Ask Katie: How Do I Not Be the Sober Buzzkill During the Holidays?

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Ask Katie: How Do I Not Be the Sober Buzzkill During the Holidays?

By Katie MacBride 12/13/16

The chance of you changing the behavior of your 25 boisterously booze-loving family members is slim. You can, however, make these family events less challenging.

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A dog with a party hat.
There are ways to feel less alone.

Hi Katie,

This is my third holiday season sober. I come from a big, Irish family and we see each other fairly frequently, though we’re rarely all together (there’s like 25 of us) except at the holidays. I know how our holiday parties go because I used to look forward to them — at least until the very end of my drinking. At this point, it’s not even the drinking that bothers me. I’m used to being the only sober one. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but I can deal with it. What I find really upsetting is when everyone looks at me like I’m the wet blanket. Like, I won’t laugh at the dumb joke my drunk uncle has told for the fifth time, because I’ve already heard it five times. Or if I’m annoyed by my brothers’ dumb antics, they’ll tell me to suck it up and not be so sensitive — but because they’re buzzed, they don’t realize how mean they sound. My family says they’re supportive of my sobriety but they never think about how being sober in a room full of happy but drunk people makes me feel. I’m not trying to kill their good time, but I also don’t want to pretend like getting whisky spilled down the front of my dress (happened last year) is just part of the holiday fun. Any suggestions about how to handle this? (P.S. not going is not an option. My family would be furious.)

Sincerely,

Buzzkill

Oh, Buzzkill, I can relate! You are asking this question to a bona fide party pooper. The good news is that you have family who is, at least in theory, supportive of your sobriety. While it’s fair to say they’re being insensitive, it doesn’t sound like they are questioning your need to be sober or trying to push booze onto you (though spilling it on you is not great). That would be a much more unworkable situation.

Still, it doesn’t change the fact that your family isn’t being particularly thoughtful about how their behavior impacts you. I, and many of us with substance use problems, are often called “too sensitive.” It’s part of the reason we drank and used. It’s hard to be oversensitive when you’re too drunk to understand what people are saying. Getting sober strips you of that fuzzy numbness and the sensitivity comes back. It’s not a bad thing. It’s what allows us to move through the world as fully feeling human beings, with all the ups and the downs that go along with reality. It’s not always easy, though, especially when copious amounts of booze mixes with copious amounts of family.

I don’t have a magic answer, Buzzkill; the chance of you changing the attitude or behavior of your 25 boisterously booze-loving family members is very slim. I don’t think that your family are bad or mean or thoughtless, they’re just not you. They’ve been enjoying their holiday tradition of inebriated revelry for years; it’s part of their holiday experience. It would be great if they could all take a step back and think about how being sober in that situation must feel for you, or ask you how they can make things more comfortable for you, but that’s not something you should expect. Even if they are happy and relieved that you are sober, they’re not going to automatically change their own behavior just because you have. It’s not personal; changing the attitude of 25 people who have been in a routine for 20+ years is tough. There are, however, things you can do to make these family events less challenging.

  • By the time the holidays roll around, many people (myself included) are already stressed. We’ve been fretting over spending money we don’t have, fighting through traffic, and being unable to leave the house without hearing some version of Jingle Bells. These stressors can make us feel like our nerves are frayed before the events even begin. Whatever your program of recovery involves, double it. If you go to meetings, try to get a few more in than you normally would. If you meditate, make time to include an evening sit in addition to your morning session. If being alone helps you decompress, schedule time before and after your family events to do so. If being with friends is the best way for you to relax, make plans to see those people the afternoon before the party. You may not be able to change what happens at the family shindig but you can make every attempt to get your head in the right place for whatever challenges may arise.
  • Find a friend: you aren’t likely to make all 25 family members understand how difficult the situation can be for you, but you might be able to get through to one person. If there’s someone you are particularly close to or who might be more understanding than the others about your feelings, give them a heads up before the festivities begin. Make it clear that you’re not accusing anyone of being insensitive, rather that you sometimes feel isolated and frustrated at these events; ask if you can grab them for a couple of minutes if you need someone to go outside and take a breather with you. You’ll need to tread carefully: you don’t want to come off as talking behind your other family members’ backs. But simply having someone who can acknowledge: “yeah, I know, it can get a little overwhelming in there” can relieve the tension of having to keep all those thoughts to yourself. 
  • If there isn’t anyone you can ask to be your ally, have your phone at the ready. I have called and sent texts to sober friends from boozy events, and just the act of reaching out can make you feel less alone. Disappearing for 10 minutes at a time throughout the evening might make Miss Manners frown but if your family is getting wasted, it’s quite possible they’ll be slow to notice. And if it helps you come back with a smile on your face, ready to hear Uncle Joe’s story about waiting in line at the Post Office for the umpteenth time, so be it.
  • Hang out with the kids. The holidays were always the most fun as a kid and you can recapture some of that magic by spending some time with the youngins in the family (if there’s 25 of you, there’s probably at least one little one running around). Sure, they can turn into monsters as they start crashing from all the sugar and fighting over...whatever kids fight over, but they’re pretty cool for awhile. They’re also frequently (unintentionally) hilarious. So buddy up with your niece or nephew. Find out what they’re learning in school, what their favorite part of the holidays is, who the funniest kid in their class is and why. Yeah, you still might get a drink spilled on you but apple juice is better than whisky, right?
  • Being a polite party guest isn’t the same thing as being a doormat. If you ask your brothers to quit it with the jokes about your teetotaling ways and they persist with them, you have every right to tell them they’re hurting your feelings. You’re allowed to avoid them for the rest of the evening and not feel guilty about it. So what if they call you oversensitive? You’ll always be able to find someone who thinks you are oversensitive and someone else who thinks you’re not sensitive enough. Your brothers saying something doesn’t automatically make it true. Sure, you may want to take a step back and consider if you agree (we all need to listen to feedback about ourselves sometimes) but that’s not the same thing as unquestioningly believing their assessment. Carving out your own space and your own boundaries isn’t impolite — it’s treating yourself with respect and asking that others do the same.
  • You said “not attending is not an option” and I know it feels that way. It sounds like this is indeed a workable situation, not one that jeopardizes your sobriety (or sanity). Keep in mind, however, that you do have the option of not attending. Or leaving early. If things take a turn where you start feeling like your recovery is on the line, leave. Your family doesn’t have to understand. There are parts of being in recovery they simply can’t understand. It doesn’t make them bad people. It’s also not your job to make them understand.

I hope you have a happy and safe holiday, from one Buzzkill to another.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at editor@thefix.com with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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