For recovering addicts, a holiday hurdle

For many, holidays include alcohol and high emotions, making Jan. 2 a peak day to enter rehab.

David Sykes is sending out Christmas cards for the first time in 10 years.

A recovering addict, he says he finally feels healed enough to enjoy the holidays.

"The holidays have always been somewhat sad for me, the loneliness and challenges of staying sober," he says. "But this year is going to be a good year."

Indeed, Mr. Sykes spent Christmas Day at a big party - cooking in the kitchen of Odyssey House, the residential treatment center where he's working on solidifying his recovery. It's the strategy he's using to avoid relapsing.

Sykes is just one of millions of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts who have been bracing - with everything from prayers to support groups - to cope with the flood of holiday emotions that can trigger the impulses that prompted their addiction.

National awareness campaign

While there are no precise statistics on holiday relapsing, the problem is so prevalent that for the first time the Office of National Drug Control Policy is launching a national awareness campaign to help recovering addicts and their friends and family understand and spot the triggering factors behind substance abuse so they can be avoided. "Substance abuse touches all people, all areas of our society, all families have had personal experience with it," says John Walters, the nation's drug czar. "We have to help the larger community understand that some celebration practices can trigger the pain that is at the root of substance abuse."

The medical community considers addiction to be a chronic relapsing disorder. In other words, it requires constant work and vigilance to keep it under control. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates almost 8 million Americans are addicted to illicit drugs and more than 14 million alcoholics.

The vast majority don't get treatment, primarily because they haven't reached a point where they feel it's necessary. But for those who have sought help and are in recovery, the holidays are considered a "Bermuda Triangle" for relapse, according to Dr. Peter Provet, the president of Odyssey House. The heightened emotional climate can revive factors that prompted the abuse in the first place, whether it's family stress, unresolved pain or anger, a sense of abandonment, or disillusionment.

"We know that drug use is often a result of trying to self-medicate those painful emotional states, so we must help family members understand that," says Dr. Provet. He and other experts also say relapse often occurs despite treatment. "That doesn't mean that we excuse it or just accept it, but we do understand it as a frequent part of the recovery process."

Provet says its important for recovering addicts and family members to understand that so that if someone does relapse, they do not think of themselves as a failure and take it as an excuse to continue using. "Part of our concern is that people use the holidays to have what we call a last run."

As a result of that, there's typically a slight drop-off in admissions at drug and alcohol treatment centers during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to New Years. But come Jan. 2, the day after New Year's, admissions generally spike upward. "It's literally the busiest day for our admissions office," says Provet.

Role for families

Here are some holiday tips for families of recovering addicts put together by Odyssey House:

• Avoid exposing the family member to alcoholic beverages and other substances of abuse.

• Allow open discussion of feelings regarding abstinence and sobriety.

• Encourage the family member to invite a recovering peer to family gatherings.

• Support someone going to recovery related activities, like support groups or sober holiday parties.

• Do not pressure the individual to attend gatherings which may cause emotional discomfort.

• Do not hesitate to contact a treatment facility for consultation or guidance if you suspect your family member has relapsed or is in a "danger zone."

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