This is a tough time of year for us sober folks. Whether you’re 5 or 10 years sober or only 6 months in, the holidays can really test your resolve. Especially this year where most of us are trying to survive more pandemic lockdowns.
I’m almost 5 years sober, and I can say that the holidays are a little better now, but it hasn’t been easy. I also had to make some tough choices, especially since alcohol is the holiday staple in my family.
Many people who struggle with alcohol issues come from a long line of family alcoholism. So going home for the holidays or spending time with family can be really triggering.
For me, family holidays always revolved around alcohol. They still do. Which is why I don’t spend much time with family the way I used to. This is not because I don’t love them, I adore them. But in order to take care of myself, I need to limit the time I spend witnessing heavy drinking and having to manage my feelings because of it.
For some families, alcohol causes a lot of drama and maybe even violence. Sometimes there were fights or overreactions in my family. But mostly we got drunk, laughed a lot, and repeated the same stories over and over. I mean, I’m grateful we weren’t a violent alcoholic family, in fact, we had some really happy moments. But that doesn’t mean damage wasn’t done by placing alcohol above anyone or anything else.
When I look back on our holidays, I see that my child self had to accept that alcohol came first, and everything else came second. So, I learned that I always came second, or maybe third or fourth depending on how hungover everyone was the next day.
It was really hard for my kid self to manage things when the adults were all drunk. It also meant that no one was actually present in a meaningful way.
As I grew up, I thought the only way to make peace with this, was to deny it and join in. And I actually had quite a bit of fun once I was old enough to start drinking. When everyone was drunk, we could all laugh at things and forget about responsibilities or pressures.
But then one by one, family members started dying or getting sick. I got sick. And I plummeted into worsening addiction, which began to ruin my life. The house of cards created by alcohol toppled down. When I got sober, I saw the reality of this situation, and it sat so heavy on my chest I felt I couldn’t breathe. Family holidays went from being a fun memory to a sad one. I also had to admit that I made a choice to join in with the drinking. No one forced me to decide, I did that all on my own. So not only was I sad for my kid self, I was sad about the adult decisions I’d made.
Sometimes sobriety is complicated by these dynamics, particularly around family holidays that are supposed to be “happy.”
For me, there was only one way to cope with this and protect my sobriety. Feel the pain, then create some distance. By distance, I mean, if I do go to holiday dinners, I leave by 9pm before everyone gets drunk. And when I say, “feel the pain,” I mean that I allow myself to feel the sadness and anger at how family holidays revolved around alcohol. And I make the decision every day not to deny the reality of what alcoholism has done to all of us.
If you’re sober (especially if you’re newly sober) and you have family holidays that revolve around alcohol, know that you have options and choices you can make. You also have rights when it comes to protecting yourself and your sobriety.
Some of these rights include:
- You’re allowed to create boundaries, which may involve some amount of distance between you and your family during the holidays.
- You’re not required to bring alcohol for anyone else.
- You’re not required to stay past a particular hour or even show up at all.
- You’re allowed to defend yourself when pushed about why you’re not drinking.
- You do not have to stay silent when other people’s drinking causes any pain or suffering.
- You’re not required to participate in any conversation or activity that becomes uncomfortable due to excessive drunkenness.
Knowing these rights may help you make some important decisions. For example, you may feel that you need a timeline for how long you can stay at family holiday gatherings.
You may also need to get clear on what your boundaries are and what exactly you’ll do if they’re crossed.
Maybe you need to bring a support person with you so you can make it through the event. Or perhaps you need to decide if going to the event is worth testing your sobriety or sanity at all.
Whatever you decide, know that this is perfectly ok, and you don’t need to explain it to anyone. Know that you may be questioned and pushed by family members. Or you may be shamed in a more subtle, passive-aggressive way. But still, you don’t owe anything to anyone but yourself.
Treat your sobriety as a gift, a treasure that you must protect.
Family holidays may continue to revolve around alcohol, but that doesn’t mean your holiday needs to continue revolving around alcohol too.