The empty chair. It’s a term used in the recovery community that references a relative or friend missing from the dining table during celebrations due to their substance use. In my case, I had a family member who periodically passed out in their chair during family celebrations from overconsumption of alcohol. I was fortunate. Ultimately, my family member enjoyed 27 years of recovery before the long-term physical impact of alcohol and tobacco use eventually caught up, creating health conditions that lead to their death. That chair at the table is now permanently empty.

Misuse of substances takes people out of the conversation, out of being present in life, and can snuff out life either instantly or silently over time. Although the empty chair often refers to those lost to substance use, any of these conditions can represent the empty chair for those that love the person. I am not sure what it is about being human that creates the vulnerability to misuse substances. And why greed, which lurks beneath substance use industries and capitalizes on human vulnerability to generate billions in profit, is a more important value than the health and life of the individual and society. Even though the chair is empty, my admiration of her courage and love for her brilliant soul live on.

Families and friends find themselves on the front line with individuals living with a substance use disorder. The recovery movement is working to bring necessary social support and new skills to them. Community reinforcement and family training, known as CRAFT, teaches individuals how to more effectively talk to a person who is actively using substances, and family recovery coaching is an emerging field for peers with lived experience to support families in active substance use.

Houston Recovery Center recognizes the challenges individuals and their families face during this holiday season. For the clients we serve, who are living homelessly or are navigating the criminal justice system, and their family members, the empty chair is real. We extend our thoughts and best wishes for courage, hope and compassion to all impacted by substance use this holiday… and every day.