanding or lecturing are unlikely to make our loved one quit their addiction but these efforts may exhaust, hurt, fatigue and embitter us. Any help may go unwanted or unappreciated. We know from our own lives that changing our destiny requires an immense amount of self control, focus, self motivation and energy. Only the person in addiction can change their trajectory. Instead, expend what time and energy you have directing the loved one into their treatment journey. Ultimately they must take ownership of their struggles and behaviours as well as taking responsibility for their recovery.
It’s not all about the addict
You should attend to the emotional and physical well being of yourself and family around who have suffered from the addiction. Ensure you go to work, advance in your education and work, look after your home and family, attend to finances, maintain a healthy routine, go on holidays and date nights. Join a support group where other families and loved ones can help you deal with caring for someone with addiction and guide you to healthy ways to support the loved one out of their addiction.
If you’re suffering from grief related to addiction
If you’re experiencing grief related to addiction, remember to:
- Talk about the loss, and take all the time you need
- Support children if a parent has passed away from an addiction – they may need special grief support
- Seek professional help if you have feelings of guilt/shame
- Commemorate the person and beautiful memories
- Give back by helping others through their pain and loss, and
- Raise awareness
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Dr Anshul Swami
Lead Consultant Psychiatrist for Addictions at Nightingale Hospital