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Supporting Those in Recovery During the Holidays

Practical ways to create welcoming environments.

Key points

  • For the 21 million Americans in recovery, the holidays may be a particularly challenging time to navigate.
  • Social norms often promote the association between celebratory events and alcohol consumption, which includes holiday festivities.
  • We can make intentional decisions to support our community members in recovery as we navigate the holiday season.

There are many things to consider as we approach the holiday season---travel plans, meal preparation, gatherings with loved ones–yet one consideration that may not be at the forefront of people’s minds is how to support our friends, family, and community members who are in recovery from addiction.

Social norms often associate celebratory events with the consumption of alcohol. Research from the United Kingdom reveals that individuals who drink alcohol consume about 23 percent more units per week around special occasions (Bellis et al., 2015). Therefore, the holidays' festivities may be particularly challenging to navigate for those who are in recovery from alcohol and other drugs.

How Many People Are in Recovery?

According to recent data, approximately 21 million American adults are in recovery from alcohol and other drug addiction (SAMHSA, 2021). Furthermore, there is an estimated 1,438,253 people in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA; a support group for those who desire to stop drinking) in the United States (AA, General Service Office, 2020). These data suggest that most people know someone who is abstaining from alcohol and other drugs. In addition, chemical addiction is more prevalent than many may think.

Over 11 percent of U.S. adults (29.2 million) report that they have ever had a problem with substances (SAMHSA, 2021). Thus, in addition to those in recovery, it is likely that most Americans know someone who struggles with their use of alcohol or other drugs.

Substance Use During COVID-19

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, substance use may be even higher than in previous years. There has been an increase in alcohol sales in the U.S. from March to September months of 2020, suggesting more at-home alcohol consumption during the pandemic (Castaldelli-Maia et al., 2021). Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 13.3 percent of American adults increased or started using substances as a means of coping with stress during the pandemic (Czeisler et al., 2020). Thus, this year, in particular, there may be more individuals struggling with alcohol and other drug consumption during the holiday season.

Practical Ways To Support Those in Recovery During the Holidays

Responses to the holidays are as varied as the number of individuals who experience them. Some face grief and loneliness more acutely this time of year, while others experience more joy and peace. Most individuals will encounter an amalgamation of emotions, including stress, happiness, melancholy, excitement, loneliness, and hope.

These varied and pronounced emotional experiences, coupled with the change in daily routines and plethora of holiday parties, may pose challenges to those in recovery from addiction. However, we can make intentional decisions to support our community members in recovery as we navigate the holiday season.

Here are a few practical examples:

  1. Be cognizant that many individuals may choose not to consume alcohol, and we should refrain from asking them why. No one should feel obligated to explain their reasons for abstaining from alcohol use, and asking about the behavior sends the message that it is atypical, odd, or curious.
  2. Ensure that there are alcohol-free beverage options at holiday events that are as visible as alcoholic beverages. The prominent placement of both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages communicates that either option is equally acceptable.
  3. When possible, confine all alcoholic beverages to one area in a home or holiday party venue, rather than dispersing it throughout. There should be spaces in which there are no alcohol cues or availability.
  4. Respect individuals’ limits and boundaries around their alcohol consumption. If you offer a guest a drink and they say “no, thank you” or “I better not,” respect their limits without asking multiple times or trying to persuade them to drink. Michael K. Schmit, an associate professor at Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies, noted, “It’s hard when others don’t consider or respect the boundaries an individual puts in place around alcohol. They may have good intentions of wanting people to be merry and have a good time, but fun and enjoyment can look differently for different people.” And for many, a good time does not involve alcohol.
  5. Host alcohol-free events during the holiday season. Although social norms may associate holidays with alcohol consumption, this does not need to continue to be the standard. Alcohol-free events can be a welcome change for many and a time for all guests to enjoy the benefits of non-substance-related rewards (e.g., conversations with friends, good food, recreational activities, spiritual practices, music, humor).
  6. Check in on friends who are in recovery over the holidays. For some people, the holiday season can be isolating and challenging as normal routines are disrupted. A phone call, text, or visit to let someone in recovery know you are thinking about them could be welcome encouragement.

In sum, being mindful of the experience of those in recovery and making intentional decisions to create welcoming environments is one way we can support our friends and family who are abstaining from alcohol and other drugs this holiday season.

Moreover, as public awareness about the disease of addiction increases, the less stigmatized it will be and the more openly our society will celebrate recovery.

I want to thank Dr. Michael K. Schmit for his meaningful contributions to this blog.

References

Alcoholics Anonymous, General service Office (2020). Estimates of AA groups and members as of December 31, 2020. https://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/smf-53_en.pdf

Bellis, M. A., Hughes, K., Jones, L., Morleo, M., Nicholls, J., McCoy, E. … Sumnall, H. (2015). Holidays, clebrations, and commiserations: Measuring drinking during feasting and fasting to improve national and individual estimates of alcohol consumption. BMC Medicine, 13, 113. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-015-0337-0

Castaldelli-Maia, J. M., Segura, L. E., & Martins, S. S. (2021). The concerning increasing trend of alcohol beverage sales in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. Alcohol, 96, 37-42. https://doi.org/ 10.1016/j.alcohol.2021.06.004

Czeisler, M. E., Lane, R. I., Petrosky, E., Wiley, J. E., Christensen, A., Njai, R. … Rajaratnam, S. M. W. (2020). Mental health, substance use, and suicidal ideation during the COVID-19 pandemic- United States, June 24-30, 2020. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 69, 1049-1057. http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1external icon

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (SAMHSA). (2021). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP21-07-01-003, NSDUH Series H-56). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality.

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