It’s not easy to be in recovery over the holidays.
The public perception of addiction recovery has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. A process that was once highly stigmatized as something negative or shameful is now widely accepted as the best and most appropriate way to handle an alcohol or drug problem. In this context, we define recovery broadly. Someone in recovery may be in residential treatment for an alcohol or substance use disorder, they may be in an intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization program for AUD/SUD, or they may not receive any formalized treatment at all, but choose instead to attend community support meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
Integrated Treatment For Total Recovery
For the record, we recommend addiction treatment in a specialized program that follows an integrated treatment model. Evidence shows this is the most effective way to achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. At the same time, we applaud anyone who decides to seek sobriety, and we honor their path, whether that path is through formal treatment or not.
However – and this is something friends of people seeking recovery should know – it’s also important to understand that in some cases, quitting alcohol or drugs alone, without professional support, can be dangerous. Withdrawal from some drugs, including alcohol, can be life-threatening – that’s why the first step for many people who seek treatment is medically monitored or medication-assisted detox. If you have a friend who’s not yet in recovery but thinking about it, then we recommend you share this information with them. Advise them to see a physician or a licensed mental health professional before they start their recovery journey.
We also advise you to recognize your role in their life: if they brought up their issues with alcohol or drugs, that means you have their trust – which means you’re in a position to help. If they’re managing recovery during the holidays, they may need your support more now than ever.
The Importance of a Strong Social Network
Evidence shows that when a person in recovery adds at least one sober person to their network of friends, they increase their chances of maintaining sobriety. While you – the person reading this, curious about how to support your friend – may not be abstinent from alcohol yourself, you can have a significant impact in your friend’s life by including them in sober-friendly activities. You can respect their choice and act as a consistent, steadying influence in their lives.
You may not understand recovery or addiction from the inside out, and that’s okay. Your friend in recovery this holiday season has peers with whom they can delve into the nuts and bolts of sobriety. Your role may be totally different: your friend may come to you for stability, companionship, for your great cooking, or simply to spend time with someone who’s not in recovery. It’s true that people in recovery need to prioritize their recovery, but it’s also true that an individual can be in recovery and not want to talk about sobriety and recovery 24/7/365.
That’s where you come in: if they want to talk about recovery, then respect that and talk to them about recovery. On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk about recovery, then respect that, too. Ask them how it’s going, and follow their lead.
Start With the Basics
That brings us to our list of tips for supporting a friend in recovery over the holiday season. Before we give offer our suggestions, we’ll give you a pre-list tip – one that forms the foundation of all five tips on our list. It’s easy: you can support your friend in recovery the same way you support any friend at any time, because all the rules of friendship apply. They don’t change because your friend is in recovery. Lead with empathy, respect, and compassion – as you do in any friendship – and you’re off to a good start.
Now, here’s our list.
Five Ways to Help a Friend in Recovery During the Holidays
1. Invite Them to Events
Sober-friendly events, of course. If you host a big family get-together, invite them for the early part: the meal and the dessert: give them pre-clearance to take a plate and duck out early, before alcohol consumption – if it’s going to happen – starts in earnest. Or, on another note, if you’re going out to get exercise, invite them along. Pick them up and take them to the gym with you. Meet them in a public park for a walk, a jog, or an impromptu calisthenics session: you name it – if they like exercising, they’ll love the invite.
2. Send Them Cards or Gifts
We recommend going old-school with this one. Buy a real card at the drugstore, take out a pen or pencil, and write a sincere holiday message. Do the same with a basic holiday gift. And here’s a good idea: don’t tell them about it. Let them experience the pleasure of surprise at getting an unexpected item in the mail, opening it up, and learning that it came from a caring friend. A gesture like that goes a long, long way.
3. Cook For Them
It’s hard to go wrong with food. If the friend you want to support is in your area, you can make them a nice holiday dish and drop it off at their house. Anything from a pie to a fully cooked turkey can work. When you do this, take on the entire job from start to finish. You can cook the dish and deliver it. That way, all your friend has to do is receive your token of kindness and friendship.
4. Learn For Them
You may be close enough to your friend in recovery to go the extra mile and educate yourself about the process they’re going through. If they’re in rehab, read about how residential treatment for addiction works. If they go to AA meetings, find out how they work. You don’t have to tell them you read up on addiction, but if they bring up the topic, you can say, “Hey, I read about this…” and then add insight based on your understanding. You may or may not be on point with how you understand addiction and recovery, but your friend will appreciate the effort you made to learn about their experience.
5. Call Them on the Actual Holiday
This applies even if you’ve already done items 1-4 on this list. On Thanksgiving, give them a phone call. They may be planning to join your Zoom dinner that same day, but give them a personal call anyway. On Christmas Day, give them a call – everyone needs to know someone cares about them on Christmas. And if they celebrate Hanukah or Kwanzaa, learn about those traditions and call them with a holiday greeting on the appropriate date. The human voice has healing power: let it work its magic.
It’s worth reiterating that if your friend has included you in the list of people who know they’re in recovery, you should recognize the trust they place in you by disclosing that information. Although some people are not shy about sharing their recovery status, others keep it close to the vest, and only tell a select few. If you’re one of those select few, honor that status, and reciprocate the trust by showing up for your friend when they need you.
Listen, Feel, and Support
As we mention above, keep in mind that all the typical norms around friendship apply to your relationship with your friend in recovery. That means the best thing you can do is to be there for them in whatever way they need you. When they call, answer the phone. When they text, respond as soon as you can. And if they tell you directly they need somewhere home-like and safe to be on a holiday day, then do your best to include them in a way that’s COVID-safe and respectful of everyone involved.
It also means that when you talk to them, you don’t have to try to solve their life for them. Listen to them, feel for them, empathize with them, and – if you’re okay with the mushy stuff – tell them you love them.
We can’t guarantee things will be much better, but our six decades of experience with recovery teaches us that the combination of optimism and friendship is incredibly powerful – and it might just be what your friend in recovery needs this holiday season.