Whether you are recovering from alcoholism or simply have been dealing with drunk relatives for a lifetime, the holiday season poses extra challenges. Susan Lederer, a licensed social worker with an office in Greenfield, MA, advises to "keep your expectations low."
Lederer said that the onslaught of "happy families" that appear on holiday movies and specials tend to raise unrealistic expectations. "Everybody sees the holiday shows and longs for that fantasy family," she said.
After speaking with several therapists, I found a consensus that avoiding your family holiday gathering is the simplest, most direct way to avoid confrontations with drunk relatives. However, many people feel compelled by the ritual and expectations of the holidays or simply feel obligated to attend family gatherings.
Douglas Grote, a drug and alcohol counselor in Greenfield, MA, said that it is important to be aware ahead of time if the point of the gathering is getting drunk. Lederer added, "You can also bring a friend or a sponsor if you are in recovery. It's good having someone with you who understands, especially if you are trying to stay sober yourself."
Lederer emphasized that keeping yourself safe is a top priority. A practical suggestion was, "It's good to create parameters and limits. Only visit for a couple of hours, no matter how much they cajole you to stay longer." Lederer added that it is good to let family members know in advance what your plans are.
Even if your family members are coming to visit you, Lederer suggests that limits can still be placed. "You can tell family members that you are having an 'open house' between certain hours only," she said.
If confronted by aggressive relatives, Douglas Grote suggested, "Just try to not get them too excited. I know it's scary and frustrating. Engage, but don't confront."
Bunti Field, a counselor who has worked with people who have experienced domestic violence for the past 11 years, said she tells people if they are going to have to deal with drunk relatives to "use emotional tai chi – and hide the keys."
Field said that "emotional tai chi" is the idea of not meeting aggressive energy with your own, but rather "stepping out of the way metaphysically...You don't have to take their need for aggression. You choose whether to be a part of a bad situation or not," she said.
Drug and alcohol counselor Michele DiLisio said, "It is helpful to strategize ahead of time. Have a couple of strategies. Make sure you have a back-up plan." DiLisio also agreed that it is best to not play into antagonizing the person who is inebriated, especially if they are a parent. "You can always take a break; take a walk to defuse the situation," she said.
For those who are in recovery, DiLisio recommends going to an AA meeting before or after the event. "And if you have to stay over, check ahead of time to see what meetings are in the area," she said.
Everyone interviewed agreed that you don't want to be fuel for an explosive situation. The bottom line is that planning ahead is the best thing you can do to protect yourself during the holiday season.