Holidays during a pandemic: when do comfort escapes become addictions?

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In normal times, holidays bring parties and opportunities to gather with family and friends. Accompanying these opportunities is often a tremendous array of food and drink.  For many, overeating or drinking to excess is simply a momentary expression of celebration.  For others, it may be a trigger for continuing use or abuse of substances.  For those among us who struggle with addiction, these celebrations can cause us to wonder if our drinking or eating is normal. An even larger number of family members and friends may start wondering about the eating or drinking habits of a relative.

Since we have no parties this year, this is a non-issue, right? Well, no. People who are on the path from normal eating or drinking to addictive eating or drinking don’t need a party. For many, isolation is preferred. Hiding of the behavior out of shame and guilt is normal behavior for the person fighting an addiction.

Unfortunately, drinking or eating too much are killer diseases. For many, it is a slow, progressive, painful death. First, the spirit is broken. The hope that I can stop, or “This time it will be different,” becomes more fantasy as the power of the addiction in the brain grows. There is a point where there is no turning back for the person who eats or drinks too much.

What to do if some of this is your reality? There are two challenges. The first is recognizing and admitting there is a problem. And the second is knowing what to do.

There is a litmus test for addiction that all kinds of Twelve Step organizations have adapted to help potential members decide if they belong. It is one simple question: Does your drinking, eating or other habitual behavior make your life unmanageable?

The NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism distinguishes moderate drinking, binge drinking and heavy alcohol use.  For more ways to self-assess alcohol use patterns, check out an article in Psychology Today, which links to an NIH questionnaire and offers eleven symptoms for alcohol abuse. 

The first challenge of recognizing that an addiction problem exists is hard because we want to ignore it. No one knows how to be helpful, so we say or do nothing. Each addiction has different behaviors; yet typically there is a progression and worsening of the symptoms in each.

For the person with the addiction problem, the challenge is to move out of denial and face reality. A friend in recovery shared her story of after years of denial being confronted by someone who had overcome an addiction. “If you could drink normally, why do you fight giving it up so fiercely?”

The second challenge is – what can we do? “We” in this case are the spouses, family and friends who love the person with a possible alcohol or other substance use problem.   

For the family, the challenge is perplexing and dispiriting.  As humans, it is easy to focus on the behaviors of the person with the addiction and try to figure out how to get them to see the problem and change. Unfortunately, there are also hundreds of years of irrefutable evidence that this doesn’t work.

Through the pioneering work of the early members of Al-Anon, the wives of the first alcoholics concluded they couldn’t change the alcoholic. All they could do was change their reaction to the alcoholic. And in some miraculous way, focusing on themselves and learning to hate the addiction and love the person allowed many persons with addiction problems and their families to recover.

If you are dreading the holidays because you fear for someone (or yourself) is eating or drinking too much, I hope you can push past your denial self-talk that says it isn’t so bad and begin to face the possibility you need help. And for families, my hope is that we can stop the useless efforts to change others and find help for ourselves.  

May this year of holidays bring you a sense of peace and goodwill.  If, instead, it brings you a sense that you need help with your addictions, may it bring you the strength to start a new path by asking for help.

Visit Recovery Resource  for more information.

Tom AdamsAbout Tom Adams

Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Evangelyn

    Thank you Tom, Excellent article. Reading the article catapulted me into my childhood and memories of Christmas and the ambivalence of dreading the holiday and the excitement of anticipated presents and once a year foods. To this day I cannot approach Christmas without remembering the sadness of holidays marred by relatives drinking too much and spoiling everything. How fortunate to have blogs like yours that can hopefully help some relative to understand the overindulgence of some relatives. Hopefully the article will help someone to have the courage to speak to someone who may need to hear the message. Most of all this blog helps me to see that I may not be able to change anyone’s behavior, only my reaction to the behavior

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Evangelyn, yes it is helpful to me for you to remind me how Christmas as a kid was a mixed bag. Many families have different ways of having “mot enough” or “not perfect” show up during the holidays. I sometimes dread decorating for Christmas because of the conflict when I was young. People act out in lots of different ways this time of year – drinking, eating, controlling. It is a time as you say to focus on our own behavior and bring as much compassion and love as we can to the celebrations of light and love. Peace, Tom

  2. Shirin McArthur

    Thank you, Tom. I pray for all who are abusing substances and themselves in these isolating and challenging times. Your line, “First, the spirit is broken” was particularly powerful for me.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Shirin for the reminder as a 12 step friend reminds me: “The most we can do for each other and the least is to pray for each other!”


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