Welcome to the Holiday 2019 edition of Family Matters – Families Matter, authored and curated by FSDP’s Guest Blogger–pioneering harm reduction therapist, educator, advocate and author Dee-Dee Stout.
The Holidays. The holidays are difficult to navigate even for the bravest and happiest of us. People we may only see once or twice a year, foods we may eat rarely, and discussions that can be fraught with emotion are all on the list of possible “menu” items. In my family, we toggled between two sets of grandparents (gratefully in the same small town) with a carefully navigated schedule crafted to not upset anyone, to be equitable with time spent at each locale, and to provide consistency for us youngsters. Thanksgiving at one site one year, at the other the next. Christmas Day with one set of grandparents, Christmas Eve with the other. And New Year’s Eve was spent at various locations with the next morning mostly spent at either uncles’ as they or their wives were in charge of making the traditional New Year’s Day abelskivers as part of our collective Danish heritage. Whew! But it worked as I recall. Of course, I also wasn’t the one schlepping kids and gifts and food back and forth all week!
This year my family (son, his girlfriend, and me) has decided to “postpone” Thanksgiving due to flight costs and frankly, all of us are pretty worn down from loads of travel for work – grateful and tired! So, we’ll do something next month as all our schedules settle down for December. I’ve known some families who leave the States completely both for warmer climes and as an excuse to not engage in the mandatory family get-togethers which (for some) too often devolve into rambunctious excesses of alcohol, explosive conversations, and food they can no longer tolerate in their healthier lifestyles. But what if you want/need/must attend some gatherings for the holidays? Can we navigate these potential landmines better if we plan in advance? Yes! We can! And so with that positive statement in mind, here’s some ideas for building a new Roadmap for a Happier Holiday.
FSDP’s Top 5 Suggestions for Smoother Sailing during the Holidays
- Limit the alcohol served. Now I’m not suggesting you can’t have any yummy holiday punches and outrageous cocktails, but I do suggest that everyone drink mindfully – even if that is to excess. Being smarter and safer with alcohol is just that: smart and safer! Have non-alcoholic beverages available for folks even if everyone is drinking alcohol. One of the less good things about alcohol is the dehydration that occurs. So having some fun sparkling waters can be an aid – and maybe reduce that morning headache a bit. Plus there are so many incredible alternatives to alcoholic drinks today as more people are moderating their alcohol intake or not indulging at all: seedlipdrinks.com, curiouselixirs.com, rockgrace.com and www.tostbeverages.com all have incredible non-alcoholic beverages that can look like the real deal. Also, having a glass of something without alcohol between alcoholic drinks can be a smart move – and make the night (and your money) last longer.
- Have a breathalyzer at the door. Really! Available at most drug stores and Amazon (ranging in price from $20-$130; check out this buying guide for more: https://bestreviews.com/best-breathalyzers), these home breathalyzers aren’t perfect but they’ll give the “blower” an idea of how intoxicated they might be (sometimes just seeing a number will convince Aunt/Uncle Pat to consider giving up their keys). Partner this with a cheery holiday basket for the car keys of anyone who doesn’t plan to monitor their alcohol (or other drugs) use. Put a colored tag on each with name, car type or license number, as well as cell numbers in case you need to move their car (street cleaning!) or so they can easily collect them the following day after taking a Lyft/Uber/cab/ride share home.
- Eat before you indulge. We know that food can absorb alcohol so be sure to eat some carbs and fat before you drink (yum: avocado toast!!). This can help you feel like you’re participating in the holidays while also drinking smart. If you’re hosting this year, be sure to have some snacks available with your delicious cocktails! You’ll appreciate folks eating a bit beforehand when they’re a bit less uninhibited at the dinner table!
- Watch the conversations. Instead of letting conversations just organically occur, what about trying another way to shape those potentially treacherous talks at the holidays? Recently I bought a few “topic card sets” to use in trainings and with clients. Here are a handful of examples from each and the companies they came from (though you can check Amazon for a ton of suggestions which you can then purchase wherever you like):
For provocative conversations:
(from Q&E Provocations for Applied Empathy by SubRosa at wearesubrosa.com)
What makes an experience meaningful?
Who has challenged you to be better than you once were?
What motivates you to progress?
For generally deeper conversations:
(from Big Talk at www.makebigtalk.com)
What is a new habit you want to form?
What are you thankful for this very moment?
What advice would you ask for from your greatest hero?
For more fun/funny conversations:
(from We! Connect Cards at www.weand.me)
What is a fun experience that you have recently had?
What are you passionate about right now?
What are people usually surprised to find out about you?
Or for more family of origin-oriented fare
(from TableTopics Family Gathering at www.tabletopics.com)
What’s the best story you heard about your grandparents/parents/aunt/uncle?
What do you remember about the homes your family has lived in?
What’s your favorite family story?
Or make up your own set of cards. That way you can have even more confidence that your conversations will avoid any “hot topics” that you know of. Or as folks come arrive, have a bunch of blank cards with colorful pens at a table and ask everyone to write a question or statement topic on a card. Put those in a festive box and pass it around at dinner or afterwards. Go through the cards before you use them to hand select out any statements that you think might be too provocative or triggering. Even some that I’ve listed here might be too much for some folks to answer. Allow anyone to take a “new card” if they don’t like the one they drew, or they may ask for a new one to be drawn if one person is drawing – and don’t make them give a reason for passing on the chosen card. You get the idea.
- Get naloxone! While Narcan can’t reverse all overdosing (such as methamphetamine or alcohol) many illicit drugs these days contain a bit or a lot of fentanyl or one of its analogues. Therefore, even if the person you love says they’ve used meth or cocaine only, if wouldn’t hurt to give them Narcan™/naloxone if you notice the signs of overdose. One of my fave new sayings is “Naloxone only enables breathing!”
The holidays are not the time for heavy conversations in my opinion. Those are best left either before or after such events, and with some practice and feedback from a professional, a friend, or anyone you trust to tell you the truth. However, some conversations may need to happen before the holidays. If you have a family member or friend who recently had treatment of some kind for a substance use disorder, I say be direct: ask them what you can do to make the holidays more inviting and safer for them. That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do what’s asked, but that person will feel better just for you having asked! All too often people simply assume what moderators/abstainers need and want to help support their recoveries. People are different so individuals should be considered.
For the rest of the family, try not to walk on eggshells around your loved one who may still have a problem with alcohol or other drugs. And you all may decide that the holidays just isn’t the right time to all get together. It may be too “loaded” for everyone (pun intended). If that’s the case, make a new tradition: plan a separate small holiday just for a small group of supportive people. For those in new recovery or who are struggling with drug use, being confronted with lots of people can be overwhelming and lead to more drug use for comfort. Hopefully there will be other holidays that you all can have together down the road.
Happy Holidays Everyone, whatever you celebrate….and see you in 2020 with a new blog!!
-Dee-Dee Stout, MA
All photos courtesy of unsplash.com
 For a terrific article on opiate/opioid overdose, see https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/recognizing-opioid-overdose/