Constable: Holidays provide opportunity for loving discussions instead of angry confrontations
The holidays often give us a chance to get together with loved ones who bring to our tables cranberry sauce, latkes, samosas, marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes, pecan pie and plenty of opportunities for cups of good cheer. Also at the table are addiction, depression, eating disorders and a multitude of behavioral health issues.
"We're looking for joy during the season, but addiction and behavioral health issues hold us hostage," says Jim Swarthout, an Episcopal priest and director of addiction and behavioral health medicine for Amita Health, which is hosting Sober Holiday Virtual Support Sessions online in November and December. "I tell people all the time, 'You have a right to have joy.'"
Instead of dreading holiday gatherings, fearing problems with drunkenness, addiction or a behavioral issue, we should look at those gatherings as opportunities to show love and establish connections with "a person of concern," says Swarthout, who has a master's degree in social work from Loyola University and multiple certificates in the behavioral health field.
"It's the greatest opportunity to advance joy for the whole family," Swarthout says. "We're all affected family members."
In addition to his academic training, Swarthout has his personal experience of being sober for more than 23 years, with the support from fellow clergy members and his large family.
"They loved me into a 12-step program," says Swarthout, 67, who was inspired to get better and still attends 12-step meetings. "Nobody ever got better because someone made them."
Avoid angry confrontations and shaming interventions during the holiday, and instead engage in compassionate and loving conversations, says Swarthout, who notes that compassion can translate as "to walk with."
Not only does shaming not work to change behavior, but it's wrong. And Swarthout uses his own family as an example.
"It was not my fault," Swarthout says. "My father has it, my brothers have it, my uncles have it -- we're all bald."
Many people are dealing with issues that they are predisposed to have.
"We don't talk about it enough," Swarthout says. "I would very much say, 'Talk with affected family members,' and we're all affected. Everybody's a 'person of concern.' Talk about it as a family."
But don't expect to solve everything during a family discussion.
"Don't try to cure the other person," Swarthout says. Discussions should lead people to find professional help on how to cope with any demons.
"My addiction wakes up 10 minutes before I get up in the morning, and goes to bed 10 minutes after I fall asleep," Swarthout says. He also advises concerned loved ones not to use the word "relapse," as it's actually a recurrence of a disease.
He says he uses the mantra "Trust God, clean house, help others" to keep him on track.
For tips on how to talk about addiction, depression, eating disorders and other issues, Swarthout advises people to make reservations for Amita's hourlong online support sessions at amitahealth.org/BMIprograms. With all the stress of living during a pandemic and political angst, we need to enjoy our holidays.
"We need the fellowship of family. Come and get a present under Father Jim's Christmas tree," Swarthout says. "Our role is to love them so much that they can come to love themselves again. That's the key."
Holiday help for sobrietyWhat: Sober Holiday Virtual Support Sessions, presented by Amita Health's Behavioral Medicine Institute
Who: the Rev. Jim Swarthout, addiction specialist, will facilitate
When: 10-11 a.m. Nov. 23, 7-8 p.m. Dec. 16, 7-8 p.m. Dec. 21, 10-11 a.m. Dec. 23, 10-11 a.m. Dec. 29
To register: visit amitahealth.org/BMIprograms