How to manage the holiday season with alcoholism and addiction

“It’s part of our culture to have an alcoholic drink around the holidays,” said Dr. Richard Geary III.

While many look forward to gathering with loved ones at get togethers and parties, these events can make maintaining sobriety more difficult for those living with addiction.

In Washington, 14% of adults over age 18 say they have an alcohol use disorder, while 8% report illicit drug dependence or abuse, according to Overlake Medical Center and Clinics.

Dr. Juan Antonio Avila, medical director of psychiatry services at Overlake, provides measures to create healthier and more successful holidays for everyone.

“One of the first things we work on with addiction is changing the environment,” said Avila. “For people with the disease, this includes avoiding locations they associate with using. During the holidays, they might be invited to a party at the family home where they lived when they started abusing substances during their youth.”

Avila said the well-meaning gesture of holding gatherings could pose the potential for relapse. Avila finds importance in being open and honest. Families planning gatherings can ask loved ones living with addiction whether it would be better to hold an event without alcohol. On the other hand, people living with addiction can also initiate the discussion.

“If their families aren’t able to commit to an alcohol or cannabis-free party, they can say ‘I love you and I really wish I could come, but for my health, I don’t think I will be able to do it,’” said Avila.

While emotions may run higher during the winter holiday season, it’s important to recognize that addiction is a disease, not a failing, Avila said. He emphasizes how addiction is an illness that can impact anyone, and the focus must be on how to best manage the disease, rather than passing judgements about it.

“That is true both for family members and for those with addiction, who may have feelings of shame and worthlessness that add to the season’s stress,” said Avila.

While living with addiction can be isolating, simple gestures can be meaningful, said Dr. Richard Geary III, Overlake psychiatry department chairperson. If loved ones can’t gather for the holidays, a simple gesture — such as wishing happy holidays over a phone call — can go a long way.

Going into the holidays, it’s important to know that help is close by because “it’s part of our culture to have an alcoholic drink around the holidays,” said Geary.

According to Geary, in-person and virtual Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings are available across the region during the holiday season. Geary noted that relatives of those living with addiction can find support through Al-Anon and Nar-Anon. The Greater Seattle Intergroup of AA provides support to those living with addiction, and offers in-person and online meetings. Puget Sound AA is another organization offering services to those living with addiction.