Clinical Conversations: Helping Clients Manage Recovery Through the Holiday Season

Wasatch Crest’s Clinical Director, Rich McDonald, CMHC, and Primary Therapist, Kevin Kirchenmann, LCSW, discuss strategies for helping clients through the holiday season. You can watch their presentation below.

During the holiday season and immediately after it, we see an increase in individuals seeking treatment for substance abuse, for many reasons. The holiday season’s pressures can cause anxiety and stress even in a healthy family. For clients in early recovery, holiday dinners and their family dynamics can be triggering.

We’ve seen that the pandemic may have a positive side this holiday season for some clients. In our recent conversations with clients, many say that they are less worried than they would be in a normal year. Because the pandemic has encouraged us to plan smaller gatherings, clients seem to be more comfortable only having to navigate the dynamic of their immediate families at holiday dinners. 

Being Mindful of the Circumstances

No matter how clients feel about upcoming holiday dinners, it’s important for them to be mindful of the situation that they will walk into, so they can be prepared. Questions for them to consider include:

  • Do the people at holiday dinners know that they are in recovery?
  • Will the host be serving alcohol at the event?
RSVP — It’s okay to decline an invitation.

Clients tend to be timid when in early recovery as they learn to navigate their new lifestyle. But the holiday season is the time to work even harder to protect their recovery. By having conversations with their families ahead of the event, clients may be able to gain support from their family members. We’ve seen clients’ families agree to not serve alcohol at their party so that they can help protect their loved ones’ new recovery. 

Sometimes clients feel obligated to participate in family events even if they are unhealthy or toxic. As clinicians, we should remind them that just because someone is a blood relative doesn’t exactly mean that they have to spend the holidays together. 

When deciding whether or not to attend their holiday family function, clients can consider if they are willing to risk their recovery to please their family. If the client feels like being with their family might not be the safest place for their recovery, maybe the client can skip the holiday gathering this year, and wait until they have attained long-term sobriety until attending. 

Setting Event Expectations

If the client does choose to attend their family gathering, they should set expectations by having a conversation with their loved ones ahead of time. Maybe the client would prefer to avoid certain conversation topics that might be a trigger for their use. Once everyone is aware of the expectations for the event, the family focus on enjoying each other’s company.  

Individuals in early recovery should not be afraid to be vocal and honest. They should assertive and direct to express worries about potential triggers. If their loved ones aren’t willing to listen and adjust, maybe they aren’t who the individual should be spending their time with. 

As clinicians, we should guide clients through these complex conversations and help them determine which boundaries to set with their family members. Individuals in early recovery should feel empowered to have expectation-setting discussions with their loved ones. If it appears that the individual won’t have the support they require, maybe they should consider not attending the holiday gathering. 

If the individual does decide to attend the event, they might consider inviting a sober companion to support them. The sober companion could be a supportive friend or even a family member who understands their recovery. Alternatively, the individual might plan to check in with their sponsor throughout the night, who can be ready to help their sponsee through any potential triggering scenarios. 

Recovery Resources for the Holiday Season

Involving the family in recovery — Al-Anon, a family therapist, or a family support group allow family members the opportunity to heal, develop boundaries, and understand addiction and recovery. Wasatch Crest offers a free family support group that is open to anyone (ages 18+) struggling with their loved ones’ addiction. The virtual support group takes place weekly.

Staying connected with aftercare — Alcoholics Anonymous virtual meetings can provide additional support and help individuals stay engaged in their recovery. Aftercare groups are also valuable in guarding one’s recovery. Wasatch Crest hosts virtual weekly alumni meetings and monthly events. Planing regular check-ins with a sponsor and other people in recovery can also be helpful. 

Attending an outpatient program — Treatment is only as effective as the transition. Our evening and virtual outpatient program allows clients to stay connected with their clinicians and peers during nightly meetings three to four times a week. Clients can log-in from anywhere, which can be helpful during holiday travel or if they are isolating due to the pandemic. 

Sober living — If clients feel that attending family gatherings may be too much of a risk for their recovery, sober living offers a safe space to create new holiday memories. At Wasatch Crest, our sober living clients are excited to celebrate their first sober holidays with their peers. 

About the Author

Rich McDonald, MS, CMHC, is Wasatch Crest’s Clinical Director. As the leader of Wasatch Crest’s clinical program, Rich has created a clinical culture that empowers clients to rewrite their stories and develop meaningful lives. Rich brings over 25 years of leadership experience and ten years working in the recovery community.

Leading with respect, accountability, and acceptance, Rich embodies Wasatch Crest’s human-centric treatment approach. He’s passionate about incorporating nature into recovery and is dedicated to helping clients build lives worth staying sober for.

Rich is an avid trail runner and has successfully competed in many marathons, ultra marathons, and 100-mile trail races.

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