How to Make It Through the Holidays With an Addicted Family Member
If you dread celebrating the holidays when one of your family members is addicted, there are ways to reduce the risk of a major incident.
For many people, winter holiday celebrations wouldn’t be complete without mulled wine, hot toddies and champagne. It’s one thing to say “No thanks” if you’ve never had any serious desire to drink alcohol— but if you’re a recovering alcoholic, it may seem that the only safe place is inside your own home. If you do have that problem, our article “How to Celebrate the Holidays While in Recovery” may help.
Even worse is when someone else has the addiction— and it’s someone close to you, with no desire to change. Many a family holiday gathering has been ruined by one member who:
- Threw up on the dessert buffet
- Made a long, slurred, obscenity-filled speech about nothing
- Made a scene because the party lacked an open bar
- Brought an oversupply of his favorite drink and pressured everyone else to share it
- Put up a fight when told she was in no shape to drive
If any of these sound familiar, and if you feel personally responsible for the guilty party, you may be wanting to hide under your bed until January 2—or to stage a premature and poorly managed sobriety intervention. (See “How to Plan a Family Intervention in 10 Simple Steps” on the right way to manage an intervention—which should never be a rush job.)
Fortunately, there are other options. Here are some tips on how to make it through the holidays with an addicted family member— without either abetting their problem or feeling guilty about not abetting it.
BE A DISCERNING HOST
If you’re in charge of the family gathering, try leaving alcohol off the menu entirely. There’s no law that says you have to serve wine or rum punch: just choose good alternate food-and-drink options (including non-alcoholic “mocktails”), and remove all alcohol from your house even if you didn’t plan to serve it. Also, put interesting activities besides eating on the party agenda.
If others will bring menu contributions, the situation can get trickier. You can’t always tell everyone what not to bring, and many people don’t listen anyway. Best bet is to set up an online chart with the categories “Appetizer,” “Vegetable,” “Main Course” and “Dessert,” and ask everyone to write in what they plan to bring. This sends the subtle message that you’ll take care of the beverages. It also keeps the menu from leaning too heavily toward any one type of contribution.
If, despite your best efforts, someone shows up with a gift bottle of wine, thank them and whisk it off to some remote corner where you’ll have a chance to dispose of it later without your addicted family member ever seeing it. (It might be a good idea to eliminate gift-exchange games from the party entertainment, just in case.)
WHEN NOT TO INVITE SOMEONE
All the above works best if the family member with the addiction can be trusted to behave when alcohol isn’t easily available. If they have a history of showing up already drunk, or of loudly demanding to know where the booze is, being fair to everyone else may require you leave them off the guest list altogether.
If the idea makes you feel guilty, remember:
- Allowing someone to experience negative consequences may be the kindest thing you can do. So long as you go out of your way to help them feel everything is fine, you’re actually enabling the addiction to continue, which will only do more harm in the long run.
- You have a responsibility to all your guests, not just the one with the addiction. It’s not fair to make 30 well-behaved people uncomfortable for the sake of one unreliable person.
- You aren’t responsible for—or capable of—“making” your family member behave in public. Exercise control where you can— on the guest list.
Occasionally, the situation isn’t even that simple: your family member may be the type who shows up anyway, especially after having too much to drink. Don’t think you can keep the party a secret from that one person. Depending on your situation, the best solution may be to:
- Skip hosting the big party altogether (perhaps substituting a small dessert-and-coffee gathering). Recommended if you have any reason to suspect that other guests are getting tired of the huge annual gathering anyway.
- Avoid serving alcohol at the party, and if your family member shows up and complains, limit your reply to a firm, “Sorry, we don’t have any.”
- Play the role of “bouncer” (perhaps enlisting another relative to help) and tell all crashers, politely but firmly, that you’re full and can’t let them in.
One more thing. If an addicted family member (or a non-addicted one, for that matter) does get drunk at the party and then refuses to listen to “don’t drive home” arguments, be brave enough to tell them you’ll report them to the police if they get behind the wheel, and to do it. Yes, it feels horrible to think of a loved one’s being arrested, but not as horrible as if you learned the next day that they (or an innocent stranger they hit) had been killed on the way home.
ACCOMPANYING AN ADDICTED FAMILY MEMBER TO AN EVENT
After all that, you may be thinking that nothing will get you to host a gathering this year. Which is fine, but you may still have to deal with being the guest—in the company of your addicted family member. Hints for such a situation:
- Consider not going at all. If you can’t convince your family member to do something else together, find some “you go ahead” excuse. There’s no sense burdening yourself.
- If you do go together, try to keep your family member’s attention on non-drinking activities—and if they nonetheless proceed in the wrong direction, occupy yourself elsewhere.
- If anyone tries to engage you in gossip about your family member’s behavior, dismiss it with, “You’ll have to ask him.” Discuss the problem (preferably in private) only with those who genuinely want to help.
- Never, under any circumstances, let your family member drive you home if they get drunk. As above, call the police if you have to.
HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS—WITH AN ADDICTION
Even if you never wind up at a party with the addicted member of your household, it still hurts when they skip Christmas Eve family dinner and come staggering home long after Santa has returned to the North Pole. However, you needn’t let your relative’s behavior destroy all your holiday cheer. Here are a few ways to salvage some joy:
- Reserve a daily quiet hour for meditating on the deeper meaning of the season.
- Take the kids on a holiday-decorations tour.
- Attend holiday events at your support group.
- Volunteer at a toy drive, food kitchen or homeless shelter—you might even meet someone who’s on the recovery journey and has additional insights to help your addicted loved one.
- Finally, make a New Year’s resolution never to give up on your family member—or yourself.
For more information on how to help a recovering family member through the holidays, check out our Learning Center article, How to Help a Recovering Loved One Cope With Holiday Triggers.