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Mentally healthy holiday season is different for everyone

You would think staying mentally healthy during the holidays is easy. For most people the holidays are a time of fun, family, and fellowship. Rituals around meals, cultural and religious traditions, and music/lore are a welcome sign for many. The issue for some, however, is that, for reasons to be explained below, their holiday season is more of a struggle, or even a sad/traumatic reminder of problematic times. For those of you with loved ones who have mental health issues and/or drug problems (yes, alcohol is a drug), we may need to be a little more mindful of how we set up and participate in holidays. Let’s explore.

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Holiday Cheer (?)

**Caveat, this is not a “blame the parents” or “blame the family” post.**

It is, unfortunately, often the case that people with mental health conditions and/or drug problems grew up in less than optimal home environments. Many people in recovery from addictions come from families where addiction is common, which can mean more problematic holidays (i.e., filled with arguments, intoxication fueled interpersonal conflict, absenteeism, or other kinds of “unpredictability”) for the child in the home of a person with a substance use disorder. Others come from typical families where, for a host of “good” and “bad” reasons, the parent(s) could not be emotionally, and sometimes physically (i.e., having to work on holidays for single parents), present.

There is a wide spectrum of “problems,” some far more minor (e.g., occasional absence) and others more heavy hitting (i.e., violence, yelling, and chaotic unpredictability) that people in treatment often report related to holidays. These memories and experiences are not necessarily insurmountable or even at the top of the list of grievance for most people in treatment. That said, they still can serve as “triggers” or special sensitivities that may make it more difficult for people, especially those in recovery from addictions, to make it through the holidays in decent shape.

Most often, more challenging for people with mental health issues and/or substance use disorders are their personal struggles on the holidays. For example, many people with substance use disorders are often themselves incarcerated, in treatment, intoxicated, and/or, suffering in silence holidays. Others, have made a scene at family and friends’ events, intoxicated and/or withdrawing (i.e., “coming down”), resulting in irritability, outbursts, or even aggressive behavior on the part of the person struggling with a substance use disorder.

For people with mental health issues like major depression or social anxiety disorder, holidays are often times of quiet suffering. Many struggle with intense guilt because they’re having such a hard time “being present” (i.e., feeling as if they’re actually “connecting”) or participating in the family, events, or other relationships “like everyone else.” Still others struggle with suicidal ideation because, “what’s the point of being around?” if they cannot “ever get better” or be “part of” their families and other relationships in a meaningful way. And others are bombarded by psychological pain, or trauma symptoms, or psychosis, or paranoia (and so on).

It’s not fair to say that everyone with a mental health or substance use disorder has these experiences, but it is true that many do struggle in these ways. We sometimes are aware of their struggle, and other times it’s not so clear. Again, many feel so ashamed and guilty for struggling, due to stigma and other pressures, that they would “rather not be a burden” and show you and their friends just how much they’re suffering. Because of these reasons, and more, we want to offer a few simple tips to be supportive of the folks you love who are currently struggling with mental health/substance use problems.

Here are a few tips for Supporting the Ones You Love to stay mentally healthy through a holiday season.

This simple list is fairly robust, though not perfect. Sometimes having a conversation with a clinician can help, especially if your loved one is in treatment…please ask to “negotiate” the holidays in a family/couples session. The tips:

  • Ask: everyone is in a different “head space” when they’re struggling. Some people in recovery are doing well, and can handle more family and social pressure, whereas others are still earlier on and will need less intensity (and for some none at all is tolerable). Ask them questions like “how are you doing with ____(problem)?” “Are you feeling up to celebrating with the family?” Which leads to the next tip…
  • Keep It Simple & Short (K.I.S.S.): especially if your loved one is in treatment. Most people who are struggling just need a simple supportive and/or curious conversation to feel “seen” and acknowledged. Obviously, depending upon the particular type(s) of problem(s) they’re struggling with, everyone will have different needs. A small simple intimate family gathering can help. Simple, and “lite” topics are best. Definitely avoid the highly incendiary topics like religion or politics (not saying you shouldn’t honor your religious/spiritual/cultural traditions). Also, for many people who are badly struggling, if they are open to some family time, it’s often better to ease back into “normal” socializing. This may mean it’s easier if they spend a shorter amount of time at events and gatherings. Letting your loved one know there’s “no pressure” to stay for the entire event can be helpful. No need to make a fuss about it, simply just acknowledging that it’s okay to go early (etc.) if need be, for example. No questions asked.
  • Alcohol isn’t a great idea: for people with mental health, and especially, substance use disorders, alcohol typically isn’t a great idea. People in early recovery likely aren’t in a good space to be around alcohol. It’s not uncommon for alcohol to be a part of festivities for many, we get that. It may generally be helpful in the first 6 months-year period to try to minimize or avoid having it at gatherings.
  • Try to avoid the Eggshells: do your best to avoid setting up a scene where you, the family, or your loved one are in an environment where people feel like they’re “walking on eggshells” (i.e., on edge or having to tiptoe around one another). Contentious topics, old wounds/family secrets, and various other “elephants” in the room. For example, if your loved one has overdosed in your home this can mean something like meeting in a more neutral spot if feasible (not necessary in most cases). If your loved one with the mental health/substance use problem is considered the source of tension, we highly recommend having a few family sessions to talk things out and set some ground rules. Also, it’s important to just leave space for typical awkwardness and not read too much into it. It’s always an adjustment when someone is struggling, this is normal.
  • Keep it positive: Enjoy the positives of the holidays as best as you can. Do try to focus on the good things, gratitude, success in treatment and/or recovery (no matter how small), and cherish the gift that is the ability to just be with people you love. Do your best, you deserve to enjoy the day and celebrate despite the struggles of your loved one. It is tough to balance your needs, your family’s needs, and the needs of your loved one struggling. No one expects

If you or your loved one are struggling, and you would like some help finding the best resources to address your issues, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at: (747) 222-7464 or at Happy holidays and be well!