‘Tis the season when the spiked eggnog, hard cider, and hot buttered rum are flowing. At office parties everywhere, coworkers will be pushing drinks, unwittingly or wittingly, on their recovering alcoholic colleagues. To offer some strategies for getting out of a party with your sobriety intact, I wrote Holiday Parties a few years back.
But that’s not the real bane of Christmas.
There’s also that obligatory holiday spirit crap attacking your serenity. You’re supposed to feel a certain way. Something’s wrong with you if those Sinatra/ Crosby/ Cole clichés piped into practically every public space don’t incite in you fond recollections of some Rockwellian ideal you’ve never really lived — the chestnuts not roasting on your open fire, that cheery ring-a-ling of sleigh bells you’ve never even remotely heard, and, of course, your deep reverence for the virgin birth that fuels smiles at… uh… bustling shoppers. Not so much.
Even if you enjoy it, there’s no denying that, particularly in the US, Christmas amounts to a ridiculous spectacle of compulsory consumerism. It’s an orgy of buying, an onslaught of marketing, with the omnipresent need to fill wrapped packages under a mandatory tree. And it’s never quite enough. Every year, tens of millions of us overspend in an effort to conform — which adds up to financial stress.
Wasn’t it just a few months ago that you packed away those lights, ornaments, and various kitchy nutcrackers, etc., back into their faded, half-torn boxes? Now you’re supposed to not only get them all out again but feel excited and seasonally schmoozy while doing so.
Please, dear god — why??
Alcoholics need to place their serenity foremost. This means we recognize the pressures that disturb us, triggering feelings of frustration, not-enoughness, not-a part-of, or just plain loneliness. For many, the holidays trigger all of the above. But more than parties or overspending or obligatory cheer in the darkest part of the year, what most threatens our serenity amid the holidays are the stresses of…
Rarely does the stork drop off a lone alcoholic-addict in an otherwise functional, mindful, emotionally honest and loving family — if any such families exist.
Most of us grew up in homes where one or both parents drank, where the truth remained veiled and no one modeled emotional availability or loved us unconditionally as our authentic, vulnerable selves. Rather, we and our siblings learned to jump through life’s countless hoops using fabulous springboards like selfishness, self-seeking manipulation, and dishonesty, playing a role nonstop in an effort to wrestle from life what we thought we needed to survive — a battle we drank to escape.
In other words, families were the very hotbeds where we generated all our character defects, all that we’ve since dredged up in our 4th and 5th steps so we could open them to god in the 6th and 7th, asking to be relieved of an approach to life that no longer served us. Every day and in every meeting, we strive for more rigorous honesty to further our spiritual progress.
But then along come the holidays, and we have to head back to that swampy hotbed where, often, no one else has changed. Siblings, parents, and other relatives continue to follow whatever works for them — frequently a continuous pursuit of short-term feel-good. Some will still be chasing feel-good, as we used to, through alcohol and drugs. But there’s a myriad of other ways to chase it: being smarter than everyone else, or more successful or hip, or politically goading others. Egos will be crowding the house, overreaching one another, whether in loud, competitive conversation or exchanges of subtle smirks.
So… here we stand on the banks of this oh-so-familiar swamp, the old emotional reflexes itching to kick in, the family calling to us, “Jump on in! The slime is great! Play your damn role!”
What do we do, alcoholics?! Do we chameleon our former selves? Do we judge with spiritual superiority? Or do we dig deep and practice…
Up until 2013, I’d have told you here that “all you need is love.” I’d have claimed that if you didn’t enjoy yourself around family, the problem lay in your holding on to resentments or self-pity. But today I call bullshit on that view.
Sick people hurt others. Toxic people spread poison. To every wild creature, god has given means of self-defense or escape. And to sober people dealing with alcoholism-affected family, god has given boundaries.
How do we practice boundaries? There are two basic steps:
- Know who you are and that you’re okay, flaws and all. In other words, carry with you a sense of what matters to you, how you respect and treat others, and how you require others to respect and treat you. Claim your space. But… temper this with a sense of humor and awareness that the flaws we notice most in others tend to mirror our own. For example, if I’m annoyed that my cousin is hogging the dinner table’s attention, it’s probably because I want to do it! Humor and humility let me replace that annoyance with compassion.
- Know when someone is infringing on your dignity/space. If someone keeps running over your foot with a lawnmower, it’s up to you to move your foot. If you’ve previously asked the person not to run over your foot, and yet you see them heading down a line that’s gonna intersect with it again, then withdraw your damn foot! For me, this means I no longer attend functions at which the lawnmowing person will be present. For you, it may mean leaving before a certain person gets drunk.
Love and tolerance is our code – now and always. But that love must include ourselves, and that tolerance an admission that some vulnerabilities and triggers persist despite all our work. Just walking into a house where trauma occurred can be exhausting.
So, as with any dicy situation, have a plan in place before you go. Bring your own Martinelli’s — lots of it. If alone, text sober friends ahead of time that you may be calling. If with a partner, have a “safe phrase” that means “I need to get the hell out of here.” Then smile, say your goodbyes, and get the hell out!
If you find yourself out of sorts, get your ass to a meeting. Most Alano Clubs and big meetings host all-hours alcathons throughout the holidays. Go. Sit down. Be initially disappointed that the group appears small and motley, or huge and you don’t know many. But just sit there, just listen, and let the feeling of sober sanity and spiritual guidance seep in through your skin.
Reach out to someone with kindness. We all struggle with this holiday stuff. You are never alone. ❤