Families Matter, Family Matters — Holiday Edition 2019

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.

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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.

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FSDP’s Top 5 Suggestions for Smoother Sailing during the Holidays

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!
  4. 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.

  1. 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[1]. One of my fave new sayings is “Naloxone only enables breathing!”

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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

[1] For a terrific article on opiate/opioid overdose, see https://harmreduction.org/issues/overdose-prevention/overview/overdose-basics/recognizing-opioid-overdose/

Holy Holidays, Batman!…Or Ten Ways to Get Through the Holidays

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PLEASE SUPPORT OUR FAMILIES!

Welcome to our Holiday Special Blog, the December 2018 edition of Family Matters – Families Matter, our new blog authored and curated by FSDP’s Guest Blogger–pioneering harm reduction therapist, educator, advocate and author Dee-Dee Stout.

This month, Dee Dee, in her own inimitable style, shares some essential tips to navigate the holiday season in empowering ways…

To join our growing community of enlightened friends and advocates sign up here now.

Hello all! Here we are at the end of 2018 – and of my blogs for this year! Thank you all for your support and your readership! I have truly appreciated all the comments and shares over these past few months. And I’ve discovered just how much I love to do research on these topics!

In the past five months we’ve talked about the dangers and origins of Tough Love; recovering the word “recovery;” and Harm Reduction strategies for families. I know I promised 12 “Ways to Get Through the Holidays” but you know, I found myself doing only 10, perfect for counting on both hands! I hope you won’t be too disappointed. Most importantly, remember our 2018 take away for all families and their loved ones through this sometimes treacherous time:

It really is all about the love – and love is never tough!

love tree

So, who knows what the new year will bring. I know I’m eager to see 2019 and I haven’t felt that way in a long time. For the New Year, what ideas and suggestions do you have for new topics and conversations? Please write to me at deedeestoutconsulting@gmail.com and let me know. See you all next year!

Holy Holidays, Batman!

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Xmas trees

Holidays. I love them and hate them.

And regardless of which camp you fall into – or perhaps you’re in the “in between” camp – the winter holidays can be a challenge to navigate, especially when there’s added drug use (yes, I mean that tasty eggnog or rum punch too) by many involved. As I sit here with all my research and ideas in front of me, it occurs to me that I can’t think of anything to add to an incredible list of “do’s and don’ts” already available all over the internet and social media.

But that said, perhaps it’s worth revisiting some ideas with a “reduction-of-harm-to-all” bent – and so here goes (OK to sing your fave holiday tune along to these 10 tips, too. Ho ho ho!).

1. Eat light

One of the best tips we can use is to save those heavy conversations for another time. Sure, there will be exceptions to this, but the holidays are already such a heavy meal in so many ways that experts suggest benching the Big Convos until after things have settled down, including our stomachs. So what’s one thing we can do to lighten the mood?

Perhaps we can simply focus on the positives this season and save the less positives for later. That’s a tip for all seasons according to CMC’s 20 Minute Guides for Parents & Partners. What do we mean by this? Think of finding positive things – called “reinforcers” – to say to your loved ones – family, friends, and those using drugs problematically. And here’s why: “The value in reinforcing positive behavior…is that it can start to compete with the reinforcing effects of drugs and alcohol. In essence, your [loved one] can learn to “feel good” in other ways rather than using drugs/alcohol.”[1]

John Gottman, the famous couples therapist, has stated that we need a “magic ratio” of 5 positive statements for every 1 that we make to someone. Dr. Gottman and his team successfully predicted divorce with 94% accuracy in 700 couples 10 years after scoring their negative-to-positive responses in one 15-minute conversation.[2] That’s pretty darned “magic” indeed. We see similar results in workplace conversations as well. So lighten up on the negatives and accentuate the positive statements this holiday season. You might see a greater gift than you ever expected

2. Hang out in the bathroom

This is something I suggest to those trying to reduce or eliminate their drug use as a place to be alone and use a quick meditation. (side note:  I realize that for some this can also be a triggering place for both families and their loved ones using drugs so like all good suggestions, please use your discretion as to whether any of these are right for you). But this is also a terrific exercise for anyone to use for a quick fix. This exercise is known as “The Ball and Triangle.”[3] I learned it from the developer, Terry Gorski, back in the 90’s. And it can be done anywhere, with your eyes open or closed. Here it is:

To start, take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth, like a big sigh. Now imagine there’s an equal-sided triangle floating in space in front of you. In one corner of the triangle there’s a small ball, just sitting. On your next inhale, move the ball up the side of the triangle. On your exhale, allow the ball to fall back into its original place. Do this until you feel as relaxed as you desire.

There are many ways to get creative with this brief meditation too so feel free to experiment; make it your own.

3. Just like real estate: it’s all about location, location, location

One thing that I hear from families and their loved ones is that the location of the festivities is important. Some places encourage nostalgia though may also bring up tension. It may be helpful to discuss the location of events with the whole family. See how everyone feels. I have found with my own family that eating out at a local restaurant can be wonderful: a) everyone’s food intolerances can be honored; b) most folks will be on their best behavior when in public and finally c) no one has to do the dishes! Perhaps grandma’s or dad’s special chocolate pecan pie at Aunt Cristina’s house can be an alternative.

4. BYOB: Bring your own bottles

Even if you’re not the one with the drinking/other drug problem, it might be a good idea to limit your intake. The very best way to do this is to first, bring your own fave beverage. I’m a big fan of Pellegrino so typically carry a couple of bottles with me (I even bring a baggie of lime slices). That way I know what will be served. If you’re moderating your drinking especially, it’s really important not to get dehydrated which is easy to do in a heated room with booze. So experts suggest drinking water between alcoholic beverages. Again, an easy way to reduce your intake – and possible help stave off a nasty hangover too. Be sure to eat something as drinking on an empty stomach is never advised. Also food will help to absorb some of the alcohol which will keep your overall blood alcohol levels down. Finally since alcohol is known as a “social lubricant” for good reason, you might consider who you’d like to be in charge of your emotional state during this event (see # on Lizard Brain). But if you want to indulge more than usual, remember the previous tips and to call Lyft this holiday season. It’s so easy not to drive while intoxicated now – and expensive to get caught.

pup and mistletoe

5. Find support where you can

Hug your pet. See old friends. Go to a meeting at a support group, or a service at your local synagogue, church, temple, or mosque. Volunteer and make new friends. Lots of ways today to stay in touch with others even if only through social media. Visit someone in a nursing home or senior housing. Take a plate of cookies to a neighbor you’ve never met because you’re working all the time (no, they don’t have to be homemade).

6. Like a good photograph, mind your exposure.

If you’re spending time with those that irritate you, do so gently. It’s OK to limit the time you’re with those you love. This is your holiday, too.

7. Rest when you can

For many of us, the holidays are an expenditure of more energy. Sometimes more than we can muster! So resting and sleeping well are crucial to having the outcomes we want. You can think of rest as our body’s need to regenerate its resources to allow us to think before we eat, act, or wind up somewhere we didn’t want to go. I’ve learned that I can’t engage my mind when it’s running on empty, which leaves me with Lizard Brain[4] in control. Now I’m OK with old Lizard Brain having some fun once in a while but not all the time and especially not when I’m going to be in an emotionally challenging situation

8. Cravings aren’t just for drug users

Yes, you heard me right! I like to think of cravings as the body’s way to say “Holy crap, Batman, I need something – help!” The difference for families is that there aren’t any medications for your cravings (and yes I know there aren’t meds for all chemical cravings too but let’s ignore that for now). You may have physical or emotional cravings for all sorts of things from food to the latest mystery to taking a ski weekend in Banff. Whatever it is, it’s just possible that your body/mind is trying to tell you something. We want to learn from our emotions and not be afraid of them or ignore them. We all know the holidays are overfilled with stress so perhaps we can take a page from relapse prevention for drug users and learn to “urge surf”. Here’s how to do it[5]. And you can keep your eyes open or closed them as you find most comfortable:

First, think of something in your real life that’s challenging for you, something that actually triggers some strong emotions (be gentle with yourself here though. Nothing too tender please!). As you think about this challenging behavior or event, imagine that you’re NOT reacting in the moment with that usual strong emotion (you’ll be responding to the situation soon). As you’re thinking about this event, be mindful of where you’re sitting: how does it feel? Are you comfortable? Plant your feet gently and firmly on the floor if you’re sitting. Let your breath gently come in and out of your nose and notice the rising and falling of your chest/lungs. Now once again, think about the triggering circumstance. Really see yourself there at the moment and bring yourself right up to the moment that you’d typically lose your temper, or be overcome with sadness, or even use a drug/take a drink. Here we might think it’s a good idea to push away these strong emotions or swing the opposite way and give in to the emotion/behavior. Instead, I’m going to ask you to just be curious about this emotion and event without reaction. Ask yourself these questions: 1) what does the feeling really “feel” like? Where is it located in your body? 2) what about this situation/feeling feels intolerable? Can you stay with it and relax into it rather than get overwhelmed by the situation/feeling? 3) what is it you really need right now?

Finally, imagine that the feeling your experiencing is a wave on an ocean. You’re riding this wave like a surfer, using your breath as your surfboard. All you need to do right now is focus on your breath going in and out of your lungs and imagine that surfboard riding the waves like Bethany Hamilton! You’re able to keep your balance in spite of feeling a little frightened. Up and down, in and out, you’re riding your board; you’re not allowing the wave to push you off. This is “urge surfing”.

When you begin to feel relaxed and able to respond instead of reacting to a situation or feeling, you can let the board bring you home. Notice how you were able to ride the wave and not succumb to its power but rather allow it to be what it is: just a wave…and it will end. When you’re ready, come on back to the room while you let go of the triggering situation you were thinking of. Take a few deep cleansing breaths and know that you’ve got this! Bethany would be proud!free hugs

 

9. Ho, ho, ho!

I always encourage humor and lots of laughter during the winter holidays (actually I encourage it all the time!). Laugh till your face hurts. Be silly as often as possible. I read a piece recently on a family holding an “Ugly Christmas Sweater” contest with the winner getting a gift card to a favorite store. Wonderful idea! We humans are a pretty funny lot all in all and this is the perfect time of year to embrace that.

Movies are another great way to bring laughter into a room and there are some terrific old and newer holiday films that will make you pee your pants (in my family, it’s “A Christmas Story” hands down!).   Anything from “The Grinch” and “Charlie Brown Christmas” to “Bad Santa” and “Die Hard” are considered holiday fair game. Or perhaps you’re the sentimental type and look forward to watching your favorite heart-wrenching, tear-jerker each holiday. No problem! Those films are available as well (anyone for “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “White Christmas?”). Just be sure to temper those tears with some belly laughs

10 The holidays are a trip!

And they are literally for many of us! Traveling these days can be a trial-by-fire experience. Some quick tips: 1) Only use a carry-on bag 2) Bring something to read/watch/play and 3) slow down on imbibing early (planes really suck the moisture out of every part of us and alcohol makes it worse). For more excellent tips on everything “travel” this holiday season, check out Cheap Flights Survival Guide: www.cheapflights.com/news/holiday-season-travel-survival-guide

Bottom line for the season: Do your best, let go of the guilt/shame, and have as much fun as possible. That sounds like a pretty good recipe for 2019 to me, too. In fact, I think I’ve just found my 2019 New Year’s resolution. How about you?

chinese lanterns

[1] The Parent’s 20 Minute Guide by CMC: Center for Motivation & Change. (2016) Center for Motivation & Change. NY, NY. p93.

[2] https://www.ocde.us/PBIS/Documents/Articles/Positive+$!26+Negative+Ratio.pdf. Accessed 12.18.2018.

[3] https://terrygorski.com/2014/05/08/magic-triangle-relaxation-method/. Note: the Ball and Triangle exercise is now called the Magic Triangle Relaxation Method. Accessed 12.18.2018.

[4] The limbic system aka Lizard Brain is the seat of our emotions and the oldest known part of our brains.

[5] Bowen, S, Chawla, N. & Marlatt, G. (2011) Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors: A Clinician’s Guide. Guilford Press. NY, NY.