What a Host Should Know About Alcoholism and Sobriety at the Holidays

What a Host Should Know About Alcoholism and Sobriety at the Holidays

Greg Kayko
Nov 20, 2015
(Image credit: Rachel Joy Baransi)

"Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows." — Alcoholics Anonymous

So true, especially for the person who is new to recovery. And at no time is this adage more deeply felt by the newly sober than during the holidays.

It's been a long time since my first sober Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year's, but I can clearly remember the baseless fears, the self-consciousness, and the bevy of misconceptions that tormented me that first holiday season.

“Honey, is your friend the Recovering Alcoholic coming to Thanksgiving dinner?"

“Yes, so one place setting with no wine glass, please.”

I don’t actually believe any of my hosts have ever had that conversation before I arrived at a Thanksgiving dinner, but they may as well have. Years ago, as someone new to sobriety, arriving at the home of a family member or friend where I’d once thought myself the life of the party, I deeply feared all eyes were upon me. “What will he do if he can’t drink?” I imagined everyone asking. “What will he drink if he can’t drink?” In truth, everyone — and especially the host — was generally relieved to learn I had arrived sober. “We never worried about overcooking the turkey, Kayko. But you? We always wondered if you were going to show up half-baked.”

I have more laughs today with friends who do and do not drink about my escapades "back in the day" than I'd ever imagined possible. But what we laugh at most is our mutual misconceptions about what it was going to be like to have me at a party or a dinner without a drink in hand. I wanted nothing more than to blend into the flow of the day as though nothing had changed. They often wanted to know what they should change to make things easier on me.

Should they not drink around me?
Should they make it an alcohol-free party?
Were there particular people I did and didn’t want to be seated by?

Where I wanted no attention at all, they wanted nothing more than to treat me with kid gloves.

Bad idea. The single biggest mistake a well-meaning host can make is to treat someone new to recovery as though they are special, and, by default, different. The second biggest mistake the host can make is to assume they are somehow "more" responsible for my comfort and good time than they are for the good time and comfort of their other guests. I realized very early in sobriety that there is virtually nothing one can do to make a newly sober alcoholic comfortable. He or she has to learn to make him or herself comfortable.

As the opening quote says, no one wants to think of themselves as bodily or mentally different than their peers, especially when it comes to alcohol. In the early years I would always try to disguise my difference by making sure there'd be tonic and lime at the party so it would at least look like I was toting my customary gin and tonic. Now, years later, I realize I may as well have been drinking a Shirley Temple for all anyone else cared. As a person in recovery from an addiction, you eventually learn that no one really cares what you’re drinking besides you. Normal people (aka "normies" in recovery parlance) rarely notice what anyone else is drinking unless what they're drinking has a deleterious effect on their behavior: obnoxiously loud mouth, inability to rise from a chair without subsequently toppling over. (Doesn’t everyone have an aunt Helen or an uncle Sammy who is almost "expected" to take a header at some point in the evening, no matter the holiday being celebrated?)

These behaviors, rather than the drink itself, are more likely to draw attention from "normies" — those frightful people who often leave their one glass of wine half full as they finish their meal and rush off to get coffee and a piece of pie.

Brief aside: Normal people should know that the "real" alcoholic, whether practicing or recovering, will likely pay close attention to what other people drink or do not drink. We are completely dumbfounded by the concept of having one drink, let alone the prospect of failing to finish that drink. Why fill the glass the first time if you're not going to empty and refill it … repeatedly? Why not just stick to your water or tea or pop?

Whenever I left food on my plate, my mom always reminded me that there were starving children in other parts of the world. When normal people leave their glass half full, I want to remind them there are thirsty alcoholics under bridges everywhere who would "die" to finish that drink for them. Seriously, folks. If alcohol makes you tipsy, and you don't like feeling tipsy, you shouldn't drink beverages that are intended to produce that effect, right? Drinking socially for the purpose of staying sober simply doesn’t make good sense — especially not to the newly sober. So please: cheers, and bottoms up.

I do recall times in early sobriety when well-intentioned loved ones would actually go overboard at holiday gatherings to make sure I was "doing okay." The truth is, the more attention drawn to my "differences" as someone who wasn’t drinking at a party, the more self-conscious I became. The more I wanted not to drink — but simply to escape and isolate.

The most important piece of advice I can possibly give to a host who is concerned about hosting a party that will be attended by someone who no longer drinks is to treat that person exactly as you would any other guest at the party.

It is no more your responsibility to make sure that I'm "okay" than it is your responsibility to make sure that I have a good time. That’s all on me as the person learning how to live a sober life. There’s nothing worse than having friends and family tell you how "proud" they are of you for behaving rationally and doing what everyone else has been doing for years, which is to simply blend in and be a pleasant addition to the gathering.

(Image credit: Lindsay Ribe)
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