By Keith Berger, Coordinator of Family Integrated Services
I’ve come to believe, through decades of personal and professional experience, that the diseases of alcoholism/addiction and other mental illnesses do not take holidays. They never take a day off and, for those either directly or indirectly affected by these challenging conditions, are active either in the foreground or the background every day of every year. They do not respect our lives or the lives of the people we love any day of the year, so it seems unrealistic to expect them to recede and release their grip on those who struggle under their heavy weight simply because we stop to celebrate a particular day or event. On the contrary, there is evidence to indicate that symptoms of these conditions may actually intensify as “festive” times of year approach and arrive. This is just one reason why it is critically important to build, maintain and utilize support networks one can lean heavily upon in order to weather any emotional storms that may come.
For those who identify as alcoholics and/or addicts, these networks can be built through active participation in free community-based mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Celebrate Recovery (CR) and similar 12-Step groups, as well as through individual and/or group therapy when necessary. For those who struggle with other mental health concerns, individual and/or group therapy and psychiatric care can be an indispensable lifeline toward maintaining emotional stability.
For the families and loved ones of those who struggle with alcoholism and/or other addictions/mental illness, it is not unreasonable to say that we too have been affected in some way by these situations. While not directly contagious, these conditions wreak emotional havoc with the families, friends and loved ones of those who care about the afflicted individual. For this reason, it is equally crucial to build, maintain and utilize our own separate support networks through active participation in free community-based mutual support groups like Al-Anon, Nar-Anon and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Consider this passage from a piece of Al-Anon literature; if alcoholism doesn’t seem to be the primary concern in your situation, feel free to replace the word “alcoholism” with “addiction” or “mental illness”, and to replace the word “alcoholic” with “addict” or “mentally ill individual” as the same principles still apply:
“Alcoholism is a family disease. This means ‘…the alcoholism of one member affects the whole family, and all become sick. Why does this happen? Unlike diabetes, alcoholism not only exists inside the body of the alcoholic but is a disease of relationships as well. Many of the symptoms of alcoholism are in the behavior of the alcoholic. The people who are involved with the alcoholic react to [his or her] behavior. They try to control it, make up for it, or hide it. They often blame themselves for it and are hurt by it.’”
“Paths to Recovery—Al-Anon’s Steps, Traditions, and Concepts” (p. 8)
The good news is that recovery is also available to everyone every day of the year, and recovery only takes the day off if we take the day off from it. Like a life preserver thrown to a drowning person, recovery needs to be embraced and used in order to be effective. The alternative is that our best means of help will float by while we drown in our emotions, refusing to take personal responsibility for accepting the help we so desperately need… As is often said, recovery works if you work it, and that simply serves as a reminder to those of us who are impacted by alcoholism/addiction/other mental illnesses, whether directly or indirectly, that we need to use the tools given to us by our support systems to recover, reclaim and rebuild our lives. Please don’t wait for a “holiday” to give yourself the gift of recovery!