Family can be great. Family can also be difficult. More often than not, they’re both. And during the holidays, all of that can be exacerbated—especially if you’re the only person in your family who no longer drinks. Yep, that’s me.
Although my family was there for me when I went through rehab and subsequently gave up alcohol, they also still see no problem in openly drinking in front of me (especially my dad, who loves his Long Island Iced Teas and doesn’t hold back on my account). That’s why I’ve had to develop certain strategies for protecting my sobriety when seeing family during the holidays. Sometimes that has meant saying “no” to going out to dinner at a restaurant where I know drinking is the main event (like a brewery). Other times that’s meant making sure that I’m leaving early… you know, before people start in on their third or fourth round. Or sometimes, that means skipping out on the event entirely.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t still love my family or that they aren’t supportive of my sobriety. But it does mean that I need to take extra steps to make sure that I stay sober during the holidays. You might, too.
These are my nine tips for surviving the holidays with family who are, well, less than sober.
1. Get mentally prepared for questions.
Although it’s truly none of their business: Your friends and family will probably ask everything from innocent and mundane questions to borderline offensive questions about your sobriety. Try to take it in stride—you are living a badass and enviable lifestyle, most people asking are probably just curious (or perhaps questioning their own drinkings habits). And, yes, you will likely be asked the same questions over and over again. It helps to mentally prepare for it now so you’re not caught off guard.
Here’s a tip: Set boundaries early about whether or not you actually want to answer questions. If you don’t, that’s okay. Have a phrase, like “actually, let’s just celebrate the holidays and not talk about that right now,” ready. Otherwise, I suggest being honest and respectful—especially for your own sake. Have a few key points about your sobriety journey at the ready but don’t elaborate unless you really want to.
For instance, when family members ask me if I want to have “just one drink,” I reply with a simple “no, I’m much happier now that I don’t drink alcohol.” If they follow up with a “but one won’t hurt you,” I simply say, “and not having one won’t hurt me either, but thanks.”
2. Remember that it’s only temporary.
For all of those not-so-great questions (and, occasionally, comments), I find that it’s best to try to keep some psychological distance from the family drama. If I’m feeling shaky, I try not in engage in the debates, or the gossip, or the rehashing of old wounds. I set my limits and don’t let anyone drag me into a conversation that is just going to stir up trouble.
But you have to identify your own limits. Remember that it’s not uncommon to have difficult or tricky family relationships, especially during the holidays, but the most important part here is you and your sobriety. Before going into a family situation, remind yourself that you will only be there for a short while and you can make the best of it—so long as everyone respects you, too.
If you ever find yourself in a family situation that is making you particularly uncomfortable, have an action plan. A simple “excuse me, I’m going to get some air” and stepping outside for a few minutes might do the trick to help you reset. Take a moment to breathe deeply or call someone in your support system. Whether that’s your sponsor or a good friend doesn’t matter, just so long as you have someone to talk with if you’re feeling particularly anxious. If that’s not enough, remember; you can always, always leave (more on that later).
3. Have a plan if things get uncomfortable.
Although you can try to make the best of a tricky situation, I always advise anyone in recovery to have a game plan for if and when things go south. What are you going to do when someone mindlessly offers you a drink or passes the wine bottle around the dinner table? Or what happens when your dad gets drunk (again) and playfully jokes about your drinking?
A plan is essential for situations like this so that you are mentally and emotionally prepared to deal with whatever comes your way. My backup plan usually includes a supportive friend or even a particular relative whom I can turn to if I am feeling at risk in my sobriety or just feeling uncomfortable. Ideally, this person can comfort you and help you escape the situation—which is why I’d highly recommend either someone who is also sober or someone who is wholly supportive of your sobriety.
And again, not enough can be said for simply leaving the family gathering earlier than expected. Nothing is worth risking your sobriety. Not even grandma being upset with you because you didn’t stay through dinner. So, if you’re having a tough time, acknowledge that and then leave. Have your backup buddy either help you out the door or pick you up if they are not physically there with you. If they can’t get there quickly enough or you drove, then leave your family party while keeping your sober buddy on the phone.
4. Know what you’re drinking ahead of time.
Before I go anywhere as a sober person, I try to make sure that there will be non-alcoholic options. (Although this shouldn’t be something I have to check!) I once saw a comedy special with John Mulaney in which he joked that now that he’s sober, whenever he goes to a party people seem to forget the existence of any non-alcoholic drinks. As funny as he makes the bit, it’s something that can be all too true.
So, when in doubt, make sure that you bring along something for yourself. Whether that’s soda or sparkling water with lime or (my favorite) a half-iced tea and half-lemonade concoction commonly known as an Arnold Palmer, you’ll be doing yourself a grand favor when your uncle looks at you and awkwardly says, “Um, so what can you drink?”
5. Offer to help with dishes (or the kids).
One way to keep yourself entertained and busy during any family gatherings, and potentially out of the way of anyone who is maybe having a bit too much during the festivities, is to offer to help the host. I find that offering to do things like help set up the table, load the dishwasher, or take care of the little kids tends to help me more than anyone else.
When I was drinking, I wasn’t really able to contribute to family gatherings, so it feels good to make up for that while also staying occupied. Helping out keeps my hands busy and lets me avoid just sitting around and watching my family drink. Or, worse, engaging in those awkward conversations I mentioned earlier.
6. Understand that not everyone is going to “get it.”
You know the old saying—you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. So, although you may have been able to let go of toxic friendships after getting sober, you might not have been able to cut out all family members.
If you come face-to-face with them during the holidays, the best thing to do is just acknowledge in your own mind that not everyone is going to understand your reasons for going sober and that’s okay. You just have to see them this one time of the year (hopefully) and it’s not worth it to throw yourself into emotional turmoil trying to make someone try to understand. You just keep doing what’s right for you.
7. Show love, but keep your boundaries.
One of the biggest things that I’ve learned since entering recovery is how important it is to incorporate gratitude into my daily life. For instance, I’m grateful for my wonderful husband, who gave up alcohol a month after meeting me and learning that I was a recovering alcoholic. I’m also grateful for my father’s financial help throughout the years, including helping me pay for rehab when I so badly needed it.
But feeling love and gratitude for your family doesn’t mean that you should put them ahead of yourself and your sobriety. That must always, and I mean always, come first. It’s okay to love your family, and also set boundaries with them.
No matter how much they supported you not drinking in the past, that doesn’t mean that you are obligated to spend time with them now. It’s okay to say, “mom, I will come for Christmas dinner but leave before dessert,” because you know that’s when things get rowdy or “dad, I will visit this holiday season but I am going to get my own hotel,” because you know that staying in the same house as your parents is not a good idea.
At the end of the day, don’t let anyone force you to be with your family longer than you want to be. Only you know what’s right for you, and for many of us, that means spending less time with our biological family so that we can spend more time with our chosen family (or ourselves).
8. Plan for your exit early.
A big strategy for me in dealing with family over the holidays is not only to have that backup plan, but to also have an exit strategy. This usually means that I’ve decided well ahead of time at what point during the night I plan to leave. Sometimes this means “stay no longer than 11 p.m.” and sometimes it means “leave right after we finish dinner and I help with dishes.”
But no matter what, it can be important to exit early from family gatherings during the holidays because it’s late at night when people can reach for that extra drink and things can get… unpleasant. If your family is the type to drink openly in front of you, then this is particularly crucial. Make sure you know you have a safe way to get home before you even get there so you aren’t endangering yourself if you decide to split.
9. STAY STRONG (and treat yourself).
The number one thing you must remember is that you have to stay strong against alcohol. You’ve made the decision to stop, take comfort in that. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that it’s “no big deal” and that you can have “just one drink.”
For many of us, that’s simply not true and no family member or awkward situation is worth risking your sobriety. You know yourself better than anyone else, so be realistic. If being around family for the holidays is just too risky this year, don’t do it. It is absolutely okay not to visit family for the holidays. But if you do, then it’s okay to leave early and also to treat yourself afterwards.
You know what my favorite thing to do is after a full day of family time? Take a bubble bath. I get home, fill up my bathtub with lavender-scented bubbles and water so hot that it almost burns my skin off, and I get in there for at least half an hour with a good book and some homemade iced tea. But whatever your favorite self-care routine is, I highly recommend you do something just for you afterward.
At the end of the day, only you know yourself and your family situation—and, in particular, how your family deals with your sobriety or how secure you are in your sobriety and able to handle a lot of family time. Don’t let anyone pressure you into doing something you’re uncomfortable with, like sitting and chatting for hours on end with your increasingly-getting-drunker-second cousin.
You can still love your family while also recognizing that you love yourself and need to do what’s best for you. So, take care of yourself and don’t be afraid to limit that holiday family time as needed. After all, only you are responsible for your sobriety. Keep it that way.