Surviving Holiday Season: Drunk Relatives

Whether you are recovering from alcoholism or simply have been dealing with drunk relatives for a lifetime, the holiday season poses extra challenges. You may still have fresh memories of hiring a handyman to fix the hole in your wall that resulted from the last family get-together. Susan Lederer, a licensed social worker with an office in Greenfield, MA, advises to "keep your expectations low."

Family Holiday Gatherings & Expectations

Lederer explains 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." 

After speaking with several therapists, I found a consensus that avoiding your family holiday gathering is the simplest, most direct way to stay out of confrontations with drunk relatives. However, many people feel compelled by the ritual and expectations of the holidays or simply choose to attend family gatherings.

Keep Yourself Safe

Douglas Grote, a drug and alcohol counselor in Greenfield, MA, advises that it is important to be aware ahead of time if the point of the gathering is getting drunk. "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 emphasizes that keeping yourself safe is a top priority. A practical suggestion is: "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 recommends letting family members know in advance what your plans are.

Even if your relatives 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."

 A Plan for Dealing with Drunk Relatives

If confronted by aggressive relatives, Douglas Grote advises, "Just try to not get them too excited. I know it's scary and frustrating. Engage, but don't confront."

Bunti Field, a counselor working with people who have experienced domestic violence, tells clients if they are going to have to deal with drunk relatives to "use emotional tai chi – and hide the keys." Do not meet aggressive energy with your own, but rather "step 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."

Drug and alcohol counselor Michele DiLisio adds, "It is helpful to strategize ahead of time. Make sure you have a back-up plan." DiLisio agrees that it is best to not play into antagonizing the person who is inebriated, especially if they are your parent. "You can always take a break; take a walk to defuse the situation."

Find a Recovery Meeting

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."

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.

Cris Carl is a Networx writer.

Updated November 28, 2018.

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