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Designated Caregiver: Holiday Drinks and Mental Illness

holiday stress man bigstAlcohol is a staple at the holiday table despite widespread tales of family dysfunction. The truth is social lubrication makes it a lot easier to deal with some of the more difficult people in our families. But when you add mental illness to the mix, you run bigger risks than a shouting match about politics or someone going home wearing the stuffing.

My older brother Pat was diagnosed with schizophrenia eight years ago this December. Drinking alcohol is not advisable on his medication. It makes him extremely drowsy. A few beers after taking his medication in 2007 and he passed out in the bathroom, slamming into the toilet and sliding it clean off the floor — and he’s not a big guy.

He doesn’t drink much anymore, maybe a beer with dinner. But holidays present a special dilemma for Pat. He’s not crazy about socializing. He’s reclusive and hardly ever leaves the house. He’d probably be happy to spend the holidays alone, but our family would never let that happen.

With everyone pouring wine and beer at holiday gatherings, we’ve had a few breathless moments watching him get himself a drink and then staring at each other wondering which one of us was going to say, “Um, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

How do you solve this problem? It took us a long time to realize the best thing to do is to limit drinking or abstain altogether on holidays.

I know a lot of people in recovery who dread spending the holidays with family because they’re surrounded by alcohol. One friend says she leaves Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner early to avoid seeing her dad get hammered. All I can think is, “doesn’t it make them sad that they don’t get to see you as much?”

When we said we were making our holidays nonalcoholic, I’m sure many of my own family members thought, “Well, Pat can’t drink, but that doesn’t mean I can’t!”

The worst thing about this attitude is that it ignores the role of caregiver. In a way, we are all caregivers, not just our parents or me. When you invite someone into your life and your home, you don’t throw out all the boundaries and values that you hold close.

Boundaries and values in our case may be a little different than others’. We love routine, we love light exercise and laughter. We count productivity in taking showers, doing laundry and emptying the litter box. We mark the good days in wry quips, good conversation and smirks. A little goes a long way. We minimize stress and take it easy. This is the environment that keeps Pat happy and healthy. That environment doesn’t include alcohol.

Is it hard to make other people understand this? A little. Our gatherings have gotten smaller since we stopped serving bourbon eggnog. Now we usually just have a glass of wine during a holiday meal.

It’s funny how much we hold onto traditions and our right to do what we want. But you can drink at least 350 other days of the year. Is it that much of a sacrifice to stay sober for Pat’s sake?

I know the argument that he should have the willpower to abstain even if there’s alcohol around, but he should also know the difference between what is real and what isn’t. I can talk about shoulds until I’m blue in the face:

He should know that other people can’t read his thoughts. He should not believe there are cameras in his showerhead and people aren’t coming into his house when he’s not looking. He should know the CIA isn’t after him. He shouldn’t think the children playing in the yard behind his home are spying on him. He shouldn’t be fearful of leaving the house. He should be working, playing guitar and reaching for his dreams. He should be dating an incredible woman who’s as intelligent and interesting as he is as well as making new friends.

But this is his life and this is where we are at. The reality is that he asks very little of me and I can easily abstain from drinking or smoking or anything else to have a nice, relaxing, memorable holiday with my only brother.

Personally, I’ve lost a little weight not drinking before I sit down to holiday turkey. I eat a lot less, and I don’t feel miserably stuffed after dinner. No more rolling around in bed with indigestion and thinking, “Why did I eat that much?” It’s translated to other areas of my life and I drink less overall.

The best part, though, is remembering every single detail of my conversations with Pat. I can remember everything he said. It’s much easier to actively listen and ask important questions when I’m sober. I’m sure he also remembers our interactions better as well. What better gift could we give each other?

So I implore you to consider changing the way you approach your holiday traditions if you have someone with severe mental illness at your table. You wouldn’t serve a bowl of peanuts to a holiday guest with terrible peanut allergies, would you? Try to make it a holiday that includes everyone and keeps health and inclusiveness at its heart.

Designated Caregiver: Holiday Drinks and Mental Illness

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Designated Caregiver: Holiday Drinks and Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 10 Dec 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.