Thanksgiving is touted as a cheerful day that brings people together — but for so many families, the national holiday can be a painful, difficult gathering that only deepens existing divisions between relatives. From heated political debate at the dinner table, to sexist kitchen dynamics behind the scenes, to personal anxiety about seeing friends and family, there are lots of issues that stand in the way of a perfect, Norman Rockwell-esque Thanksgiving in 2017.
For millions of families across the nation, the issue they’re facing is opioid addiction — the most unwanted guest at the table.
Recently declared a limited public health emergency by the Trump administration, the opioid epidemic claims the lives over 33,000 people a year in America, according to a national survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Over 12.5 million individuals misused prescription opioids and over 828,000 people used heroin in 2015 alone. I know this not only because I’ve written the figures out a dozen times before, not only because they’re recited regularly on the news as more and more people begin to tune into the crisis.
I know this because, like millions of families across the country, mine has been directly affected by addiction, and addiction never takes a holiday.
My family history is checkered with addiction on both sides. Like so many Americans, I have seen drugs and alcohol transform the people I love into strangers I didn’t recognize, whether it was a crazy Saturday night on the town or a quiet holiday family gathering. Addiction was — and is — always there, always lurking, always threatening to rear its ugly head to disrupt our picture-perfect moments.
It was during a family holiday that my sister’s silent struggle with addiction — and my family’s avoidance of the uncomfortable issue — came to a head.
Her behavior was becoming increasingly more erratic and more dangerous. We had hoped a holiday would be a chance to pretend everything was just fine. The day was supposed to be filled with precious memories in the making, fun holiday games, and polite dinner conversation. Instead, we were served screaming matches, angry threats, violent confrontation, and a sweet side of breaking-and-entering for dessert. We wanted to spend the holiday ignoring the issue, as though things were normal.
But when a member of your family is struggling with addiction, there can be no such thing as normal.
That holiday just cemented in our hearts what we already knew in our head: my sister was an addict in serious trouble. I will never forget how I felt that night when, as a family, we finally admitted what we were facing: opioid addiction. For too long we had struggled to say the word addict out loud to ourselves, let alone to each other — or even more terrifying, to my sister.
Oriana Murphy, MA, CADCII, LCSW, and Associate Executive Director of Sober College (a treatment program for adults 18-26) tells me why we avoid confronting loved ones about their addictions:
“Because addiction is often coupled with heartbreak and fear in regards to the addict, people tend to avoid the subject, not be direct, and overall shy away from having the conversation that needs to be had. People are often scared to set boundaries because they are in fear of the individual being mad at them or even ‘making it worse.’ What people forget is that you are not responsible for another individual’s drug use and you are also not 100% capable of stopping it — however, you are a voluntary participant in the relationship which means you have a say in what the relationship looks like. If things are not comfortable for you, set a boundary. More than anything, be upfront and honest about your concerns because once an individual has crossed over into addiction, their life is most likely ons the line.”
For me, it’s that last part — the life-or-death nature of addiction — that makes it so impossible to talk about. Yet that is also what makes those conversations so crucial. Like her friends and the rest of our family, I was terrified to address my sister’s drug use, lest she consider my accusations an attack and cut me out of her life. What could I do to save her then? Was it better to be close to her and able to monitor her, but not address her drug use? Or should I face the issue head-on, consequences be damned?
That holiday, I wasn’t given the choice: I had to directly confront my sister’s addiction with my family.
If you’re worried about a loved one, Thanksgiving might seem like the right time to voice concerns, but take it from someone who has been there: A public spectacle is no way to handle a very serious, very personal, very dangerous situation.
Addiction may be the uninvited dinner guest at Thanksgiving, but you shouldn’t give it the seat at the head of the table.
As Mupohy explains, family intervention-style confrontation — especially during such an emotionally stressful holiday — is never a good idea:
“It is important that when starting a conversation you allow the individual to have some dignity — start the conversation individually. However, expressing concern to the family does not need to wait for the individual conversation.”
Talking one-on-one with an addict this holiday may seem like an impossible challenge — and maybe one you are not yet prepared to face — but the time spent around family does present a perfect opportunity to bring your concerns up to mutual loved ones.
“Every individual in the family will have their own way of reacting to the individual’s alcohol or drug use so it is important to get the conversation going amongst family members,” Murphy explains. “Secrets amongst family members will not increase the chances of the use stopping.”
If your holiday goes anything like mine and addiction becomes a conversation topic at your Thanksgiving table, “be prepared for not getting the answers you are hoping for,” warns Murphy. “Most addicts have nurtured the lies surrounding their use as means of protecting their addiction. That being said, you may not get an honest response. However, that does not mean you shouldn’t express concern. The best tip anyone can give is to start the conversation with ‘I am worried about you and I ask that you hear me out.’”
If you look around your dinner table and see someone you love struggling with addiction, just know that you are not the only family facing the crisis, and it’s okay to start talking.