Here come the holidays. In American cultural myth, it’s a time for good food, good company, and good times. If you are struggling with recovery from alcoholism, it’s also a time of stress and challenges. Alcoholic beverages often make an occasion feel celebratory. How do you join in without feeling obliged to drink?
If the alcoholism has been kept as a secret from some or all of the extended family, how do you and those who support you manage without blowing your “cover”? If it’s not a secret, you may feel tense and even a little paranoid that everyone else will watch and monitor you. If the last family social gathering was a disaster because of your drinking, you may be approaching the holiday get-togethers with some embarrassment and shame.
People in recovery know what this is like. Navigating family events that include alcohol and that may well also include people who are problem drinkers can feel like a setup. How can you handle the situation and, yes, even relax and enjoy your family’s efforts to celebrate the season?
Stay focused on your own recovery.
Once in recovery, people often start to notice other people’s problem behavior. As they say in AA, “Mind your own business.” It’s enough to work on your own issues. It’s not your job to work on others’. In fact, focusing on other people’s lack of control around food or drink or smoking or whatever is a great way to get off track from your own goal.
Take responsibility for your past behavior.
There may be family members who feel hurt and resentful about how you’ve behaved in the past and who choose the holiday meal as a place to air their grievances. No one knows better than you do the shame that comes with this kind of conversation. Briefly remind people that, yes, you are sorry for the past but that you are in recovery now. It’s an important opportunity to practice not being in denial. Then change the subject to something else — like asking other people to share something new and good from their lives.
Refuse to participate in alcoholic conversations.
There may be members of your family who like to share “war stories” and to joke about how much they drank at other occasions. Others may like to brag about how much they can drink or about escapades during drunken pub crawls. Some may seem to enjoy humiliating others by criticizing their drunken adventures on holidays past. Such conversations are toxic to your own recovery. Excuse yourself if possible. Go for a walk or offer to help in the kitchen. If nothing else, you can always go to the last bastion of privacy in most American households — the bathroom.
Bring your own beverages.
One way to make sure you have something non-alcoholic in your glass is to bring it yourself. Bring a non-alcoholic bottle or a festive and interesting punch that even the children can enjoy and you may find yourself the hero for other adults who would just as soon limit their consumption of alcohol.
Watch out for the underminers.
Beware if there are others in the family who see your abstinence as a negative comment on their choice to get hammered. It’s not at all unusual for such people to try to get you to join them. Often they will say things like, “Come on. It’s the holiday. You can have just one.” They don’t get it. They don’t want to get it. If you can stop drinking, it means that just maybe they could (and should) too. And they’re not ready to try.
Prepare a mental list of things you can do during the family event to have fun without alcohol.
Preparation is the key to success. What are other ways to enjoy the day without drinking? Maybe you’d like to get to know some of the children better by hanging out with them for awhile. Maybe you can engage at least some of the family in taking a walk or throwing a football around.
If you are at the home of an older relative, perhaps you can enlist other family members in doing a chore that needs to be done. Stacking wood, raking leaves, or finally fixing that back door that has always creaked will focus attention on something constructive. An added bonus is the boost to self-esteem that comes from doing something for someone else.
Have an exit strategy.
Make sure you have a way to leave if you need to. That probably means having or arranging your own transportation. That probably means letting the host or some key people know that you may need to leave and to ask that they please support you if you do. It may mean creating a story that gives you an honorable way to exit (“So sorry, everyone. Wish I could stay but I promised someone who is alone today that I would drop by.”) Such stories are not lies. They are not intended to manipulate or harm others. They are a way for you to stay safe.