Holiday Guide for Families




The holidays are upon us. For many people in recovery and their families, this means family celebrations and interactions. Many of us feel stress about this. No matter how much we love our relatives, there can be misunderstandings and hurt feelings. To help families identify what could lead to problems, I composed this guide last year, and I decided to re-run it this year:

What to do:

Do invite your loved one in recovery to family functions, and treat her with the same respect you treat the rest of the family. If you have resentments from her past behavior, you can address this privately, not at the holiday dinner table. Perhaps given how holidays can magnify feelings, it’s best to keep things superficial and cheery. Chose another time if you have a grievance to air.

Allow your relative some privacy. If the person in recovery wishes to discuss her recovery with the entire family, she will. Let her be the one to bring it up, though. Asking things like, “Are you still on the wagon or have you gone back to shooting drugs?” probably will embarrass her and serve no useful function.

Accept her limitations graciously and without comment. Holidays can be trigger for drug use in some people, and your relative may want to go to a 12-step meeting during her visit. Other people in recovery may need some time by themselves, to pray, meditate, or call a recovering friend. Allow them to do this without making it a big deal.

Remember there are no black sheep. We are all gray sheep, since we all have our faults. In some families, one person, often the person with substance use disorder, gets unfairly designated as the black sheep. She gets blamed for every misfortune the family has experienced. Don’t slip into this pattern at holiday functions.

What not to do:

Don’t ask the recovering person if she’s relapsed. If you can’t tell, assume all is well with her recovery. If she looks intoxicated, you can express your concern privately, without involving everyone.

Don’t use drugs, including alcohol, around a recovering person unless you check with them first. Ask if drug or alcohol use may be a trigger, and if it is, abstain from use yourself. If you must use alcohol or other drugs, go to a separate part of the house or to another location.

Being around drugs including alcohol can be a bigger trigger during the first few years of recovery, but any recovering person can have times when they feel vulnerable, so check with them privately before you break open a bottle of wine.

If your family’s usual way of celebrating holidays is to get “ all liquored up,” then understand why a recovering relative may not wish to come to be with family at this time, and don’t take it personally.

For some of us, remaining in recovery is a life and death issue, so please accept we will do what we must to remain in recovery, even if that means making a holiday phone call rather than making a holiday visit.

If your recovering loved one is in medication-assisted treatment with methadone or buprenorphine, don’t feel like you have the right to make dosage recommendations. Don’t ask “When are you going to off of that medication (meaning methadone or buprenorphine)?Your loved one may taper off medication completely at some point, or he may not. Either way, that’s a medical decision best made by the patient and his doctor. Asking when a taper is planned is not your business..

Refrain from giving hilarious descriptions of your loved one’s past addictive behavior, saying, “But I’m only joking!” This can hurt her feelings, and keep her feeling stuck with an identity as a drug user. She can begin to believe that with her family, being an addict is a life sentence.

Remember your loved one is more than the disease from which they are recovering. Some people have diabetes and some people have substance use disorders. These diseases are only a small part of who they are.

I hope this helps.

May all my readers have a Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Alex Gertner on December 16, 2018 at 4:40 pm

    Lovely and thoughtful guide. Thank you for putting this together.


  2. Thank you, Dr. Burson! This is a fantastic, harm reducing guide. I forwarded it to some people I love.

    It’s hard for me when I’m asked “when am I going to get off (MAT)?” Or told I should take less. I didn’t realize how inappropriate those kind of inquiries were til I read your blog today. There are some people who are just going to do that no matter what, and I always make promises to try to “get off” Suboxone as soon as possible as they do push me about it.

    I guess a good response could be to suggest to them they’re not a physician and I take my dosage instructions normally, from MY licensed physician. Or I could even ask when they became licensed to practice medicine.

    I once had an AA sponsor who insisted I stop taking Prozac because that was using drugs. I really super-wanted to work with her, her sponsees had had so much success. I stopped taking my medication without even thinking of consulting my doctor.

    A few months later I was at my doctor’s appointment and she asked me if I needed a fill of my Prozac as it was time. I told her my sponsor had demanded I stop taking it and I hadn’t taken it in months. I had begun to feel depressed again but hadn’t even connected things. My doctor then asked me for her name and phone number—I very hesitantly gave them to her. She called her and asked her for her medical licensing information (!) and explained to her how very dangerous it is to practice medicine without a license. I didn’t have that sponsor much longer.

    I now avoid AA because I’ve attracted more than a few experiences to myself—like people 13–stepping me and others in very predatory ways. I had almost nothing but that the first twenty years of attending many meetings per week. I finally got tired of it when even women’s meetings had that going on.

    I know AA helps many people and that I drew those experiences to myself for lessons of some sort. I personally just abstain and live a substance abusing-free life on my own.


  3. Posted by Angelee Murray on December 17, 2018 at 4:12 am

    Hi friend!!! May we share this on social media? I wasn’t sure if your privacy settings, wishes etc. thank you! Angelee (I came with Ed to the luncheon a couple of weeks ago! )

    Angelee Murray,Director of Corporate&Community Development ReVIDARecovery Centers

    3114 Browns Mill Road, Johnson City, TN 37604

    (O)423.631.0432 X 1014(tel:423.631.0432;1014)(F)423.631.0284(tel:423.631.0284)(M)704.689.5091(tel:704.689.5091)

    Find me onLinkedIn( me onFacebook(

    This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and are intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to which they are addressed. This communication may contain material protected by federal laws and/or regulations (45 CFR, Parts 160&164; 42 CFR Part 2). If you are not the intended recipient or the person responsible for delivering this email to the intended recipient, be advised that you have received this email in error and that any use, dissemination, forwarding, printing or copying of this email is strictly prohibited. If you have received this email in error, please notify the sender by replying to this email and then delete the email from your computer.


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