Addiction and the Holidays

Q&A with interventionist and author Bob Poznanovich

Q: Is it true that the holidays can exacerbate substance abuse?

A: Definitely. While it's a time of great joy and happiness for many, the holidays can also bring extra stress or feelings of loss or depression. Sometimes family gatherings can aggravate difficult or unhealthy relationships and cause additional anxiety. Intense end-of-the-year workplace demands combined with must-show holiday parties can place additional pressure to drink or use. The season also brings many opportunities to celebrate in excess, which can create tremendous challenges for those with addiction. On top of all this, families who may be struggling with a loved one's addiction feel pressure to present the image that all is well.

Q: Based on recent history, I'm worried that my spouse will over-imbibe during our holiday celebrations. He assures me he has it under control. How can I be sure?

A: If "recent history" means he has a track record of unsuccessfully controlling his use or he's experienced negative consequences but keeps using, it's probably time for your spouse to take a closer look at his use. The idea that alcoholics or addicts can stop using if they simply put their mind to it is one of the most dangerous myths about addiction. This type of thinking keeps people sick, by promoting the belief that addiction is a disease of choice or a matter of will. You often hear other dangerous myths about addiction, such as:

  • addicts and alcoholics need to reach rock bottom before they will accept help
  • people don't need treatment; they can stop using if they are really motivated
  • treatment doesn't work
  • people must want treatment in order for it to be effective

Whether your spouse is ready or not to get help, you can educate yourself about addiction, treatment, and recovery. And you can gain insight into your spouse's situation by conducting a free and confidential screening online on his behalf at

Q: If a family member needs treatment for addiction, wouldn't it make sense to hold off until after the holidays?

A: Let's re-frame the question: Would you put off getting help for your parent or child or sibling suffering from cancer or heart disease or diabetes? Absolutely not. Addiction is a chronic illness that requires treatment now.

Asking a family member to go to treatment during the holidays is not wrong or cruel or disruptive. As anyone who's experienced it will attest, homes where there's active addiction during the holidays are not havens of joy and happiness; they are places of dysfunction, stress, fear, and shame. Treatment initiated during the holidays could be the best gift a family ever gives or receives.

Q: What are some tips for helping a loved one who's newly sober during the holidays?

A: Be open and honest, and be understanding and respectful. Your loved one needs to take responsibility for protecting his or her own sobriety. This might mean avoiding gatherings where alcohol or other drugs will be available, or by limiting time in stressful situations or with difficult people. It may mean your loved one needs to attend a Twelve Step meeting instead of being part of a family tradition or special activity. Remember the ultimate goal: recovery is about having a better life for everyone in your family, and your loved one's new-found sobriety marks the start of that new life.

Read more Tips for Enjoying a Happy, Sober Holiday

Bob Poznanovich, executive director of National Outreach and Business Development for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is also the co-author of It's Not Okay to Be a Cannibal: How to Keep Addiction from Eating Your Family Alive.

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