When does it stop being a party and start becoming a problem? Is there a way to steer clear of addiction? Every Wednesday, Mike McGowan, host of the podcast "Avoiding the Addiction Affliction," explores substance use disorders with expert guests. The podcast series is sponsored by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition.
Original cover art created by
Kelly P. of Kenosha, Wisconsin
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
Holidays are a time of family gatherings and traditions. Nanci Schiman talks about the challenges the holidays present to people new to recovery. Nanci is a licensed clinical social worker with over 17 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, families, and couples in the mental health field. When substances are as prevalent as holiday decorations, learning to navigate a healthy path is both challenging and necessary for those in recovery. Nanci can be reached at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists/nanci-schiman-mequon-wi/720368. If you or a loved one needs help, it is available. To contact the Hope Council on Alcohol & Other Drug Abuse, call 262-658-8166, or explore their website at https://www.hopecouncil.org. You can also find AA meetings here: https://mtg.area75.org/meetings.html?dist=7 and NA meetings here: https://namilwaukee.org/meetings/
[00:00:00] [Jaunty Guitar Music]
[00:00:11] Mike: Welcome everyone. This is Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. This time of year, around the holidays, is supposed to be a time of joy. Well, you know that isn't always the case for those who are experiencing life challenges.
[00:00:31] Mike: We're gonna have a conversation today about how to cope with the holidays for those new to substance abuse recovery. My guest today is Nanci Shimon. Nanci is a licensed clinical social worker with over 17 years of experience in the mental health field working with adolescents, adults, families, and couples. Welcome Nanci.
[00:00:51] Nanci: Nice to be here, Mike.
[00:00:53] Mike: Okay. Now listen, I know you work with individuals, couples, families, and you have a lot of experience working with people of [00:01:00] all ages with substance abuse issues. But let's start before we talk about those. The holidays are time where families get together, okay, I don't think I'm the only one - not everyone gets along with their families or at least everyone in the family, right?
[00:01:15] Nanci: Absolutely. Yeah, I mean, you know, they say that we don't get to choose our family and sometimes there are members who we probably wouldn't hang out with if they weren't related to us. So I think there are a lot of expectations that come into play. So, yeah, I would agree with that.
[00:01:32] Mike: Well, and stress too, right?
[00:01:34] Nanci: Oh, huge amount of stress. And even under the best of circumstances, like you know, there's so many expectations that we have going into it, and we want everything to be perfect, which is a word I would really like to remove from the English language.
[00:01:47] Nanci: Reality. Things are not gonna be perfect. Something's gonna burn, somebody's gonna show up an hour early, somebody else is gonna be an hour late. Those things happen and you know, we can either decide to roll with it and enjoy the time together or [00:02:00] it gets stressful.
[00:02:01] Mike: I had a woman once tell me that she had three sons and she only had one requirement for whoever they ended up being a partner with since they celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve, she required that all of their partners celebrate Christmas on Christmas day. She said, Christmas Eve is ours, so if you ever date somebody with a Christmas Eve. So I'm thinking, go here, go there. And then you add to that for a lot of families, children, and grandchildren, and it's not as simple as when you open the presents and sitting around all day, right?
[00:02:33] Nanci: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we've seen huge changes within my own family in terms of, you know, what used to be like, you know, we'd all get together for Thanksgiving, we'd all get together for Christmas, and I'm watching, you know, one of my kids is just sprinting back and forth because there's a specific tradition that her husband's family does and she wants to honor that, and then she wants to be a part of our traditions.
[00:02:54] Nanci: So you know, thankfully, knock on wood, our family's been pretty flexible, but I really [00:03:00] feel, I feel for her, it's a lot of stress.
[00:03:02] Mike: Well, does that daughter have children yet?
[00:03:04] Nanci: No, not yet.
[00:03:06] Mike: Well, that will be interesting if they have kids. Like, how do you decide, okay, Christmas morning is ours. Now we got a little kid. Like, how do couples do that without offending?
[00:03:16] Nanci: Hopefully they work it out. I know a lot of people where they say, okay, Thanksgiving is with one family and Christmas is with the other, and it depends too, you know, if your family's all local, it's a little easier. If they're not, you know, my kids didn't come home for Thanksgiving because they are making the trip home for Christmas. They're not gonna spend the airfare twice. Right.
[00:03:37] Mike: You know, holidays are just full of traditions and, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, many of those traditions involve alcohol. So how does a newly recovered, recovering person. Navigate the drinking that inevitably occurs?
[00:03:55] Nanci: Ooh, that's a good question. Again, it's very individualized. I think setting [00:04:00] boundaries, putting one's sobriety at the top is almost, it's essential and that can be very difficult. I know people who just don't go to family gatherings when they're new in recovery, or they might go to something in the morning where there's less chance of drinking and they stay away from the evening stuff. I actually was talking to somebody the other day who was really struggling with a family member who was no longer really in recovery, and it was very triggering for this person, and they're realizing they're gonna have to set some limits about the time that they spend with this person who they love, but it's so impactful for them that they're making a difficult choice.
[00:04:44] Mike: Okay, so when you talk about setting boundaries, that takes a certain amount of personal courage as well as skill development. I had a young person once I was working with who [00:05:00] insisted after a 30 day treatment stay that he was just fine and in great shape and could handle going to a concert five weeks after he first tried sobriety. He was not strong enough and it set him back at least a couple years. How does somebody know when they're strong enough?
[00:05:26] Nanci: Well, there's a saying that, you know, if you don't wanna slip, don't go to slippery places. So I think early in sobriety you err always on the side of caution. If your family is supportive, you can ask or make, you know, suggestions of what would be helpful for you. You can't guarantee that they're gonna follow through, and that's the hard part that's not in your control. So having an exit strategy, you know, a lot of times early in sobriety we say, you know, come late and leave early, and always [00:06:00] make sure that you have a way to leave. So don't get a ride with somebody unless they're willing to leave when you need to.
[00:06:09] Nanci: You know, if the family's at all support, hopefully they're not gonna be judgemental. The reality is, especially in families where a lot of people are drinkers, they get kind of defensive when someone's not drinking with them.
[00:06:25] Mike: Well, right. I was thinking about a billion questions regarding this and you know, many times this is the disease that runs in families. So just because one person is recovering doesn't mean that there aren't three, or one, or half a dozen more that aren't. And that person's good decisions are sometimes gonna irritate those who haven't made those decisions yet.
[00:06:55] Nanci: Yeah, these are really painfully difficult [00:07:00] decisions to make. The reality is that sometimes, especially early in recovery, you stay away from the family and that's hard. You know, in long standing traditions, even if it's not always the most pleasant we hang onto those traditions. So a lot of recovery communities will do things during the holidays to provide that extra support. I can remember early in my own recovery, being out in California and knowing that I really needed to get to a lot of meetings and they were running, they call 'em, you know, alcothons, and it was 24 hours a day that the meetings were running and you could just show up, there'd always be people there, and it was a safe place where you sort of get a little bit of a refueling, kind of, you know, recharge your battery.
[00:07:49] Mike: Well now you're as close as an internet connection away from a meeting, right?
[00:07:54] Nanci: Right. I think that's one of the silver linings of the pandemic. Somebody was talking to me the other day and they [00:08:00] said, within 24 hours after things were shut down there were Zoom meetings up and going. In fact, she joked, she said her husband worked for a large company and it took them like two weeks to figure out how to do everything remotely, and the recovery community is just like, okay, this is what we're gonna do. And those have not gone away. Plenty of meetings that are hybrid. There are a lot of reasons, some people are still not comfortable being outward, they're immunocompromised. So to be able to access the people who are a part of your support network, that's really important.
[00:08:33] Mike: Maybe we can put the recovering community in control of the supply chain.
[00:08:37] Nanci: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, we do try to keep it simple.
[00:08:41] Mike: Yeah. Let's go back to the recovering person. I had a good friend of mine who would leave just before Thanksgiving dinner to "quote-unquote" take a walk with all the cousins and whatever. And what it involved was the siblings and the cousins all smoking weed, getting high just before Thanksgiving dinner. [00:09:00] There's several questions with this. First of all, if that's a tradition, then the recovering person has some really interesting decisions to make during that period of time, right?
[00:09:09] Nanci: Yes. Figuring out how to stay away from that, especially when these are people your own age, people you wanna be hanging out with. Yeah, they do have some tough choices to make.
[00:09:20] Mike: And you better know that going in, right? So if you always have taken that stroll and now you're 23 years old, and all of the generation is gonna go on a stroll, you know that ahead of time.
[00:09:32] Nanci: Mm-hmm. You can go in a stroll in the opposite direction. You can decide to be really busy helping with something in the kitchen, or, wow, I've gotta make a call, you know, I wanna check in with one of my friends who's outta state. But having a plan, you know, is like, when you know that that's a routine is really helpful. Because getting caught off guard is again, that's where you end up slipping.
[00:09:56] Mike: If you bring that up in a therapy session and say, how often has a person thought [00:10:00] about that ahead of time or has a plan?
[00:10:01] Nanci: Depends on how far along they are. I just had this conversation with someone recently where they were gonna be going on a vacation and were really worried about some dynamics because some of the people on that vacation were not their favorite people and they were going to keep doing kind of what they normally did. And I said, hey, this is your vacation, what are you looking forward to doing on this vacation? And they started listing things. I said, okay, so do you wanna put your energy into conflict? What do you wanna focus on? Why are you going to this place? And you've listed off 10 different things you're looking forward to doing.
[00:10:41] Nanci: So I think having that plan of like, okay, this is one aspect of it, but it's not the whole family event. So if they're gonna go do their little stroll and get high, then maybe that's the time where you talk to some of the people in the family who aren't going to get high.
[00:10:57] Mike: Now it brings, the other thing that that brings up every time I think [00:11:00] about that is how clueless or enabling the family must have been. How do you not know? Eight people walked back into your house smelling of marijuana, and I mean, you know, the symptoms, right?
[00:11:16] Nanci: Well, you know denial is such a powerful coping skill. I am amazed when I talk to people who have a relationship with someone and they were worrying about the person, whether they're drinking or not. And I said, well, you can smell it. And they're like, no, I don't really think I can. And for me, I'm like, well, that's an obvious sign. Maybe some people don't, or they're choosing to interpret it in a way that fits with what they want to believe. Oh, they must have been by somebody who was burning leaves, you know, whatever it is. But we wanna believe what we wanna believe.
[00:11:52] Mike: They wanna get their steps in before they eat Turkey.
[00:11:54] Nanci: Yeah, yeah.
[00:11:56] Mike: Right. So that also begs the question, how do families [00:12:00] support the recovering person during the holidays? And I get asked this all the time, do we have to remove all the alcohol from the house? Do we have to all not drink? I mean, what do you tell people, especially partners and siblings?
[00:12:13] Nanci: Sure. Having a conversation with the person in recovery, I think is a good starting point. Little things like if they say, oh, it's fine if you wanna drink, have a beer or a cocktail or a glass of wine. Be mindful of where you're positioning it. I've been in situations where someone not intentionally standing there and their drink is like right under my nose. So be aware of that. Clearing things away, not leaving half empty glasses around, but finding out from the person. And some people like to have a non-alcoholic drink in a wine glass or a beer glass, other people say, nope, that's too close to home, I don't wanna do that. Asking them what beverages they would like. Those are [00:13:00] all ways that you can support the person.
[00:13:02] Mike: So you don't have to necessarily give up drinking.
[00:13:05] Nanci: Not unless the person says that that's really going to be difficult for them. And that might be one of those situations where, either the family says, sure, we'll support you in this, or that might be a holiday that you miss, and maybe the next year it'll be easier. Typically, if people are really supportive and they're not having an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, they have no problem saying, sure, no, I don't need to drink. But those who are in recovery know that to ask someone to give up their drink of choice when that's a big part of their life is, you know, you might as well ask them to cut their arm off.
[00:13:45] Mike: That's more important than the turkey or the ham or whatever else.
[00:13:48] Nanci: Absolutely. I heard so many stories from people who said they looked forward to the holidays because they would cook with wine because then they could start drinking some of the wine at 10 o'clock in the morning. And, [00:14:00] you know, endless stories about not even really remembering by the time turkey was ready to be served.
[00:14:07] Mike: You know, we're talking about the holidays because we're right between the winter holidays right now, but it's not just that. It's as you mentioned before, it's vacations, it's birthdays, it's other celebrations, it's football games. There's always times where a newly recovering person has to navigate old associates who are still drinking to obsess or using to obsess.
[00:14:35] Nanci: Yeah. And I don't think it's necessarily just people that are newly in recovery. It can creep up at any time. I was, you know, several years into sobriety and was going to get together with someone who was doing a fundraiser and it was something that really meant a lot to me and I wanted to be there, but it was at a bar. It was in another [00:15:00] city, so traveling and being there overnight, like I don't feel really strong and comfortable today. Not that I would drink, but I felt that I would be very tense and I didn't wanna bring that and I, I didn't wanna go through that. So. I was very honest and I said, you know, I'd love to be there, I'll support you in other ways, but I'm not gonna be there.
[00:15:24] Mike: Did you say why?
[00:15:25] Nanci: Yeah. These are people who knew me who I felt comfortable with, but you know, you don't have to give much of an excuse. One I love is I have another commitment. You don't have to say where it is because really your other commitment is your sobriety. You're not lying.
[00:15:42] Mike: It's alright to be honest too, you don't have to be condemning either.
[00:15:45] Nanci: Right. And I think that that's part of normalizing it. The more that you know, we can just make that a part of the conversation, the more it opens it up for other people to say, wow, well that person's making this choice, maybe this isn't so hard.[00:16:00]
[00:16:00] Mike: You know, it's not like there's not enough opportunities in our culture. To drink or to use. It's like an everyday thing.
[00:16:08] Nanci: Yeah. And Wisconsin in particular is a state that when people come here from other states, they're shocked and we all go, oh yeah, that's what we do.
[00:16:17] Mike: You know, when my kids graduated from high school, a couple people drop by and stuff, but I knew that I would only have to be attentive right after the graduation because we weren't going to have alcohol at a high school graduation. And it was really funny to watch other people make excuses like, oh, we got a lot of places to go we can't really hang around any one place. And then two hours later I saw them in another place, in a lounge chair, and what they were really doing, was walking up my driveway outta my driveway so they could get to the place where there was a lot of alcohol.
[00:16:53] Nanci: Sure.
[00:16:53] Mike: At a high school graduation.
[00:16:54] Nanci: Yeah. That's the norm.
[00:16:56] Mike: Well, so that's part of our tradition is there's [00:17:00] new traditions. So what does somebody do? People can create new traditions. Can you give us some examples of folks you know that have started new traditions that don't necessarily involve drugs or alcohol?
[00:17:09] Nanci: You know, you can do anything that you would do when you were drinking except drink. I don't know that you have to do new traditions. You just do what you do and you actually get to be present for it. And I think you had said something to me once that really stuck with me was, you know, why go to a concert or something where you spend a lot of money on the ticket and then obliterate yourself so you're not even really aware and able to experience it. There is something really fun and exciting about being fully present and being able to remember it the next day and not have a hangover. I've had more fun and seen people have more fun completely sober to the point where sometimes family members are like, are you using again?
[00:17:53] Nanci: But yeah, and if it is a matter of creating new traditions, of being away from family members who [00:18:00] may be a bit toxic, then you figure out what's important to you and you create those with the people who are supporting you.
[00:18:08] Mike: You know I like that a lot because I've said forever that if we take drinking as an activity out right, then everything else you're doing, you can do without the alcohol or the drugs. That many times it's just the drugs itself that is the center of the activity.
[00:18:29] Nanci: Absolutely. Right.
[00:18:30] Mike: I can't imagine paying $18,000 for Taylor Swift ticket and then being stoned for it.
[00:18:36] Nanci: No. No, and I had a client a while back who was in high school and as we were talking about trying to find out what their interests were to see if we could, you know, work on the the substance abuse, their sole activity was hanging out with their friends for the sole purpose of getting high. They were at loss of what they would possibly do. [00:19:00] And so, you know, you meet the person where they're at and you say, okay, let's just start, let's pick one thing. What's something that you like to do or that you might like to try. And you build from that.
[00:19:12] Mike: I went to a concert one time where the musician was recovering and he was very well known and he played a video little vignette of him playing when he was loaded. And he said, I used to think I played well, I used to think I was creative when I did this, I used to think everything was going great. This is what I sounded like, and then he said, this is what I sound like when I don't have that stuff running through my veins and he just ripped it and it was incredible. And of course, this is great, because the loudest cheers were from?
[00:19:49] Nanci: The people in recovery.
[00:19:50] Mike: No! The drunkest people.
[00:19:52] Nanci: Really?
[00:19:52] Mike: Which was so ironic cause there was a lag, so you got the "WOO!" And then you got the laughter from the [00:20:00] recovering people at the WOO people. Did that make sense?
[00:20:02] Nanci: Yes, absolutely.
[00:20:04] Mike: That was kinda funny.
[00:20:04] Nanci: Yeah. That takes a lot of courage too, to say, this is what I was like,
[00:20:08] Mike: Yeah, mm-hmm.
[00:20:09] Nanci: And yeah, check this out. But that's a powerful message because you know, if that's somebody who has, you know, they have a huge audience and people will listen to that. Yeah. That's very cool.
[00:20:20] Mike: Well, this has been great. I really appreciate you taking time,
[00:20:23] Nanci: Of course.
[00:20:23] Mike: To do this, and for those of you listening, We'll talk about more issues around substance use disorders the next time. We encourage you to please listen in again. Until then, have a happy holiday season, however you celebrate it. Celebrate it safely, and honor those people that are making difficult life decisions, especially the new ones.
The Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition’s mission is to support networking, encourage education, explore gaps, and realize solutions to improve treatment and reduce alcohol and other drug abuse in our community with a primary focus on families.