Manning Regional Healthcare Center

Open Letter: Holidays Can Be Especially Hard for Addicts

December 23, 2019  

Written by Bradley Madsen, Recovery Center staff member at Manning Regional Healthcare Center
Ever since I can remember, Christmas Eve in my family meant traveling to my grandparent’s farm outside of Harlan. The cousins would spend the day outside sledding or building snow forts, the aunts and uncles inside playing games and visiting. The whole day was filled with fun, laughter, good food, love and family.

After an evening dinner, my grandfather would read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible as we all listened, and then (I’m not kidding) the entire family would sing some carols together before passing out gifts that night. It’s what I thought everyone did on Christmas Eve.

So when I grew up and started my career as a paramedic, my first Christmas Eve EMS shift in 1993 was also my first Christmas Eve away from my family. Assuming everyone grew up in similar circumstances, I naively predicted holiday public safety shifts would be boring and quiet. I was quickly introduced to reality, however.

It was dark and snowing steadily that night. Around 10:15 p.m. my partner and I were called out for a bar fight with injuries. I hadn’t even known bars were open on Christmas Eve. When we arrived we found a man who had been critically injured after being hit on the head with a pool his own brother. I remember thinking for a split-second, “I wonder why they aren’t at their grandparents house?” but then I dialed in and focused on treating the injured man.  

Fast forward a few years (decades) and I now know that everyone’s circumstances are different. I know, too, that the holidays are a particularly stressful time for a lot of people. Transitioning into the addiction field with this experience, I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that relapses happen more frequently around the holidays.

There are all sorts of reasons for this; financial stress, the stress of hosting the in-laws, the stress of getting lots of people together under one small roof, the stress of not feeling as if you measure up to your siblings or cousins, you know the sorts of stressors I’m talking about. The stresses induced or exacerbated by the holidays are myriad.

One of the hallmarks of active addiction is a diminished capacity to cope with discomfort (stress, for example). The substance use itself becomes a maladaptive coping mechanism - so the temptations to drink or use drugs are increased in stressful situations.
At first, most people use substances to “get high” and “feel good” but in an addict something switches. The addict no longer uses primarily because it “feels good” to use, the addict uses primarily to avoid discomfort (even when the using becomes the cause of that discomfort). There is something to the old saying: “addiction is a baffling and cunning disease.”

The discomfort an addict is trying to avoid can be as simple as the discomfort of physical withdrawal. Frequently, however, addicts use substances to avoid emotional discomfort as well. Discomforts such as: stress, anger, loneliness, sorrow, disappointment and shame can all be amplified over the holidays. And without adequate methods to cope with the discomfort, an addict can be very tempted to return to what has “worked” in the past.

As the holiday season nears, it seems important to understand the reason for an uptick in destructive behaviors we see in addicts. We need to understand that the behaviors that drive them are generally secondary to emotional discomfort and a lack of effective coping skills. It can be difficult to have compassion for a chronic addict whom is acting out, being violent or sobbing uncontrollably. However, the way we interact with these people can either add to their discomfort or help to ease it.

When we remember that addicts often simply don’t know better ways to cope with the stresses and disappointments of life, we are able to improve the situation. They are often ostracized or marginalized, especially over the holidays and it can be very difficult for them. Having an understanding of the roots of addictive behaviors will hopefully foster compassion and spur our desire to help.

Addiction isn’t something that just happens to people who have chosen a bad path. Chances are that you know someone who struggles with addiction in some way. Addicts are our neighbors, our relatives, our friends, and they are sometimes even you and me. There, but for the grace of God, go (us). When we as helpers understand better what we are up against, our job as helpers/healers gets a little easier when we too are missing our holiday on the farm with family.

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