Eat, drink and be merry – this is the festive season’s motto, and at this time of the year, the temptation to overindulge is everywhere. We tend to tell ourselves that it’s only one drink; we’ve earned it; we’ll use just this once more; everyone’s doing it. But this denial is costly in a country that is among the top 10 alcohol and narcotics abusers worldwide, with drug use twice the world norm, thousands of road deaths per year due to DUIs, and a high percentage of crimes linked to substance use.
“Whether we turn to alcohol/drugs/prescription pills to help us cope with whatever we’re having to face over the holidays, or as a way to feel more enjoyment during the festivities, the consequences are simply not worth it,” says South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) Operations Director, Cassey Chambers. This is especially true for those battling with an addiction, who have spent the other months of this year working on their recovery. Chambers urges: “Don’t give up the progress you’ve made over the last 50 weeks for these 2 ahead, which will be over before we know it.”
If you find yourself struggling to manage your substance use during the holidays, remember that SADAG’s Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Helpline is available 24 hours a day throughout the festive season on 0800 12 13 14. You don’t have to do this alone!
“The holidays bring not only time off from work and some relaxation, but also family gatherings and parties – more opportunities than usual to drink alcohol,” says Johannesburg-based psychologist, Dr Michael Niss. “Take it one day at a time and try not to dwell on what has happened or what could happen,” he advises.
As many as 50% of people diagnosed with a mental health condition, such as Depression, Anxiety, or Bipolar Disorder, also have a substance abuse problem. Some people living with mental illness turn to substances in a misguided attempt to treat the symptoms of their illness or reduce the side effects of their medication. This is unfortunate, as – while people may feel some form of relief at first – using substances interferes with psychiatric medication, and may even lead to relapse and hospitalisation.
Sometimes alcohol and drugs are used as a way to self-medicate in order to manage without seeking mental health care, which may bring up fears of stigma and discrimination. People trying to cope with grief, loneliness, relationship problems, or difficult life circumstances may find that using substances helps them reduce the intensity of their emotions or anxieties – even if just for a little while. Alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, as well as prescription drugs like tranquillisers and sleeping pills, are all commonly abused. “The problem is that this sets up a cycle where substances are used for short-term relief, but nothing is ever truly resolved. In fact, people often land up not only worsening their existing problems, but also having to deal with an addiction on top of it all,” explains Chambers.
There are steps you can take to help yourself stay out of this trap this festive season:
* Learn how to say no and ask your friends for their support.
* When going to a party, drive yourself so that it’s up to you how long you stay, and park somewhere you won’t get blocked in.
* Identify what triggers you, so that you can better manage these triggers. Be especially aware when you’re feeling hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
* Take your own drinks to a party. If your temptation is champagne, then take a flavoured sparkling water instead.
* Rate situations ahead of time as low, medium or high risk, and try to spend more time in low-risk environments.
* Avoid topping drinks up – you may lose count of how many you’ve had.
* Keep an eye on your stress levels and when they start to rise, take a timeout instead of forcing yourself to push through.
* When at an event, try distracting yourself. Look for an area away from the bar, get engaged in conversations, or offer to help the host.
* Plan ahead. If you don’t want others to know that you’re in recovery, use a thought-out answer for turning down alcoholic drinks or other substances.
* When a craving hits, try high-intensity exercise, move to a new setting, meditate, practise deep breathing exercises, try out a new activity, or explore a place you’ve never been before.