A Frank Conversation Helped Her Family Reclaim Christmas

How do you deal with addicted family members at the holidays? Learn how this mother and daughter set boundaries.

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Joanna and her mother; Photo by Craig Cunningham

Thanksgiving was over. Time to start thinking about Christmas. Yet I couldn’t get last Christmas out of my mind. As always, we’d spent Christmas Eve at Mom’s house. She’d decorated with fresh pine boughs and loaded her table with bacon-wrapped chicken, her special cheeseball and a ham studded with pineapple slices.

She was also miserable the whole evening. She stood with her back against the kitchen sink, chain-smoking and biting her lower lip, her face creased with worry and regret, looking every one of her 74 years. She’d lost weight since the last time I saw her. Her blue eyes avoided everyone’s gaze.

“Have you heard from Michael and Melissa yet?” she finally asked.

I shook my head. My two younger siblings, who’d struggled for years with drug addiction, were late. Like most other Christmas Eves. Sometimes they didn’t show up at all. Or they arrived high. Or in withdrawal. Or needing money. Picking a fight.

“Well,” Mom said, reciting an oft-repeated line, “I guess this Christmas will be ruined like all the others.”

Mom would have been justified feeling as if addiction had ruined her entire life. My daddy was an alcoholic who had affairs and left Mom—twice. They divorced, remarried and divorced again. Through it all, they fought over his drinking. After he was gone, Mom worked herself to the bone supporting Michael, Melissa and me. She felt whiplashed and demeaned.

Michael and Melissa were just 11 and 7 when Daddy left for good—I was 14. The trauma of it all sent them down a hard road. They fell in with friends who introduced them to drugs. They cycled through jobs and rehab programs. Struggled in their marriages. Disappeared for stretches. Patterns set by our own father.

It came to a head every Christmas. The holidays always magnify family problems. Mom yearned for just one normal Christmas Eve. She envisioned all of us gathered around her table, talking and eating, singing carols over dessert in the living room, the kids opening gifts.

It never happened. And I knew, given our family history, it was an unrealistic expectation. Still, something in me snapped as I contemplated yet another rocky holiday. I pictured Mom’s gaunt face, her bone-weary body slumped against the sink. After last Christmas, she told me that, despite everything, she still believed God would not let us down, that we could trust in his promise of faith and restoration. But was that faith…or wishful thinking?

If something was going to change, I would have to make it happen. Just once, I wanted Michael and Melissa not to let Mom down. I wanted a Christmas free from alcohol and drugs. A line needed to be drawn. I would draw it and take this burden from Mom’s shoulders.

For a brief moment, I felt a thrilling clarity about it all. Then I thought about actually confronting my siblings and collapsed inside.

Could I do it? What would I say? So many years of tangled history were wrapped up in those questions.

What made it so hard was that I loved my brother and sister and knew in my heart they didn’t develop substance abuse problems because they were bad people. Life socked them in the gut when they were kids and had been too young to cope.

And that was the real problem. Beneath all the other emotions, I felt guilt. I was just old enough when Daddy left to be able to maintain some perspective on it all. I latched on to my grandparents, deeply faithful people who showed me how to rely on God in hard times. I watched Mom sit at the kitchen table at the end of each month facing a stack of bills, and I vowed I would not marry a drinker.

I made my share of mistakes. I dropped out of college, betrayed my faith and cheated on my first husband, then got a divorce. I met Jerry—a stable, sober, God-fearing man—when we both worked as managers at the mall. We married and went back to school, got nursing degrees and landed good-paying jobs. Our sons, Darian and Evan, were a joy to raise.

Basically, I got lucky. And I felt guilty about it. There’s an old home movie of Michael, Melissa and me when we were kids at Christmas, posing in front of the family tree. In the grainy movie, I reach over to fix Melissa’s dress and tell her to look at the camera and hold up her doll so everyone can see. That was me, the older sibling taking care of everyone.

Until I didn’t. In high school, I got wrapped up in a boyfriend and stopped keeping a close eye on Michael and Melissa. It was around then they began falling in with a bad crowd.

Confronting them now over their drug use would be like confronting those two little kids in the home movie. I loved those kids. I felt responsible for them. Part of me felt as if I’d let them down. As if things were my fault.

Yet I had to do something. Mom wasn’t the only one affected. Jerry long ago ran out of patience with my siblings. Once, after one of them made yet another plea for money, he punched the wall in anger. Part of his anger was directed at me—for giving the money. For not drawing a line.

Last year, he and our boys sat in stony silence when Michael and Melissa finally showed up at Mom’s for Christmas Eve. Melissa was high. They argued. I tried to calm things down and distract Mom. But it was another ruined Christmas.

“What did that accomplish?” Jerry said as we drove home that night. “Nothing. Like always. I’ve reached my limit, Joanna. I never had this kind of craziness growing up, and I’m tired of the boys seeing it. If you don’t do something, I will. This has to stop.”

Which meant it had to stop this Christmas. A few weeks after Thanksgiving, Melissa called. I tensed when I saw who it was.

“So what’s happening at Mom’s this year?” she asked.

“The usual,” I said, trying to sound normal. I knew what I had to say next. Why couldn’t I say it? Melissa was my little sister. I loved her. Yet I found it so hard to be in a relationship with her when she was using! I pictured her in that old Christmas movie. So young. Not knowing what was coming.

Truth be told, none of us knew what was coming back then and we were just as uncertain now. That’s the problem with addiction. It’s so destabilizing for everyone. I had no idea what Melissa—or Michael—would say if I spoke up. What I did know is that all my attempts to control things over the years had totally failed. Just like my efforts to parent them as a teenager had failed.

I had to get over my guilt and think clearly. If I truly believed in God’s forgiveness, I had to let the past be the past and start doing the right thing now. Maybe it would even be the right thing for Michael and Melissa. More than anyone, they needed a drug-free haven at the holidays.

I took a deep breath. “Melissa, I want this Christmas Eve to be different from last year. I would really appreciate it if you and Michael could get along and not show up high at Mom’s. Jerry and I will ask you to leave if you’re using. It’s nonnegotiable. Let’s do this for Mom.”

There was a pause. “Okay,” Melissa said. And the conversation moved on.

I said the same thing to Michael. He didn’t blow up either.

When I told Jerry, he smiled and said he’d be more than happy to back me up. Christmas eve arrived. Jerry, the boys and I knocked on Mom’s door bearing cookies, peanut butter balls and my cappuccino cake. Mom’s tree sparkled with lights and ornaments. She looked happy to see us—but wary too.

To my immense relief, Michael and Melissa showed up on time. Melissa brought her kids. I glanced at her and Michael’s eyes as they came in. They appeared clear and alert. No one was high as far as I could tell. Mom was thrilled to see them.

We enjoyed a pleasant Christmas Eve dinner gathered around Mom’s table and even reminisced about good holiday times. Yes, there were some awkward moments. Michael went off by himself a couple times, and Melissa’s temper flared at one point.

But there were no ugly scenes. No one stormed out. No one did anything to regret later. We all—Mom definitely but the rest of us too—seemed happier and more relaxed on this day than I could remember. A few simple words—“Please don’t show up high or we’ll ask you to leave”—had transformed the holiday. I wondered whether I could stick to that strategy the rest of the year.

I suppose I’m still wondering. It’s been many months since that Christmas Eve. Michael seems like he’s in a much better place these days. Melissa continues to struggle. In the spring, I went all out getting her into a rehab program and helping her stay sober.

I’m realizing I have to draw lines around myself too. I can’t rescue my siblings or make either of them quit using drugs. Only they—with the help of a higher power—can do that.

What I can do is set clear boundaries, stick to them and tell Michael and Melissa I love them. I have no idea what this year will bring. But I know Mom was right. God didn’t let us down; I could trust he never would. This Christmas, I will trust God, set rules for the evening and pray for the best. If I do it with love, God will take care of the rest.

Read more: Setting Limits for a Sober Christmas

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