In normal times, holidays bring parties and opportunities to gather with family and friends. Accompanying these opportunities is often a tremendous array of food and drink. For many, overeating or drinking to excess is simply a momentary expression of celebration. For others, it may be a trigger for continuing use or abuse of substances. For those among us who struggle with addiction, these celebrations can cause us to wonder if our drinking or eating is normal. An even larger number of family members and friends may start wondering about the eating or drinking habits of a relative.
Since we have no parties this year, this is a non-issue, right? Well no. People who are on the path from normal eating or drinking to addictive eating or drinking don’t need a party. For many, isolation is preferred. Hiding of the behavior out of shame and guilt is normal behavior for the person fighting an addiction.
Unfortunately, drinking or eating too much are killer diseases. For many, it is a slow, progressive painful death. First the spirit is broken. The hope that I can stop or this time it will be different becomes more fantasy as the power of the addiction in the brain grows. There is a point where there is no turning back for the person who eats or drinks too much.
What to do if some of this is your reality? There are two challenges. The first is recognizing and admitting there is a problem. And the second is knowing what to do?
There is a litmus test for addiction that all kinds of Twelve Step organizations have adapted to help potential members decide if they belong. It is one simple question: Does your drinking, eating or other habitual behavior make your life unmanageable?
The NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism distinguishes moderate drinking, binge drinking and heavy alcohol use. For more ways to self-assess alcohol use patterns, check out an article in Psychology Today which links to an NIH questionnaire and offers eleven symptoms for alcohol abuse.
The first challenge of recognizing that an addiction problem exists is hard because we want to ignore it. No one knows how to be helpful so we say or do nothing. Each addiction has different behaviors; yet typically there is a progression and worsening of the symptoms in each.
For the person with the addiction problem, the challenge is to move out of denial and face reality. A friend in recovery shared her story of after years of denial being confronted by someone who had overcome an addiction. “If you could drink normally, why do you fight giving it up so fiercely?”
The second challenge is – what can we do? “We” in this case are the spouses, family and friends who love the person with a possible alcohol or other substance use problem.
For the family, the challenge is perplexing and dispiriting. As humans, it is easy to focus on the behaviors of the person with the addiction and try to figure out how to get them to see the problem and change. Unfortunately, there are also hundreds of years of irrefutable evidence that this doesn’t work.
Through the pioneering work of the early members of Al-Anon, the wives of the first alcoholics concluded they couldn’t change the alcoholic. All they could do was change their reaction to the alcoholic. And in some miraculous way, focusing on themselves and learning to hate the addiction and love the person allowed many persons with addiction problems and their families to recover.
If you are dreading the holidays because you fear for someone’s (or your own) eating or drinking too much, I hope you can push past your denial self-talk that says it isn’t so bad and begin to face the possibility you need help. And for families, my hope is that we can stop the useless efforts to change others and find help for ourselves.
May this year of holidays bring you a sense of peace and goodwill. If, instead, it brings you a sense that you need help with your addictions, may it bring you the strength to start a new path by asking for help. (Visit Recovery Resource for more information.)
Tom Adams writes on the connections between leadership, spirituality, racial justice, and emotional growth and recovery. His blog posts can be found on his website: www.thadams.com.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org