I just got an email from my aunt saying our cousin (we’ll call him Bill) is in early recovery from addiction and to support him, she is not allowing any alcohol in her house for the holidays. I have to admit it makes me mad! My aunt is always the center of our holiday festivities and we are a big, raucous family. I can’t imagine Christmas Eve without eggnog, or red wine with our turkey dinner. In the past we have even had drinking games while we watch football the day after Christmas. We certainly drink over card and board games late into the evening. This ban seems selfish and unfair to me. If Bill doesn’t want to drink anymore, why am I being inconvenienced and penalized? Am I being unreasonable in thinking he should just not drink or stay home this year and let the rest of the family continue our traditions?
Let’s start by recapping the fact that Bill is in early recovery and your aunt has decided to support him. If Bill has a substance use disorder (alcohol addiction) or is concerned enough about his drinking to abstain, he is likely trying to manage the early stages of recovery. Addiction is a chronic brain disease that impacts both the brain and behavior. It is no casual matter to navigate the holidays in a newly sober state. Even those without drinking problems should be wary of the holidays’ “license to overindulge”. Bill is probably thinking about the family tradition of drinking late into the night too. But for him, the thought is overwhelming. Will being with family members who are partying trigger him to crave alcohol himself?
I do understand your feelings…
I do understand your feeling that Bill is taking all the “fun” out of the holiday for everyone else. If he were diagnosed with diabetes, for example, he wouldn’t expect the whole clan to forgo pumpkin pie! But the disease of addiction is different than other medical conditions, because it impacts the subconscious brain. Bill’s vulnerability is not like the desire for a sweet treat. It is his brain reacting in a compulsive way to emotional memories or triggers. The same memories you have about traditional drinking activities – but his are accompanied by the need to change ingrained patterns.
I would encourage you to reflect on why alcohol has become such an important part of the family festivities. After all, a card game can be raucous and fun with a cup of hot chocolate instead of a hot toddy.
Rae Green, JD, LPC, CAADC, Founder Sanford Behavioral Health
If Bill had a broken leg, the family would accommodate his injury by helping him into a chair or putting his leg up on a stool. Instead of touch football, the group might play darts or a card game. Bill deserves the same level of respect and compromise for his substance use disorder. By making family time alcohol free you are creating a safe space. And your abstinence is a gesture of support and acknowledgement.
Understand and support no alcohol holidays…
No one is asking you to quit drinking. They are just asking you not to indulge this holiday season – when you are together with the family. Alcohol is so prevalent. Especially from November to January! And 1 in 10 people in the U.S. will have a problem with drugs or alcohol at some point in their lives. What your cousin Bill is doing to change his life for the better is laudable and should be met with compassion. For him, finding others who understand and support his recovery is critical. As a family member, be one of those supporters.
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