13 Tips for Dealing with Your Family on Thanksgiving...Sober

By Helaina Hovitz 11/21/17

Fast forward in time—in a few hours, it will all be over. This evening will be a blip in your memory. You’ll still be sober, and you’ll be back to your normal life.

A family arguing around the dinner table.

As sober adults, family can be one of our biggest triggers, right up there with romantic relationships and their pitfalls. Whether you’ve got 1 day clean or 30 years under your belt, the craving to spike your soda or make a beeline to the nearest wine bar can rise to the surface when a relative gets under your skin.

In a recent study, 49% of respondents acknowledged they drink during family events to make their loved ones more tolerable; when the question was asked of people whose families frequently or always drink together, that percentage rose to 63%. Based on those statistics alone, it's likely that at least some of your family members will be relying on this coping mechanism to make it through the holidays.

So this Thanksgiving, if you are the only sober person at the table—especially if you’re surrounded by people you specifically needed to drink around in order to tolerate—try these tips. They're tried and true, and if you practice them, you may even risk having a good time.

  1. Pretend you’re watching someone else’s family. Totally detach from it. You’re an alien who just arrived and you’re just in awe of everything that’s happening. If someone talks to you directly, nod and smile just a little too widely.
  1. Indulge the unsolicited, and often insulting, advice. Don’t one-up it, that riles them up. If someone comments on your weight, your job, your relationship status, simply say “You’re right, thank you so much!” Keep repeating it until they’re done and they’ve run out of ways to repeat themselves. They will eventually become exhausted and move on.
  1. Take breaks to text your crew. Whether it’s fellow sober friends or your hilarious bestie, make sure you know who will be available when and go in with a game plan. Let them know to expect venting and what you’ll need—advice, humor, just someone to receive all of the drama on the other end without saying a word, and offer to be the same for them.
  1. Remember that when someone points a finger at you, there are four pointing back at them. Well...three, unless you count the thumb, but does that point back at you? Anyway, a lot of the time, when we criticize other people or offer unwanted advice, it’s usually because--and bear with me here--it’s something we find either intolerable with ourselves, regret doing or not doing in our past, or have some sort of issue with. Try to foster compassion for this when your aunt calls you an overweight old fart who never goes out anymore. Compassion.
  1. Similarly: it can be hard to imagine, but often when people offer us unwanted advice that is stressful, critical, or downright insulting, they actually mean well; they just don’t have the awesome communication tools you do to express it in a kind but honest way, and to somehow set their filter to process the magic three questions we learn in sobriety: “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said now?” Your relatives will always likely assume, automatically, that all three are a yes and just go for it with whatever pops into their heads. Try to see if there is any way you can weed out the good intention and focus on that. This doesn’t mean you become a doormat and let people walk all over you—politely suggest that you pick up the conversation in private at another time. Then go ahead and enter witness protection.
  1. If you need to tune out while you’re sitting down and there’s no clear escape, sing your favorite song in your head or count backwards from 300 by multiples of 7.
  1. Fast forward in time—in a few hours, it will all be over. This evening will be a blip in your memory. You’ll still be sober, and you’ll be back to your normal life. You’ll be so proud of yourself and so will everyone else who cares about your sobriety.
  1. If meetings are your thing, get one in when you can, either before or after the main event. If nothing is jiving with your schedule, find online support which is available 24-7. If you’re not a meeting person, do what relaxes you: a guided meditation, yoga, a workout, a bubble bath. Show yourself as much self love as you can.
  1. Offer to help. Washing the dishes, walking the dog, checking on something...anything that feels helpful and gets you away from the table for a tiny break and five deep breathes is worth it. If no reasons are readily available, just make sure everyone sees you drink copious amounts of water to justify your repeated bathroom breaks.
  1. Remind yourself that you are separate from these folks. You do not have to take their opinions as gospel. You don’t have to worry about your bloodline attaching you to them forever. You are your own entity and you get to leave as the individual, self-contained person you were when you got there.
  1. Come prepared with 12 current events to change the subject to if things start to get tense. They can be funny anecdotes about a celebrity, or you can go for the big kahuna, politics, which will surely take the focus off you and give you some time to mindfully eat your sweet potatoes.
  1. Be prepared to make your escape: make sure you can peace out on your own, whether it’s by bus, uber, train, car, what have you. If you are trapped, say you have a severe headache and go find somewhere to lie down until dessert.
  1. Try to be thankful: as much as family can be trying, they are your family, and if you are with them then that means you’ve got people in the world who, we hope, will still always be your family. They care about you. You’re sharing food somewhere with running plumbing, a roof over your head, clean water and clothes on your back. After all, Thanksgiving is about being grateful—try to keep the focus on that.
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Helaina Hovitz is an editor, journalist, and author of After 9/11. She has written for The New York Times, Salon, Glamour, Women's Health, Newsweek, Teen Vogue, VICE, Reader’s Digest, Forbes, The New York Observer and many others. Visit her on Facebook, Twitter, or HelainaHovitz.com.