Navigating the Holidays: Reaching Out to a Loved One Struggling with Alcohol Misuse
By Shari Scott, MSN, Director of Nursing, Midwest Detox
For many, having a few drinks during a holiday party is common practice – but for those who are struggling with an alcohol use disorder, are recently sober, or are in recovery, normal holiday drinking can present different challenges or obstacles.
Furthermore, the holidays are not always a time of good cheer. The holidays can be highly stressful, financially difficult, anxiety provoking and for some, a time of loneliness and depression leading to the use of alcohol to take the edge off or escape from life for awhile. Some believe they need alcohol to be the life of the party, to handle the anxiety of a large gathering, or just to relax.
The holidays can also be a time when family and friends begin to have concerns about the drinking habits of someone they love. According to a recent USA Today article, alcohol sales peak in the United States between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day and Americans consume more alcohol during this timeframe than other times throughout the year. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control) reports that December and January are two of the deadliest months in terms of alcohol and drug related deaths. Given these facts, it is not hard to see why alcohol use may become a bigger concern during the holiday season.
So, if someone you love is in recovery or you grow concerned about a loved one’s alcohol use during the holiday season, how can you help?
Supporting Family and Friends That Are in Recovery
If you are hosting a holiday event, offer fun non-alcoholic options for guests. Think hot chocolate with marshmallows or candy canes instead of hot chocolate with Baileys or sparkling cider instead of champagne. (Check out this recipe for inspiration)
Don’t push a drink on someone who says “no.” Be respectful of other’s choice to enjoy the festivities without alcohol.
Check in with friends that are in recovery. Ask them what they need and how you can support them. Try to avoid making assumptions about what is best for them.
If friends or family in recovery are visiting from out-of-town, support them in finding local AA meetings if they want to attend.
Host an event that is alcohol free.
Be understanding if a friend or family member says they are not comfortable attending an event where alcohol will be served. They may be protecting their own recovery.
I Am Worried My Loved One Has a Problem with Alcohol…What Should I do?
Speak up. Be honest about your concerns. Ignoring your concerns will not help your loved one get better.
Choose a time to talk to your loved one when they have not been drinking. This will help keep the conversation calm and productive.
Try to remain non-judgmental and remind your loved one that you care about them. Feeling shame can trigger them to drink.
Don’t cover for your loved one when they are drinking or make excuses for their behavior or choices.
Consider getting an interventionist, primary care provider, clergy, or therapist involved if your loved one is not responding to your concerns or if you need support to have a difficult conversation.
Try not to take an angry reaction personally or blame yourself. You are not responsible for your loved one’s choices, and you are not the cause of their drinking.
If they agree to treatment, stay with them while they call a medical detox facility, their physician, or a support line to plan treatment. You can also help them find recovery meetings in their community.
Love and support your family member but remember that you need to take care of yourself. Consider going to an Al-Anon meeting or seeing your own therapist. Make sure that you are eating, sleeping, and staying hydrated.
Know the Risks of Alcohol Withdrawal
When someone with a severe alcohol use disorder suddenly stops or drastically decreases their drinking, the consequences can be serious. The signs and symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can begin just a few hours after the cessation of drinking depending on the frequency and severity of use. It is highly likely that if your loved one has been drinking daily or almost daily, their body has become dependent on alcohol, and they may even be drinking to avoid withdrawal.
Do not advise your loved one to just stop drinking without medical aid. This could place them at risk for a hypertensive crisis, severe anxiety, seizure, or a condition called Delirium Tremens, some of which can be deadly. They may also experience tremors or shaking, nausea and vomiting, unusual skin sensations, headaches, agitation, disorientation, and/or hallucinations. These symptoms can sometimes be so severe that without medication your loved one will resume drinking to treat the symptoms. If you call a treatment facility, they may advise your loved one to continue drinking while arrangements for treatment are being made. This is to help keep your loved one safe until they have medical supervision. If your loved one has already stopped drinking and is showing signs of severe withdrawal such as extreme agitation, inability to take in fluids, or hallucinations, please seek medical help at once.
How to Detox Safely
A medically managed detox, either at a detox facility or with careful planning from an outpatient provider, can help keep your loved one safe as alcohol begins to leave their body. Alcohol can either be decreased at a slow and safe rate or alcohol withdrawal can be managed with the help of medications to keep your loved one both comfortable and safe. Medications can be used to decrease the risk of seizure, manage elevated blood pressure and other elevated vital signs, control nausea, and prevent dehydration, as well as manage the severe anxiety or sleep disturbances that can accompany the cessation of alcohol consumption. Those with a history of seizures, multiple medical conditions, uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, or those who are pregnant should be watched carefully and could require ICU care.
A medical detox facility or healthcare provider can also offer resources for what comes after the detox process. This can include individual or family therapy, intensive outpatient programming, follow up medical care, and for some, residential treatment. You do not have to support your loved one alone. There is help available and the healing process should include the entire family. This allows your family to repair relationships, support recovery, and learn healthy ways to interact with the help of trained professionals.
We are Here to Help
If you are concerned about a loved one's drinking and think they may need medical attention, call Midwest Detox today at 414.409.5200.
Martin, Saleen (2022, November 23). Alcohol’s busiest season is here: How to avoid binge drinking and support sober loved ones. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/health-wellness/2022/11/23/alcoholism-holidays-avoid-binge-drinking-stay-sober/10702733002/.
Muncie, H. L., Jr, Yasinian, Y., & Oge', L. (2013). Outpatient management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. American family physician, 88(9), 589–595.
T, Buddy. (2021, March 1). Why the holidays are hard for recovery. Very well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/recovery-during-the-holidays-67406.
Wood, E., Albarqouni, L., Tkachuk, S., Green, C. J., Ahamad, K., Nolan, S., McLean, M., & Klimas, J. (2018). Will This Hospitalized Patient Develop Severe Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome? The Rational Clinical Examination Systematic Review. JAMA, 320(8), 825–833. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2018.10574