Ah, the holidays.
For many of us, the expectations we have in our heads are lifted from iconic movies that paint bucolic pictures of snow-covered lanes, gaily decorated trees around which smiling families gather and solemn hearts lifting up the reason for the season in song.
Those Norman Rockwell-esque scenes are lovely, but they never quite jive with reality. For families with an active alcoholic, that reality skews even more, and the idyllic imagery is often replaced by screaming arguments, inebriated stumblings into the tree and face plants into the mashed potatoes.
If the thought of inviting drunken Uncle Frank or tipsy Aunt Sally brings out your inner Grinch, however, don’t lose heart. There are ways to salvage the season for yourself and your family, and maybe even get the alcoholics in your lives the help they need to get sober. Here are some tips to survive the Christmas season with an alcoholic, and you can click here to gather some tips about the holidays with addicts:
First and foremost, don’t cancel Christmas because of a single individual. The holidays are a time for family and frivolity, and by putting off or doing away with holiday plans altogether, you’re allowing the alcoholic in your life to hold everyone else hostage. Alcoholics and addicts have a tendency to make everyone around them sick — with worry, with fear, with anger, with frustration. That’s only compounded when you allow your life’s terms to be dictated by the inebriated behavior of an alcoholic. Consider doing the following:
- Set a designated time for family events. Let the alcoholic know what time he or she is expected to be punctual, and don’t wait on them to begin. It’s up to you whether you allow them to arrive late, but make sure they understand that their presence isn’t required for the event to begin.
- Communicate clearly what is expected of them: Being well-groomed and dressed appropriately, for starters, and laying off the sauce for the duration of the event. It’s crucial you let them know that if they show up drunk, you won’t let them in, or if they live with you, that they’ll be expected to stay away. Finally, make sure they understand that they’re expected to maintain a certain sense of decorum: If a lack of alcohol makes them surly or sour, they should probably stay away.
- Calling a “truce” with the rest of the family and communicating that to the alcoholic. In other words, refrain from bringing up resentments to your alcoholic during a time meant to be spent in fellowship. Nothing can turn a holiday event into a disaster like accusations, brow-beating and hurtful words that will only serve to provoke an argument.
At the same time, keep your boundaries realistic. Alcoholism is a disease, and demanding they give up drinking for the rest of their lives in order to come to Christmas is probably not practical. Communicate your boundaries at least a week in advance, and don’t feel the need to defend your decisions. Your boundaries are yours and yours alone, and you don’t have to justify them. Finally, don’t “move the goalposts,” so to speak. Your boundaries should be firm ones, not open to negotiation with the alcoholic in your life.
If they accuse you of being too strict or too unfair, simply tell them, “I’m sad you won’t be with us, then, but that’s your choice.” The onus is then on them to respect the boundaries you’ve set forth.
Regardless of what they say and the promises they make, addicts and alcoholics are not the most reliable of individuals. If they agree to your boundaries, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll keep their word. When the appointed time arrives, they may show up late or not at all, and they may be drunk; if you’ve built up your hopes that communicating your needs will magically cure them, the disappointment you certainly feel will be amplified by anger. That’s unhealthy — for you, for the rest of your family and for the alcoholic in your life.
At the same time, try to rein in the expectations of everyone else who might be attending your event. Yes, Frank or Sally may have agreed to show up sober, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will, and anyone who hangs his or her hat on the expectation of a united and peaceful gathering might be sorely disappointed.
Finally, don’t take it personally. Addiction and alcoholism are diseases, and while addicts and alcoholics do things while in the grip of those illnesses that hurt those around them, they usually don’t intend to do so. It’s simply the nature of their disease.
Change It Up
Instead of gathering in a private home, why not instead arrange for a holiday party at a public place? Many restaurants have rooms available for rent to large parties, and social niceties usually prevent even those with a drinking problem from getting too out of hand. If gathering outside of the home feels too impersonal, what about changing your own holiday traditions? If you usually gather in the evenings, when you know Sally or Frank is more likely to be intoxicated, why not host a brunch instead? If alcohol is usually served, can the rest of the family go without for this one event? There are a number of compromises that can be made that might make your holiday gathering go more smoothly. If previous holidays have been a disaster, what can you do this year to mitigate a repeat?
Look for Ways to Help
Alcoholism isn’t a moral failing or sign of a weak character; it’s a disease. An alcoholic isn’t a bad person; he or she is a sick person, and chances are they loathe themselves and what they do far more than any other person does. During the holiday season, the warmth of hearth, home and family can be a powerful incentive to get sober, and the alcoholic in your life may be desperate to do so but unsure where to start.
If you haven’t already, gather information on the resources that can give your alcoholic a new way of life. A list of recovery meetings is a good place to start, and information on treatment centers like Cornerstone of Recovery can offer hope as well. Don’t shove such information in the face of your alcoholic as soon as he or she walks through the door, but look for opportunities to bring it up. A cry for help may simply be an exhausted sigh at the end of the night or a hug that lingers a little longer than normal. In those moments, it’s ideal to say, “I love you, and I want to help.”
Sometimes, that’s the nudge they need to take the next step in the right direction. The Christmas season is one of miracles, and with information you put together to keep on hand, the greater forces at work during this time of year may give you the perfect opportunity to present it.