Some time ago, FHE Health’s Director of Admissions Donny Martinelli was speaking with a man who was addicted to heroin. The man had three children, and Christmas was just around the bend. The man told Martinelli he couldn’t go to rehab now— that he had to be home for the holidays….
Such sentiments are understandable. The notion of going to rehab during the holiday season can be hard to stomach. Whether it’s a drug or alcohol problem or a mental health disorder, many people view the holidays as sacred family time. Even in an unusual year like 2020, it can seem almost sacrosanct to imagine spending Thanksgiving or Christmas apart from children, grandchildren, or other relatives— not to mention, in an inpatient facility.
Yet rehab and recovery are one of the best gifts to share with family members, both at this time of the year and always. Just ask Martinelli. He recently shared why, based on his own work with individuals and families affected by addiction and/or mental illness.
Rehab for Seasonal Triggers and Holiday Mental Health
It’s well-known that the holidays can be a mixed bag for many people. The added expectations during this season of joy and good cheer can in fact trigger or worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression or other signs of mental illness. In this year especially, when many people face increased social isolation and other new stressors—unemployment, fears about health, and financial problems—the signs of holiday stress are affecting people who have never had mental health or addiction histories.
Martinelli quipped that this Christmas and New Year especially, when social distancing guidelines are limiting family gatherings or outlawing them altogether, this may be the best time in 2020 to seek treatment.
He shared the example of a close loved one who historically had never struggled with mental health or addiction issues, who recently shared they were waking up feeling anxious on a daily basis. In a similar vein, people whose mental health over the holidays begins to suffer may compensate with unhealthy behaviors that spiral out of control. For instance, someone who may never have had a drinking problem may start heavily using alcohol to soothe signs of an undiagnosed anxiety disorder or other condition.
So mental health over the holidays can be more fragile, and in cases where a person’s quality of life begins to suffer, there’s no shame in seeking treatment at this time. In fact, it’s often a great gift and relief for loved ones who are worried about your welfare.
The Negative Effects on Family of Untreated Addiction
The negative effects on family of an untreated addiction or mental illness can be serious and last a lifetime, after all. When you’re living in active addiction, for example, “you’re not even being responsible to yourself,” Martinelli said, “so any thoughts of you thinking you’re being responsible to your loved ones are a delusion.”
Instead, the people closest to you develop unhealthy coping mechanisms and ways of relating: they “learn to make it seem like things are okay to help you feel like you’re okay,” when in fact “they’re actually barely holding it together without you knowing.”
In this environment, “children have to grow up faster and become more mature,” according to Martinelli, who noted kids often become “the caretaker and the one reminding their parent that they have to get to soccer practice, because Mom or Dad is sloshed.”
The lesson, put starkly: “You can’t depend on that individual to show up for you in life.”
With active addiction, Martinelli explained, “addicts are liars, and all these broken promises end up resulting in no trust” on the part of close loved ones. Tragically, many children of alcoholics “grow up to struggle with trust and intimacy in adult relationships … Sometimes they look like they’re excelling and doing well in school but inside they are a mess.” Martinelli added that it’s not uncommon, in the absence of therapy, for children of addicted parents to go on to pick an adult partner who is a lot like their addicted parent.
“When addiction isn’t treated, no matter how much someone loves you— eventually if they can’t trust you, there’s not much of a relationship left,” Martinelli said.
In other words, it’s not an exaggeration to say that going to rehab over the holidays may be the very thing that saves a relationship with one’s spouse or children.
How an Untreated Mental Illness Hurts Family Members
On the mental health side, there can also be negative implications for family members when a person allows a mental health problem to go untreated. Martinelli cited “that fear that the person isn’t going to do what they need to do to take care of themselves.” He said mental health can be “a cycle like addiction where a person may take their medications and do the therapies that they’re supposed to do, and then when they feel good, they may stop [the medication and therapy] and the cycle starts again.”
In these cases, immediate family members often live with “the fear of when the shoe is going to drop again”— so that when their loved one goes to rehab to get stabilized, that’s great peace of mind, even if it means some time spent apart over the holidays.
How It Can Be Easy to Underestimate Family’s Desire for Your Recovery
In what ways do people with addiction or a mental health condition underestimate their family’s desire for them to recover? Here Martinelli referenced his own journey from active addiction into successful recovery many years ago. He said his mother would try to come find him and help him, and that he knew it was because she loved him— but he’d be in denial and find alternate explanations for her overtures of help.
“We do get to a point where we think people don’t understand or care for us,” he said. “Mental health—it’s kind of the same thing: a person with a mental illness can start to feel like people don’t want to be bothered with them.”
Yet often what family want most is for their loved one to get well and to support them in that process.
How Rehab and Recovery Improve Family Relationships
Addressing family dynamics can be key to successful recovery. That’s why “most successful facilities have some sort of family integration as part of the treatment process, where people can start to be open to the pain and turmoil they’ve caused, without having to run away from it … and where everyone starts to have a voice again.”
“Treatment opens the addict or mental health patient to seeing our part in it and hearing how it has affected other people,” Martinelli added. He went on to explain why this process of family therapy and addressing unhealthy family dynamics is so vital to recovery: “The family has to learn to trust again” … “Treatment and therapy can help you come to terms with old behaviors and not reacting moving forward.”
For many families, the result of this process is better communication and much-improved relationships.
Why Are the Holidays a Good Time to Go to Rehab?
Remember the man with the heroin addiction whom we began this article with? After Martinelli had listened to him share his concerns about going to rehab over the holidays and not being home for Christmas with his three kids, Martinelli asked the man this question: “Do you have a favorite chair that you sit in around the tree?” When the man said “yes,” Martinelli told him, “Picture this: Last year you were in that chair, and your kids were opening their presents, and you were nodding out with drool going down your chest—because there was no way you went out into that room without doing heroin.”
What’s more important? So, it’s Christmas and you’re in rehab. If your family knows you’re somewhere safe, how much more enjoyable do you think their holiday is going to be? If they know you’re there, it’s not that they don’t miss you but they’re glad you’re getting help and are safe … For all the turmoil that mental health and addiction cause in a family, everybody wants to be together during the holidays. But if you’re suffering from addiction or an unmanaged mental health issue, then what could be a better present than doing something about that, so you can spend every Christmas of your life with the people who love you?
Put that way, it’s hard not to go to rehab this holiday season.