I just got an email from my aunt saying our cousin (we’ll call him Bill) is in early recovery from addiction. She is imposing an alcohol-free holiday season starting with Halloween 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; we are a big, raucous family. I can’t imagine Halloween without those little trick-or-treat bottles of vodka, Thanksgiving without red wine, or Christmas Eve without eggnog. In the past, we have even had drinking games while we watched 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. Why am I being inconvenienced and penalized if Bill doesn’t want to drink anymore? Am I being unreasonable in thinking he should not drink or stay home this year and let the rest of the family continue our traditions?
Let’s start by recapping 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. Navigating the holidays in a newly sober state is no small matter. 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. But for him, the thought is overwhelming. Will being with family members who are partying trigger him to crave alcohol himself?
Alcohol-Free Holidays? I do understand your feelings.
I understand your feeling that Bill is taking all the “fun” out of the holiday season for everyone else. For example, if he were diagnosed with diabetes, he wouldn’t expect the whole clan to forgo pumpkin pie! However, the disease of addiction is different than other medical conditions because it impacts the subconscious brain. Bill’s vulnerability is unlike the desire for a sweet treat at Halloween. It is his brain reacting compulsively 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 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 acknowledgment.
Understand and Support Alcohol-Free Holidays
No one is asking you to quit drinking. Your aunt asks that you not to indulge this holiday season when you are with the family. Alcohol is so prevalent. Especially from Halloween to New Year’s Day! 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 improve his life 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. I wish you and your family a happy and healthy holiday season.
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