Four Steps to Support Loved Ones in Recovery on St. Patrick’s Day

“Any holiday is just another reason to use.”

That’s how many individuals struggling with substance abuse feel—especially with a celebratory holiday like St. Patrick’s Day this week. A large aspect of addiction is the denial that there is any sort of problem, and justification for using can go hand in hand with denial. Just like how someone may go to extreme lengths to obtain their drug of choice, they may also search high and low for any reason that doesn’t just explain their substance use but seemingly legitimizes it. Holidays like St. Patrick’s Day provide a great justification for those looking for a reason to use. When you feel like your substance use is perfectly justified, it gives you a false defense against well-meaning supporters who may question your use. Trust me, I would know.

My own justifications for using ranged from dramatic teenage heartbreak to my very serious undiagnosed PTSD from sexual assault. I also confidently felt that, as a 20-year-old, it was a very normal part of the college experience to occasionally miss class because you partied too hard the night before. If everyone else around me was high all the time, then it must be normal…right?

When I was studying at Vanderbilt University for undergrad, I knew plenty of individuals who got high to cope with the stress or quickly downed 2-5 drinks for a “pre-game” before heading out to the “real” party on a Saturday night. The National Institute of Alcohol and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as consuming 5 or more drinks (for people assigned male at birth) or 4 or more drinks (for people assigned female at birth) in 2 hours or less. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) uses a similar definition but extends the time length to be “on the same occasion (i.e., at the same time or within a couple of hours).”

It’s safe to say that I was surrounded by binge drinking and regular drug users while living on campus. Our justification was the flawed philosophy of “study hard, party harder.” American Addiction Centers names binge drinking as a serious public health concern for college students in the United States and states that roughly 40% of college students report binge drinking. Not only did this lifestyle feel normal to me, but the collegiate environment almost encouraged it.

Herein lies the danger of engaging with environments that promote substance use, like college parties or holidays. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone in those places has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and drugs, but if you are already prone to addiction or actively struggling with your substance use, participating in that type of environment can contribute to your self-justification and continued use. It doesn’t matter if your drug of choice isn’t alcohol and it’s a holiday that promotes excessive alcohol intake—if everyone around you is intoxicated, they typically won’t care or notice what substance has you under the influence.

St. Patrick’s Day easily can become an open invitation for addiction to come out in the open, flaunt itself in flashy green garb, and be treated just the same as anyone else at the party. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone binge drinking on March 17th is engaging in their own addictions. Because BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) is influenced by multiple factors and not just the number of drinks someone has, someone could technically be binge drinking but not be extremely intoxicated. Some individuals are also capable of binge drinking for a celebratory occasion and then resuming normal life the next day.

Binge drinking is definitely a risk factor for developing alcohol use disorder (AUD), but AUD is based on someone’s drinking habits over a certain period of time, not just one holiday. AUD symptoms can include having strong cravings for alcohol, a struggle to cut down on alcohol use, interference with different areas of your life, and using alcohol despite any issues it may be causing with work, school, and/or personal relationships (NIAAA).

However, for someone who is in recovery from substance abuse, being surrounded by binge drinking certainly can feel like the old days of hanging out with fellow alcoholics or heavy drug users. The behavior feels eerily similar on days like St. Patricks’ Day, so don’t be surprised if your friends or family who struggle with substance use—regardless of how long they’ve been in recovery—don’t come around for the Irish-themed festivities. Not only do we need more sober community events, but we also need our allies to step up and do more to welcome their friends in recovery to special events and holiday celebrations. Our culture is not friendly or accommodating to those who do not drink in general, but it is particularly challenging for those in early recovery.

Here are four steps that allies can take to support their friends and family who do not drink and/or are in recovery on St. Patrick’s Day:

  1. Ensure that you have a variety of non-alcoholic drinks at your event. If you’re not sure where to start, ask your loved one what they would prefer to drink and have their special drink on hand.
  2. Consider making your event alcohol and/or drug free.
  3. Be intentional about where you are inviting your loved one to spend time with you. Search for parties and events that aren’t happening at bars. Maybe a band is performing that night or the Zoo is doing a themed event. A collegiate recovery group (like Vanderbilt Recovery Support at Vanderbilt University or Bisons in Recovery at Lipscomb University) may be hosting an event. A coffee shop may be offering a themed St. Patrick’s Day drink that you could both try.
  4. If you are going to an event with them where they may be alcohol or drugs, offer to be a sober companion. When you’re not the only sober person in the room, you feel a lot less alone.

In whatever way that you will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day today or over the weekend, I encourage you to consider your friends in recovery. They may struggle with holidays like this that center around drinking and feel more pressure than is healthy for their recovery journey. Be there for them.

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