By Bob Gaydos
Family get-togethers are popular during the holiday season, but they can be hazardous, even explosive, events when alcohol is involved, as is often the case. Sometimes, in the interests of self-preservation, it may well be best to avoid them.
Still, if one must attend, there are ways to survive a family gathering, for drinkers and non-drinkers alike. The definition of survival, of course, depends on the individual point of view. In some cases, not everyone will be happy with the end result, but if survival is the goal, minor disappointment should be a mere inconvenience.
A lot depends on the makeup of the gathering. There may be “problem” drinkers -- people with all the traits of active alcoholics and the denial to match. They’re the ones who make these occasions memorable for all the wrong reasons. There may be alcoholics in various stages of recovery, trying to have a good time without jeopardizing their sobriety. There may be well-meaning relatives who don’t understand recovery and who insist on encouraging the recovering alcoholic to “have just one.” There may be well-meaning relatives who want to protect the recovering alcoholic by protecting him or her from taking care of him or herself. And there may be people who try to protect the “problem” drinker from him or herself by closely monitoring behavior and the number of drinks -- usually a good way to start an argument.
Success in all these circumstances starts with expectations -- realistic ones. Expecting that things will be different than in the past just because you‘d like them to be is most likely not realistic.
Starting with the problem drinker, expectations of a certain type of behavior need to be spelled out in advance of the gathering, with clear boundaries spelled out. If he or she can’t live up to the ground rules and decides not to attend, that may be in the best interest of all concerned, even though it may be disappointing for some. It may be better to get together at another, less stressful, time. On the other hand, if the drinker is amenable to the ground rules, it may be a good time to get together quietly and discuss the problem. Whatever course of action is taken, it must start with realistic expectations.
For alcoholics in recovery, families often are tentative and over-protective, even to the point of not serving alcohol. This is unnecessary, unfair to other family members, and may even be self-defeating, putting a spotlight on the recovering alcoholic. The safer approach is to avoid serving foods cooked with alcohol (or letting the person in recovery know about them), serving festive, non-alcoholic drinks, not just soda and water, as alternatives to alcohol, and not making a big deal about his or her not drinking.
It is up to the recovering alcoholic to do the rest -- to come with tools to cope with any uncomfortability. That means non-alcoholic drinks, a sober friend, a car, a cell phone with numbers of sober friends, a pre-planned reason to leave early (before the alcohol takes effect on others), and a lack of guilt for using any of them. The person in recovery will also have to be prepared to deal with family members who are uncomfortable around him because he makes them think about their own drinking problem or others who may want to voice a grievance over past behavior by the recovering person. Again, being prepared with tools for an efficient getaway may be the best approach for the recovering alcoholic, especially one new to recovery.
By the way, these tools can also be used by non-drinkers who are not in recovery but can’t stand a house full of drunken relatives.
And finally, for the person in early recovery, the most realistic approach may be to avoid a family holiday gathering this year. There will be others and they will be more enjoyable with more recovery. In this case, it may be more important, and healthier, to spend time with sober friends and to focus on being grateful for the gift of sobriety.