This Christmas, Steve will spend the day doing family type things with his wife and children: opening presents, playing rough and tumble with his two boys, maybe having a snowball fight out in the yard. For Steve, it will be "kind of a new thing, but fun."
He used to keep company with quite a different crowd during the holiday season . . . the drunks and the druggies."My only friend for a lot of holiday seasons was alcohol and drugs," Steve (not his real name) said.
Steve remembers one Christmas Eve in particular. Alone in his apartment, he had the television on; Christmas music was being played, and Steve says it almost made him cry.
"I felt like I was the only person in the world, that no one cared any more," Steve said. "I turned to a place where people were - a bar, and that would lead to parties or what not."
Steve says a drastic experience finally led him to seek help with his chemical dependency: He hit his wife, hurting her to the degree that he had to take her to the hospital for medical treatment.
For the past year and a half, the 35-year-old Utah County man has been receiving counseling and treatment for his substance-abuse problems. It hasn't been easy, but he has succeeded in staying clean. The holiday season tests his new-found independence, a not uncommon problem for drug and alcohol abusers.
The holiday season, with its focus on family activities, can be difficult for people whose familial relationships are stressful; and the allure of parties is hard for a substance abuser to withstand, particularly if that is how he has spent holidays in the past.
"When I was using, I didn't want to be around my family," Steve said. "Something was missing in myself, and I tried to fill the void with drugs. I don't know what I was trying to fill, things left out of my childhood, self-esteem. I was going in the wrong direction."
"The most common thing I see (among abusers) is that the holidays are a special occasion and have always been a time to party and get drunk," said David Hollingdrake, director of Utah Valley Regional Medical Center's Dayspring program. "They (addicts) feel like they are missing out if they are not partying, and may rationalize that it is OK, and relapse. The misconception is that they can't party unless they are using, that they can't have a good time unless they are using."
Hollingdrake said people recovering from substance-abuse problems need to stay with their treatment programs, and not let the holidays distract them. Part of that process involves learning how to have fun again.
Dave Schmitt, a therapist at The Gathering Place in Orem, said substance abusers often lack a healthy support system, so turn to drugs and alcohol for comfort.
He suggests that abusers without familial support can use systems such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Adopt-a-Family or Adopt-a-Grandparent as a means of reaching out to others and opening boundaries they may have built up through their substance abuse.
Schmitt encourages patients to generate other interests to fill the void left by giving up chemicals, and works with them to learn to have fun without dependency on drugs or alcohol. Developing family traditions can help an addict get his focus off of all the things that induce a feeling of needing drugs or alcohol.
"These people aren't involved in fun," Schmitt said. "They are used to an unnatural induction of a good feeling. It is a system's way of getting healthy, of getting external contact and getting an internal system going. It's a (means of) distraction in the beginning, and eventually becomes an image in their lives."