Holidays and alcohol: Dealing with a family member with alcohol problems

Almost every family has stories about that relative who drinks a little too much at holiday gatherings and make the celebration interesting at best, but in the worst case scenarios made things uncomfortable for everyone involved. Perhaps you only see this person once a year, and major holidays like Christmas and New Year’s; or, perhaps you see them every holiday gathering large and small.

The holidays are a time of celebration and excess, especially with alcohol. In fact, it seems like some holidays are designed specifically to boost alcohol consumption, such as St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo.

For some people the holidays are an opportunity to let go, and do things they might not otherwise do. For these people excess alcohol consumption can lead to uncharacteristic behavior that doesn’t occur at other times of year.

For others, drinking to excess at the holidays are just an extension of an existing alcohol problem, and their behavior while drunk is something the family has come to expect that every gathering.

The girls which category your family member falls into, here are some tips for dealing with a family member that tends to go overboard at holiday gatherings.

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Things You Can Do For Yourself

Set Realistic Expectations

While you might really hope that Uncle John will take it easy this year the reality is that, if Uncle John has unaddressed issues with alcohol, he probably won’t. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have the right to wish Uncle John would behave better, only that you also need to accept that unless and until Uncle John decides to change, he is who he is. You facing the truth of the situation, rather than relying on wishful thinking, can actually make it easier for you to cope with Uncle John when things go pear-shaped. Also realize that Uncle John very well could surprise you; however, for your own sanity, prepare yourself for what is most likely to happen, instead of what you wish would happen.


Set Boundaries

Just because you are willing to accept that Uncle John is going to get drunk and behave badly doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. This could mean finding ways to gently redirect the conversation if it starts veering into uncomfortable territory, finding ways to avoid being left alone with Uncle John when he’s drunk, quietly taking your leave if things get too hairy, or even calmly putting him into a cab and sending him home. You don’t want to make a scene, start a fight, or leave someone else in danger, but there are ways that you can set boundaries to cause yourself as little stress as possible.


Relinquish Control

There’s an old saying that it takes two to tango. Uncle John might get unpleasant when he’s drunk, but it’s also the actions and reactions of the people around him that can actually make the situation worse. It’s only natural to try to control and moderate someone’s behavior, especially if that behavior is disagreeable, but sometimes it’s even better to simply disengage. If Uncle John says something inflammatory, try shrugging it off instead of confronting him. If he does something embarrassing, try distancing yourself and moving on to something else. Of course, if his behavior is abusive, or in any other way unbearable, you always have the option to leave. If you believe that his behavior is dangerous, try not to escalate the situation, and calmly call for help.


Exercise Your Right to Say No

If you truly believe that being in the same place with Uncle John is more than you can bear, understand that you do have the right to say no. Perhaps pull the host aside and calmly explain why you won’t be attending, and make alternate plans for getting together with that person when Uncle John is not around. Sometimes other family members need you there to help defuse the situation; however, your first responsibility is to yourself and ensuring your own mental health, and that could mean leaving them to deal with the situation alone. If you don’t feel comfortable saying no, then set a limit for how long you will stay at the gathering, and stick to it.


Things You Can Do for Your Relative

Allow Him to Surprise You

It’s entirely possible that Uncle John has had an epiphany and decided to go into recovery. He could show up at the family gathering alcohol free and ready to turn over a new leaf. Maybe you have a hard time believing that a tiger can change his stripes, but anything is possible. Maybe it took him years to get there, but he’s finally making an effort.

If he says he is sober, be supportive and accepting. Take the chance on believing him and he just might surprise you by staying sober all evening.


Leave the Past in the Past

It could be tempting to remind him of all the times that he messed up in the past; you might even think that you’re helping him stay sober. In reality, those reminders could cause him more stress and even trigger a relapse.

Focus on Uncle John’s behavior now, and try to avoid focusing a lot of attention on the fact that he’s not drinking now, and how much he used to drink before. Unless he wants to talk about his recovery, try to find other topics like the things that you always wished you could talk to him about at past gatherings.

If you really need to talk to him about his past actions, do so after the holidays when things are a little less stressful. Chances are, he would like to make amends for his past behavior, but a family gathering is not the time or place to initiate that process.


Be Understanding and Proactive

Recovery is a long and difficult process, and the holidays are especially stressful for people with drug and alcohol issues. Despite his best effort, Uncle John might slip, and being understanding rather than blaming can go a long way toward keeping the situation from escalating. For example, if he gets drunk, rather than accuse him of ruining the family dinner, simply suggest that he looks unwell and it would be good for him to go home and lie down. Chances are he feels bad about slipping, so if you show that you understand that these things happen and that you are just concerned about him getting better, he will feel that you are on his side and will be less likely to get defensive.



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