Most of the time, holidays like Thanksgiving are painted as idyllic and warm. Families on television might fight and laugh for comedic effect, but they always make up, and by the time dinner is on the table, everyone is full of laughter and smiles. Unfortunately, real life doesn’t always work out that way. You can’t pick blood relations, and not everyone will share the same ideals, political beliefs, or morals. The result can often be arguing, petty behavior, drinking, and other dysfunction around Thanksgiving.
As a normal person, this can be difficult to deal with. As a recovering alcoholic, it is even more so – largely because many of the emotions that dysfunctional family behavior creates are actually triggers for relapse. For example, stress is one of the leading contributors to both vulnerability to addiction and to relapse. If you know that your family is hard to be around over Thanksgiving, making plans and deciding how to cope will help you to stay sober over the holiday.
Coping with Family Members Drinking
Most of the time, people drink. An average 80% of the United States drinks at least occasionally, and numbers are often higher on holidays. Chances are that at least one member of your family drinks, and it’s more likely that all of them will. While you can ask your family to abstain from alcohol while you’re present, not all families are willing. And with many people addicted and dependent on alcohol, some of your family members may be in the same sort of situation you are trying to avoid. This can make spending time with them over Thanksgiving, when most are prone to drink more alcohol than usual, extremely difficult if you are recovering. To cope, try:
- Bringing your own beverages
- Writing a list of reasons to stay sober (what are your motivations?)
- Asking someone to be your sober buddy, so you have someone to talk to
- Planning to leave early if possible, the later it gets, the more tired you will be and therefore the more vulnerable to relapse
- Considering your relatives and who will pressure you to have alcohol. In most cases, people feel slightly guilty about drinking, especially to excess. Therefore, when someone tells them they aren’t drinking, it’s often taken as an insult, like you’re trying to be better than them. Planning polite rebuttals to possible things that people might say can help you to be more prepared when they do. Family members, especially those who aren’t aware you’re in recovery, may say things like “Just the once”, “it’s thanksgiving” “Spoilsport/party-pooper/etc.”, “what are you, pregnant?” Etc. Planning to say things politely like, “I’m sorry, I just don’t want any”, or “I’d rather not, but thank you”, and “I can’t drink”, without getting angry will help you to manage it better. Telling everyone upfront is always an advantage, so that you can approach them with a reminder if they offer you alcohol.
Coping with Triggers
Stress, loud noise, too much food, arguments, annoying family members, cleaning up – Thanksgiving can be great, but there are negative elements as well. It’s important to plan for triggers and plan how to cope with them. However, you should remember that not all triggers will involve the day, they might also involve memory triggers.
For example, if you’re accustomed to drinking to coping with family, it can be extremely difficult to deal with them without drinking. If you used to drink with your uncle, seeing him might set off cravings. If you used to drink at the place you’re going to, you might also be triggered.
Places, people, things, and discussion topics can all set off triggers, which then push you into a state of mind where it is very easy to relapse. Recognizing that and what is likely to push you into drinking, can help you to cope with it.
In most cases, you can plan to deal with triggers in healthy ways:
- Have a sober buddy to call
- Take time out. Attend an AA or 12 step meeting during the day if you can
- Take a walk, go to the gym, do some yoga, go for a hike with family, etc.
- Don’t overeat, and don’t starve yourself early on in the day
- Get plenty of sleep
- Drink water
- Meditate or practice mindfulness
- Avoid known triggers, like a room where you used to drink or cleaning the alcohol cabinet
Most cravings only really last for 10-15 minutes, after which they begin to fade. If you feel a craving for alcohol, do anything but drink. Go talk to a family member, ask your great aunt about her crochet project, go for a walk outside, help out in the kitchen, sit down to watch the game – do anything other than taking a drink, because the longer you wait, the easier it gets.
Making it Easier
Holidays should be fun, and just because you’re in recovery doesn’t mean that yours shouldn’t or won’t be. Chances are that you still get to spend time with family members you love, you can do a lot of things together (like prepare food, take walks, go to parties, etc.), and will have fun.
At the same time, you shouldn’t expect things that will make you happy to just happen. Try to plan for the day, and get family and friends onboard if you can. For example, if you want to exercise, you can try to organize a family game of football in the backyard or a family hike. You can plan to help out in the kitchen and take charge of making specific dishes. Or you can volunteer to help with cleanup. You can also take other steps like organizing board games, planning movies, or organizing a trip somewhere.
Family can be difficult and staying sober around them even more difficult (especially when they are drinking themselves) but with a little planning, you can do it and still have a good holiday. If you’re feeling unsure of yourself, your best option is to visit a 12-step group before going to your family, making sure you have a sober buddy you can call, and discussing your need to stay sober with your family before Thanksgiving festivities begin.
Good luck and enjoy your Thanksgiving