This article appeared in the December 21, 2015 issue of the “Norwalk Hour”
In Search of Peace and Joy Over Christmas, New Year’s
By Alan Mathis
We are just moments away from one of the biggest party weeks in American life – Christmas and New Year’s Eve. This time of the year, filled with celebration, can also be filled with something else, something darker.
It is not uncommon for people to experience feelings of anxiety, stress, disappointment, and fear that bringing everyone together will result in yet another family squabble. We want this time of the year to be perfect – filled with blissful reunions with family and friends, spectacular food and drink and nonstop merriment. Sometimes our heightened expectations combined with alcohol consumption transform peace and joy into hurt feelings and confrontations. Just about everyone has a “Uncle Moe” whose overindulgence inside of three hours turns the house upside down. Many of us will feel required to attend gatherings we’d rather not attend for any number of reasons. Others feel the stress of the season because loved ones we long for are physically separated by distance. Whatever the reason may be for our emotional discomfort, the question remains. What can we do to keep our mental health in order?
Here’s what I’ve learned from the experts in addiction, mental health and marriage and family therapy at Liberation Programs who have helped thousands of people successfully navigate the holiday season for the past 40 years.
The first step, as silly as it may sound to an adult, is to remind yourself that you have permission to make decisions to safeguard your emotional wellbeing. In the heat of the moment, we often forget this simple fact. YOU get to decide how you entertain in your own home and how you participate in events hosted by others. Those who truly love you and care for you will come to understand your viewpoint and concerns.
The old adage “it’s not what you say but how you say it” rings true here. You should think about how you speak with family or friends in advance of the event. It’s probably not the best idea to dis your in-laws because they drink too much and always get out of hand when you know that your spouse will react negatively, even if the both of you know that you are right. You should use language that resonates and is in line with your spouses’ beliefs, values and concerns. Rather than saying that your in-laws are always out of control you might say that you are concerned that “our children may be getting the wrong message about behavior that is not in line with that we have jointly decided to role model.” Asking for ideas is most often a preferred solution over solo decision-making. You might ask your spouse what could be done to limit or reduce the potential for problems.
As an example, I clearly recall a major family blow up when my dad was told by his younger sister that smoking was no longer permitted in her house, even at parties. My dad felt highly insulted and couldn’t get his head around the concept of not lighting up a cigarette while enjoying a scotch on the rocks. When he was gently reminded that my mom, his wife of 30 years, died of cancer at age 50 he soon banned smoking in his own house. Rather than engaging in a power struggle, a gentle reminder, spoken in love, helped shape his thinking and led to major behavioral changes. I don’t know what the right words or stories are that will help you in your unique situation but if you remain calm and thoughtful I am confident that you will find them.
Alcohol use is clearly an area of conflict for many in our community this holiday season. If you are hosting a dinner or party, here are a few possible solutions that might help your celebration be less stressful:
(1) De-emphasize the importance of alcohol at your home celebration. You can accomplish this in a number of ways by buying less alcohol, choosing smaller size containers or strategically placing alcohol away from the busiest areas of your home. Additionally, practice measured pouring when preparing a cocktail for your guest – most people tend to over pour, ending up serving three times the amount of alcohol than is necessary. You may even make a concerted effort to not rush to refill or refresh your guest drinks as often. All of these measures can reduce the amount of alcohol consumed without having to come off as judgmental.
(2) Shorten the time period for your event by creating a start and end time – it’s not mandatory to have an open ended event. Two hours or so can help put everyone at ease and reduce the risk of clashes that ultimately happen when guests become intoxicated. Just let your guests know in advance that the party starts promptly at six and will end at eight o’clock.
(3) Enlist the support of friends and family members in advance to help manage the event and steer your guests in the right direction. For those that may require gentle and not so gentle prodding, “spreading the wealth” doesn’t leave you as the bad guy and reduces the possibility for arguments and hurt feelings. My sister Trish and wife Melissa serve as my wingmen whenever I host a party. They both know which guests don’t mix well together and who is most likely to create disharmony. And both of them are masters in making guests feel welcomed and safe by steering the event. Yes, it’s a learned skill and takes practice. But you have to start practicing some time, maybe this year is a good place to start.
(4) Then, there’s the most radical idea – decide not to serve alcohol at all. I know what people think – without alcohol no one will come to an event. But maybe, just maybe, some people will. Increasingly there are families with loved ones in recovery (or thinking about recovery) deciding not to serve alcohol at parties and weddings. One of my senior manager’s has built a family consensus not to serve any alcohol as it once nearly tore the family apart. And yet, they still seem to have a whale of time. Ultimately, they decided how to maintain their collective peace of mind.
When you are invited to an event and you have concerns about the ability of attendees to get along and the impact excessive use of mood altering substances may have you have choices:
(1) Decline an invitation in advance in a manner that is respectful. Alternatively you may inform your host that you will only be able to stop by for a short time period. You may choose to gently tell them the reason for your decision or you may choose not to. Again, you need not qualify or justify your decisions if that makes you uncomfortable.
(2) Refrain from using alcohol yourself if that may add to the potential of having or experiencing disharmony. It is not uncommon for people to refuse alcohol at functions.
(3) Greet and acknowledge everyone at the event but interact far less with those whom you tend to experience troublesome relationships. While it takes a certain amount of self-management and skill, you can always listen politely and not respond to divisive talk, then physically excuse yourself. If stuck, daydream about the ocean or skiing or any of the million things that you like to do as a way to defocus yourself from the stress.
(4) Visit with family and friends at times during the holiday other than a planned party. You can stop by at a different time to give them a hug and exchange well wishes and gifts. For example you can drop by for coffee in the morning to spend quality time with your favorite aunt and uncle or come by late afternoon with a pie. The holidays are about being together in a joyful way. Decide in advance what that means for you.
Lastly, please keep in mind that many people in recovery decide to spend holiday time with other people in recovery, enjoying sober events with folks who understand what this time of the year can be like and wish not to be temped by a trigger. If it’s a loved one, please be supportive. They are not necessarily trying to stay away from you. They may just be seeking the comfort of a known sober support network. It’s what we do. If it’s you seeking a support group, please remember that while this may be a difficult decision, it might just be the right one. It’s not selfish to want to take care of yourself. Whether your family or friends agree with your decision should not prohibit your wellbeing and sober development. There may be a day when you can watch others enjoy alcohol without causing you to relapse – don’t worry that today is not the day to try that idea. Your test can come another time when you feel better prepared to stay sober.
This can be a wonderful time of the year, a time to be with friends and loved ones and to reflect on the past year. I hope all of you have a positive experience and may your 2016 be all that you want it to be.