Holidays can be difficult for everyone because of stress, grief, and expectations, but they can be particularly difficult for those who know someone suffering from addiction or substance abuse. What can we do or more importantly, what shouldn’t we do this season? The popular start for the Christmas season is signaled not by church services, but by Christmas specials on television. Let’s use some classic Christmas movies for some insight to help navigate the holidays.
In 1970, The Night The Animals Talked, was a popular TV special based on an old European tradition that since Jesus was born at midnight, God miraculously allowed a brief time for the animals to speak to each other and humans. Of course, this quaint tradition is not true. However, we can fall prey to believing something like this when we mistakenly hope the person suffering from substance abuse will be able to “magically” refrain from their cravings during Christmas gatherings. The animals do not talk at midnight on Christmas Eve and addictions are merciless. They do not get or give a holiday. The compulsions do not stop if one is sitting around a table or Christmas tree with loved ones.
Families need to approach the holidays as wide-eyed realists. As a counselor friend told me, the holidays often magnify sadness, shame, and feelings of inadequacy and can heighten the risk of relapse. Well-meaning hosts, insisting on a person being at a certain event can inadvertently cause triggers that the host may or may not be aware of at the time. "White Knuckling” the situation can often create more crisis and anxiety which leads to relapse or the need to use. Counselors often suggest holiday gatherings be alcohol and substance-free.
The animals may not talk at midnight, but the holidays can be a wonderful time for honest conversations between the one struggling and their family about how to truly help. This can be a time when hard conversations about boundaries and reviewing expectations are addressed but before the holiday events. The upcoming holidays can be an opening to have difficult conversations in love, with the key people involved. Remember the "in love” part. (1 Corin. 13:4-6). Those suffering from substance abuse have often used up most the goodwill available to them. Don’t use the holiday gathering as a bait and switch to confront the individual; it normally ends badly and is unproductive. If possible, stick with the plan you agreed on in less stress-filled times.
Another movie to consider is It’s a Wonderful Life. In this classic, Clarence the Angel, allows George Bailey to see how others' lives would be changed if he did not exist. However, just like animals do not talk at midnight, the past cannot be changed and the person that is suffering from substance abuse cannot undo past decisions. A friend in recovery noted that families need to understand that the person in the corner who has had way too much to drink (again) cannot go back and unchoose those past drinks, any more than a person with stage IV melanoma can go back and unchoose all those summers in the sun. A constant barrage toward the individual suffering from addiction, of their past misdeeds and broken promises, is not often helpful. Intense emotional appeals and family interventions are often counter-productive if everyone leaves with a sense of satisfaction that they have “finally” confronted the person with truth, and they can go back to their lives.
A realistic plan of action and support is vital. This is important because most people do not realize the extent of the power of the enemy those struggling are facing. For example, pharmaceutical chemists that fashioned drugs so powerful that pain which formally left people paralyzed in agony could be controlled, lessened, and even alleviated. However, those same drugs change the very structure of the brain, in a brief time and cause intense cravings and sickness in the one who is attempting to stop. Recovery is possible, but one needs help and support.
The final program to keep in mind is the 1966 TV special, How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Though the Grinch took all the toys from Whoville, he was unable to thwart Christmas because the residents of Whoville came together to form a community on Christmas Day. The worldwide success of 12-step programs goes back to the genius of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who realized people need community. They need people. He realized alcoholics needed peer support to make up for lost relationships when they left the taverns and began to seek sobriety. Everyone needs community!
Becoming a community means we should spend more time trying to understand the true causes, struggles, and triggers of our loved ones wrestling with addiction. Stephen Covey famously said, “Seek first to understand and then be understood." We can seek to understand more about a person’s struggles and not immediately rush to judgements and cliches. Seeking to understand does not mean we simply become pushovers. The true meaning of fellowship in the Christian church calls for support and a willingness to challenge each other to grow in Christ (Romans 12). A new meaning for life comes through discipleship that pulls us forward and away from our sins and shortcomings toward the intention God has for us (Romans 3:23).
Sadly, many families in the church that have experienced dedicated support in the past over sickness and grief find themselves isolated because of the stigma of addiction. A cup of coffee, the reminder of a prayer, an invitation to be included in normal activities can reassure our friends they are part of a community, just like in Whoville on Christmas Day.