When the calendar turns to December, many anticipate the annual holiday festivities and traditions that mark the season. However, for those living with addiction, this time of the year can give rise to a host of addiction-triggering emotions and feelings such as excitement, loneliness, depression and anger.
So how can we help a family member, friend or colleague with a substance use disorder better cope with the holidays? One of the tools those of us working in the addictions counseling field employ is known as HALT, an acronym developed from the idea that we don't want people to become too Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. These situations can compromise one's sobriety or recovery and cause them to become vulnerable to using or relapsing in response to their feelings or circumstances.
If the person has been involved with any type of treatment services and entered into recovery, they likely will have developed a relapse prevention plan. The relapse prevention plan details the greatest high-risk situations and potential triggers for that particular person and then provides intervention techniques and strategies they can use if they start having thoughts about using or relapsing. We often refer to that process as “stinking thinking,” and the relapse prevention plan will encourage the person to notify their sponsor (if they are in a program), confide in a family member or be around people they love and who also love and support them.
Once the relapse prevention plan is established for that person, we ask them to keep it with them whenever possible. We also ask them to keep contact information with them so if they need to call a sponsor, a family member or someone who supports them and who is readily available to speak to them anytime, day or night.
If the person has not been in treatment and they really don't want to use or relapse, I often encourage them to talk to family members about their patterns of behavior and what are some of the things that lead them to using. Providing one’s family or friends with the warning signs allows them to better offer support when those situations arise. That support may initially make the person seeking help feel as though they are being micromanaged or treated like a child, but it also can prevent the person from using or relapsing.
As part of planning for the holidays, especially if one is traveling, I encourage people to also plan against relapse. There are support meetings all over the country, and because of COVID-19 we have more online support services than ever before. There also are support resources one can call, including hotlines that provide locations and other details about available groups or meetings.
There also are steps family members and friends can take to reduce the chances of a loved one using or relapsing. Avoid using critical or judgmental statements such as, “Why don't you just stop? It's easy to stop; maybe you have a moral problem or you're weak.” Those are things a person should never say to a loved one who is suffering from an addiction.
We know addiction to be a disease, and this particular disease follows the course like other diseases. So people need to be educated about what addiction is and how it occurs. To help with the education process, there are support groups family members or friends can attend to learn more about addiction. Some meetings may be closed, but there are many meetings that are open to everyone. And again, thanks to the pandemic, there are so many online resources that can support family members and friends of people with addictions.
I believe addiction is a misunderstood disease, but I also believe any of us can be an effective interventionist through care, support and education. The sooner we can help a friend or loved one deal effectively with their addiction, the less damage is done to them physically and mentally.
Christopher Townsend, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical addiction specialist and director of the Your Life Behavioral Health and Wellness Clinic at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center.