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Getting through the Holidays 2021: Difficult Choices and Triggers for People with Substance Use Disorders

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The Holidays can be stressful times.  Last year, we faced a raging pandemic that put many people’s holiday plans on hold.  Families were forced to make difficult choices and often forgo seeing their loved ones and friends during what is normally a time of joyous celebration and large gatherings.  Public health authorities advised people to cancel their usual gatherings and stay at home rather than traveling and spreading Covid-19. This left many people clinging to the hope that in 2021, things would be different.

While the virus is still present in deadly variants, vaccines have prompted a partial return to normal.  That means holiday celebrations and gatherings will likely be occurring this year in far greater volume than in 2020.  This isn’t without significant risk.  The virus shouldn’t be ignored, but perhaps a bigger risk that many will face is from the nation’s raging drug epidemic.

We all may be tired of hearing about it, but it hasn’t gone away. The Covid-19 pandemic worsened America’s drug problem significantly, and that’s saying a lot.  We were already amid a serious and growing opioid crisis when the pandemic hit.  And although the worsening drug epidemic didn’t get the media coverage the novel coronavirus did, it was still doing serious damage in the background.

Last year, drug overdoses claimed more American lives than any year prior, including the peak of the opioid epidemic, which Oxycontin fueled.  More than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses across the country last year, and much of the carnage can be attributed to the pandemic’s effects.  Stress, isolation, and loss of accessibility to addiction treatment resources caused the spike in drug abuse. The stay-at-home orders and restrictions intended to protect us frequently cut people off from the support they needed and unintentionally elevated the levels of stress in virtually every American household.

The holidays are already a recipe for overindulgence. Many holiday plans involve consumption of at least alcohol, which can easily lead to misuse.  Those who already struggle with addiction may find that the holidays bring up negative emotions or additional scrutiny from family members.  They may use even more substances to cope with the negative emotions or hide their drug use.  When these factors combine with the pandemic’s effects on addiction, we may be looking at a perfect storm.

Additionally, according to the Narcotics Overdose Prevention Education website, the rates of suicide, violence, drug overdoses, and automobile accidents increase significantly during the holidays. Most of these incidents are directly connected to drug and alcohol abuse.  It was also found that most suicide victims tested positive for illicit drug or alcohol use directly before their death, with one-third consuming alcohol before the event.

When we consider the anticipation of this holiday season after a muted celebration last year, it’s easy to see how matters could get out of hand.  With addiction rates at some of the highest points ever, this year’s holidays could be tragic instead of the celebratory events they’re meant to be.

Knowing the above facts, we can approach the holidays with more caution and save lives.  Here are a few simple ways to reduce the risks associated with substance misuse during these trying times:

  • Find a balance – The stresses of the holidays can be felt heavily among those who have few family or friends. Loneliness can easily lead to feelings of sadness and despair, resulting in cravings or the tendency to misuse substances to cope with these emotions.  Similarly, many people become overwhelmed with visitors or family members and don’t allow themselves to decompress or have any space to themselves.  Finding a balance during the holidays is crucial because it can prevent both extremes and minimize stress.  Isolation can be a significant trigger, so reach out to loved ones and friends if you are lonely or don’t have plans. Also, make sure to take time for yourself, and don’t feel bad about telling people that you can’t attend something or have other plans.
  • Have a plan – If you have a history of addiction or substance misuse, having a plan can mean the difference between relapse and maintaining recovery. One can expect that most holiday events will have at least alcohol available.  If you’re concerned about slipping up, start with a plan.  A good plan includes knowing how you will handle instances where you risk relapse by being tempted to indulge.  It will also include removing yourself from the situation and eliminating the stressors that are triggering you.  For example, you may decide to tell everyone that you are a designated driver for the night, so they don’t continue to offer you substances or pressure you.  Or, you might set a time to leave relatively early, so you aren’t tempted to stay and drink.  Each person’s plan may be different, but having that simple structure can provide stability and confidence.
  • Use a buddy – If you have a close friend aware of your concerns, it may be good to enlist their help in making sure you have a safe and fun holiday season. You can let this person know that you may need support and ask them to check in on you regularly throughout the holidays.  Just having someone to talk to can make a big difference.  Another use of the buddy system is taking this person with you if you go out.  You can ask your buddy to intervene if they sense you are tempted to relapse or be ready for your cue to leave.

The Holidays don’t have to be stressful.  They are intended as a time of celebration and gathering together, and those with addiction struggles should be able to enjoy them without risking relapse.  But the reality is, the holidays can provide some of the toughest challenges.  Thankfully, many communities organize sober activities, and these may be a better option for those who don’t want to expose themselves to the risks associated with many holiday events.

There are many reasons why the upcoming holidays could be a disaster, but the point isn’t to scare people straight.  Hopefully, with awareness of the increased risk, people can make choices that reduce the potential for tragedy.  A safe holiday celebration may not be everyone’s first choice, but at least it won’t be their last.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

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About the author: Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with substance abuse for over 20 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise, he utilized his website, Addicted.org, and community outreach as a way to spread awareness. His primary focus is threefold: education, prevention, and rehabilitation.

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The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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