Substance Use and the Holidays

Navigating the parties, gatherings, and dinners this time of year can be taxing for anyone, but when there are substance use concerns it can be overwhelmingly difficult. Not only do many holiday gatherings include festive drinks, they also bring feelings of isolation and grief for many people. 

Navigating Holiday Parties

Unresolved conflicts, shame about previous actions, and unprocessed trauma are all likely to surface for those with substance use disorders. These are also reasons that people in recovery from addictions may try to avoid holiday parties and family gatherings. This avoidance can lead to feelings of isolation and even more shame which can make it very tempting to relapse, particularly for people new to recovery. 

While avoiding the holiday gatherings, and any associated substances, may seem like a solution in many cases it is part of the problem. Working on recovering from substance use disorders means facing difficult situations with a plan. Whether you’re in recovery yourself or a family member of someone in recovery, having a loose plan for these events is a good idea.

When attending events where alcohol or other substances will be available, it can be helpful to go with someone. Having a friend or family member who is supportive and/or sober means you have someone you can talk to if you’re tempted to use. Try to choose someone you trust and who might be willing to commit to being sober for the night to decrease feelings of standing out due to sobriety. If you are the loved one of someone in sobriety, it can be helpful to verbalize your support and love for the person in recovery. 

Of course, there are some events you may want to skip altogether with good reason, but do it with intention. If the party is problematic because of the amount of drinking or drug use, or because it’s an abusive situation, then make alternate plans with sober or supportive friends and family. This serves two purposes: it gives you an excuse to miss the party and it occupies your mind and body during a time you would previously have engaged in substance use. 

Grief, Sadness, and Conflict

The holidays can be joyous, but they can also be a time of grief, sadness, and conflict. The absence of family and friends who have passed away can be especially hard with so many family gatherings in a short period of time. There may be sadness over missed opportunities to connect or missed holidays due to addiction. And, of course, there can be conflict and resentment over unresolved issues from the past. 

The grief over family members passing away, the sadness over lost time and memories, and the anger over past hurts are all essential human feelings. Trying to avoid these emotions or ignore them, usually leads to them coming out sideways in fights, isolating oneself, or even relapsing into substance use. Feeling these emotions can be overwhelming too, so it can be helpful to take some time to reflect on the grief, sadness, or anger through journaling, meditation, or prayer. The goal is to feel the feelings without letting them take over and to acknowledge the truth of the situations without wallowing in self-pity or misery. 

Grief can be acknowledged as a family, if needed, through a family prayer or meditation, a special candle being lit or an ornament hung in memory of those no longer with us. Sadness over lost time or memories due to substance abuse can be acknowledged and is best addressed by being present for this holiday season. Making new memories and being present now is a great way to make amends for past absences, whatever the reason. 

Anger over past hurts, and conflict or confrontations are best left for another time. Even making amends can be really touchy because the other person may be understandably hesitant to accept the apology. Addressing long-standing conflicts during the holidays mostly serves to make everyone feel awkward and uncomfortable. If there are family conflicts that have to be addressed during the holidays, it’s a good idea to try to do that privately with only the immediately affected parties in the room. Family therapy can also be helpful for these types of conversations. 

Enjoying the Holidays

Despite the stresses of being in recovery during the holidays, it is possible to enjoy this time of year! It requires a certain amount of self-awareness and support, but it’s worth it in the end. With daily check-ins, asking friends and family for support, and a little planning around difficult situations, you can have a Happy Holiday Season!

I hope this has helped you learn more about navigating recovery during the holidays. And if you’d love to know more about substance abuse disorders and how to manage your recovery, our team of therapists at Authentic Connections Counseling Center in Castle Rock, Colorado is here to support you. You can book a session by calling 720-370-3010 x100 or emailing us at