Professionals working in addiction treatment centers might be wise to create their own special holiday to-do list. The holiday season can mark a time of intense struggle for many patients in residential programs, and an administrator at a nationally renowned facility warns that providers should plan to assist patients well in advance of holiday dates.
“People struggle because they’re away from their families and loved ones,” says Cheryl Knepper, executive director of adolescent and adult extended care programs at Caron Treatment Centers in eastern Pennsylvania. “Many will say they don’t want to be here during the holidays.”
For many people new in treatment and not at a stage where they could handle family holiday celebrations that could serve as dangerous triggers, there is no question that the treatment center represents the only safe place during the end-of-year holiday period. Knepper says Caron maintains a well-staffed operation during the holidays, with a Christmas Eve service and Christmas Day lunch among the structured activities designed for patients for whom holiday time might yield significant stress.
But many patients in Caron’s 90-day extended-care programs might already have fared well during brief times away from the facility and might be eligible for a pass lasting up to 48 hours over the holidays. In cases such as these, the patient’s clinicians work closely with the patient to prepare for the time away, encouraging the person his/her family members to be in touch with the center if any problems arise.
Knepper says that if a family meal away from home is planned, staff suggests that the family find a local restaurant that doesn’t serve alcohol. Caron also often recommends that both patients and their loved ones attend support group meetings during the holiday period.
“It’s not like we talk about this two days before the holiday gets here,” Knepper says. “For Christmas we start around Dec. 1.”
Knepper says it is common for treatment centers to see an influx of patients just before and after the holidays, as individuals experience stressors and feelings of loss and often relapse if they don’t have enough sober supports in their community. And this pattern does not emerge only around Christmas: Knepper says she also has seen it in the past around St. Patrick’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving, for example.
She says that in most years about half of the center’s patients will leave over the holidays, and staff will advise family members to focus their holiday celebrations on the family and the relationship.
The learning continues after the patient returns to treatment. “We ask them when they return, `Did you struggle, with the people, places and emotions?’” Knepper says. “We also routinely do a drug screen when the patient comes back.”