John F. Kelly Ph.D., ABPP

Addiction & Recovery 101

To Drink or Not to Drink Around Sober People

Balancing holiday parties with guests in recovery.

Posted Dec 21, 2018

Addiction is a three-fold illness: “Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s”.  Or at least so goes the common jest among some recovering persons this time of year. This witticism, however, reflects a more serious challenge that is faced by many recovering people as the Holiday Season festivities heat up and drinking takes a central and increasingly popular place in the proceedings.

Between the rush of holiday parties and family get-togethers, an unsettling question often arises among family members and friends too as they wonder what they should do about their own drinking, when around a recovering friend or family member.

Should everyone abstain from alcohol to support the friend or family member? Or, is it the responsibility of the individual in recovery to cope with the realities of such inevitable occasions?

This question gets commonly played out in real life, and in increasing ways, as more individuals decide to disclose their recovery identities more openly. In many cases, it can create awkward situations where a sensitive host may anxiously rush to stash away any visible alcohol and corresponding paraphernalia, while other guests assume a library whisper or begin a text message chain to decide amongst themselves whether they too should refrain from drinking.

Source: CANVA

In treatment settings, we attempt to teach our patients who suffer from an alcohol use disorder to cope with the realities of an alcohol-infused world. Just like any other illness from which people can suffer, it is ultimately the responsibility of the individual themselves to learn about how to manage the illness and keep it in remission. Having said that, we also know clearly that certain environments, occasions, and people, can help or hinder recovery. Family and friends, often having suffered greatly too from their loved-one’s drinking, may find this a worrisome time of year, wondering how their newly sober loved-one might cope. They often desperately want to do the right thing but are unsure which tack to take.

So what do you do when inviting a guest that is in recovery?

How can family and friends approach supporting someone, while also balancing the drinking desire of other guests who enjoy alcohol and have never suffered from an alcohol problem?

As usual, the answer is nuanced, and depends on many factors. But there are some general points that might be made.

Among recovering individuals themselves, in order to reduce risks, some choose only to attend sober parties or events. In some instances, family and friends may choose to hold their parties without alcohol, or at least downplay the central role that drinking might take. This can mean beefing up the non-alcoholic drink selection and offering more food options or other treats. If recovering individuals do attend drinking parties, they may ask to bring a +1 who can be an ally in recovery or make a plan ahead of time on what to do if they feel uncomfortable, so they can exit easily without worry or fuss (“bring a parachute”). Others in recovery, have more time or experience in dealing comfortably with such events, and may feel confident in their recovery while being around others who drink.

One patient told me that his father – who he knew liked a drink - always abstained when they were together in drinking situations out of solidarity and support for his son. He just quietly did it. Didn’t make a big deal about it. Yet, the patient reported that having at least one other supportive “abstainer” with him made him feel better and more comfortable.

Source: CANVA

Another consideration is that while some individuals may be open about their recovery, some individuals may not be comfortable sharing knowledge of their status or struggles, and instead prefer to remain incognito and just blend in with everyone else. In such instances, it may be best to make no special accommodations for the individual; doing so would only increase a potentially unwelcome focus for that person. In other cases, it will be very much appreciated to offer alternatives in both focus and activity to create a fun and inclusive environment.

The key to all this, is whenever possible, to have an open, respectful, and direct conversation with the individual in recovery, and simply ask them how they feel about alcohol being present and/or other guests drinking. As awkward as it may be to have this conversation, leaving this conversation unsaid can potentially put the individual’s health and safety at risk, or lead to a worrisome and unenjoyable night for you. Such a conversation is best conducted well in advance of the gathering, allowing clear expectations to be set for all attendees, and giving you the time to balance different wants and needs that will surely arise.

Planning ahead helps ensure that guests won’t arrive to the party with a “30-pack” and a plan to get hammered, and the individual in recovery has time to make an informed decision about whether, or for how long, to attend.

It is helpful to be sensitive about this issue, as so much is at stake, but to also remember that it is that person’s own responsibility to manage their recovery.

Drinking is a holiday tradition for many families, but traditions can also transform and change over time. Many may not know that about one-third of U.S. adults report consuming no alcohol at all in the past year. This rises to about 40% among women. You may find that in steering the focus of a social gathering or party away from alcohol to try to help a recovering person, that you are catering to more than just the individual in recovery.

The point of all this, don’t forget, is to enjoy the holidays. How those in recovery and those who care about them navigate this with at least some degree of comfort, is highly varied. This may require opening new lines of communication that brings you out of your comfort zone. Speaking to other families or friends who have gone through this is likely to yield many more strategies and ideas if you are struggling yourself with what to do. Ultimately, however, communicating directly and planning ahead will help avoid problems later. Ultimately, the recovering person has the responsibility to take care of themselves; but family and friends can definitely help. So with the three-fold trilogy of the holiday season upon us, as many reach for a drink, let’s also remember to reach out to each other, especially those in recovery.

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