We cannot change other people, but we can change how we respond to them and their behaviour. We need to look after ourselves this Christmas and over the holidays. Setting boundaries and sticking to them is a great place to start.
Even under normal circumstance, living with addiction can be a stressful, confusing experience, where the abnormal becomes normal and everyone loses sight of what healthy behaviour looks like. Partners and children can tiptoe around someone in active addiction, trying not to rock the boat. Families begin living a double life, attempting to manage the unpredictable behaviour of the addicted individual whilst hiding the problem from friends and relatives
A ‘normal’ Christmas alone is likely to put these relationships under even more pressure. During any December in the UK alcohol consumption tends to rise. This year, December is even more different, the mid-winter even bleaker. With the holiday season set against the backdrop of the pandemic, the new Tier 4 restrictions and last minute cancellation of most gatherings, people will once again experience more stress, more isolation and an increase in drinking to harmful levels for many adults.
We all face a period of uncertainty this Christmas with the changing tiers and restrictions to navigate, rising COVID cases and the fears of what the New Year might bring. For many of us this is challenging, but for families tip-toeing around addiction, Christmas 2020 could be a pressure cooker moment.
For many families, increased levels of harmful drinking this year will change their usual dynamic. For the first time, families may come face to face with a loved one who has unwittingly developed a dependency, is openly drinking or using drugs, or on the flip side hiding their true consumption levels; being secretive, manipulative and behaving differently as a result.
For families new to addiction, or who have been living with its damaging consequences for years, getting advice and support is essential.
This article is written to help people better understand what might be happening at home. How to look after yourself and the people around you, and provides advice on the steps you might take in 2021. If you recongise the pattern of behaviour in this article, our advice pages can offer routes to getting support and help. Addiction can sometimes lead to a life-threatening emergency, if you are experiencing this, or you do not feel safe, contact the emergency services immediately.
The problem of addiction dependence is often denied, not just by those addicted, but by their loved ones too. It’s a condition that is difficult to understand or put right; it creates havoc and destroys lives; families experience stigma and a vicious circle of shame and guilt. Addiction is paradoxical - attempts to help can exacerbate it. For instance, if you help someone cover up the aftermath of a drinking bout, the unspoken message is that someone else will always clear up and they don’t have to deal with the consequences of their actions
Having coping strategies is crucial for our ability to deal with living with someone who is addicted to, or has significantly increased their consumption of alcohol or drugs. The more we can identify what’s helpful and what’s not helpful, what works and what doesn’t work, the more resilient we will become in the long term.
In these troubled times it’s more important than ever that we look after ourselves. Stress and worry have the capacity to stop us from functioning. Coping strategies give us the opportunity to take responsibility in difficult situations by either:
• changing the nature of the situation being experienced e.g. taking ‘time out’ or
• changing the way we deal with the situation e.g. by setting a boundary.
Boundaries are limits, dividing lines between different territories. They are the limits we set in relationships to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed or manipulated by others. They make it possible for us to separate our thoughts and feelings from the addicted partner or relative, and to take responsibility for what we do.
We can’t change other people but we can change how we respond. Think of a tennis court – we have control of our side of the court, right up to the net, but we can’t jump over the net (the boundary) and control what happens on the other side.
Healthy boundaries allow us to get close to others when it is appropriate, and to maintain our distance when it might be harmful to get too close. Good boundaries can also help us respect other people’s boundaries.
In relationships emotional boundaries allow us to:-
• Maintain a clear, stronger sense of our own identity/feelings/needs.
• Protect our space physically and emotionally.
• Stop being taken advantage of.
• Clarify what is acceptable and what is not.
Some boundaries, however, need to be rigid - because:
• No-one deserves abusive treatment.
• No-one deserves to be betrayed or lied to.
• We all deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Other boundaries may change with different situations and can be flexible as well as healthy, for instance boundaries vary between loved ones, friends and strangers.
When setting firm boundaries you have to let go of the outcome and be clear about what you need and what the consequences will be if the other person continues with unacceptable behaviour. You will need to be realistic and mean what you say to carry it through - there have to be consequences for actions.
According to Al-Anon Family Groups, there are things you can do to help improve the well-being of the family and to look after children in an alcoholic environment:
1) Practice you own self-care. Being a good parent means looking after your own physical and mental health.
2) Maintain routines for children. Regular bedtimes ensure they get enough sleep – they’ll be less likely to be irritable the next day.
3) Plan alcohol free activities – children can learn that socialising need not include alcohol.
4) Listen, and talk to your children. Help them learn how to communicate difficult emotions, instead of hiding them
If you believe that a loved one has an addiction and you want to discuss this with them, there are a number of practical things you can do.
When and how to talk to someone with substance misuse problem
If you decide to talk to your family member, friend or partner about their drug or alcohol use, you will need to pick your moment. Find a time when the individual seems open to talking to you or is in a relatively quiet mood. Try not to blame or criticize – instead talk about your concerns in a reasonable manner. Tell your loved one how you feel about their behaviour. For instance, ‘When you have been drinking/taking drugs I feel upset/worried/frightened’. By saying ‘I feel’ rather than phrases like ‘You make me angry!’ the person with a substance misuse problem is less likely to react defensively and is more likely to listen to you. Tell your loved one that you are concerned about them and that you are willing to help them find professional help.
Be prepared for your family member not to listen to you at first. If your attempt fails, drop the subject for a while. If the conversation escalates into an argument, then the addicted person is likely to further escape into drug and alcohol use. It may be difficult for you to walk away when you feel angry and upset, but the situation demands a lot of patience on your part. Try again when the atmosphere is calmer. Although your loved one might appear to resist your suggestions, in private they may well be thinking about what you said, especially if you spoke in a rational and concerned manner. Give them time to reflect on your words.
When someone who is using drugs or alcohol problematically behaves inappropriately and causes upset and worry, it is not acceptable. However, it is important that you don’t take their behaviour personally. The individual concerned is not deliberately trying to upset or disappoint you – instead you are dealing with someone who has lost control of their using or drinking and consequently their behaviour.
You can also help yourself by learning everything you can about addiction, and by talking to people who understand what you’re going through.
Please remember at all times to keep yourself safe physically and emotionally
Action on Addiction provides family support at all its treatment centres to family members who are receiving treatment. In addition, our Moving Parents and Children Together programme (M-PACT), is delivered under licence, all over the UK, by practitioners who are trained by Action on Addiction’s experts. The programme provides a safe space for children and young people to talk about the impact of living with a family member who has an addiction. Al-Anon Family Groups, which includes Alateen for teenagers, provide support to anyone affected by someone else’s problem drinking.
This article was first published in December 2019 and has been edited and updated for 2020.
If you or a loved one are affected by addiction this Christmas