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

updated May 1, 2019
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(Image credit: Rachel Joy Barehl)

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. I deeply feared all eyes would be on 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. I wanted no attention at all; they wanted to treat me with kid gloves.

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?

The Biggest Mistake Hosts Make with Sober Guests

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. 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 of my sobriety, I would 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, I realize I may as well have been drinking a Shirley Temple for all anyone else — at least the “normies” — cared.

Alcoholics, whether practicing or recovering, will likely pay close attention to what other people drink or do not drink. 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.

Side note: 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.

The Other Big Mistake Hosts Make with Sober Guests

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. 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. Furthermore, 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.

So what should you do?

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.