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What to Do When Holiday Good Cheer Means Overindulgence in Alcohol for Some

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The holidays are known as a time of glad tidings and good cheer. But for some people, they’re also an excuse to overindulge in alcohol.

For family members of people suffering from alcohol addiction, the holidays pose a particular dilemma: How do you preserve the loving, joyous spirit of the season while making sure Uncle Bob isn’t distracted by the rum-spiked eggnog at your holiday party? Or that Aunt Mary doesn’t get sidetracked from her 12-step recovery program while you’re filling your other guests’ glasses with celebratory champagne at New Year’s?

“The first and most important thing you need to do is to acknowledge the elephant in the room,” says Stuart Finkelstein, MD, an internal medicine and addiction specialist at Lakewood Regional Medical Center in Lakewood, Calif. “Talk openly with your family and the person with the alcohol abuse problem about the problem. Don’t keep secrets.”

And don’t wait until the guests have arrived and the presents are being unwrapped before addressing the issue, adds Dr. Finkelstein.

“Communicate openly with your loved one and your other family members before the holidays have even begun,” he says. “Decide ahead of time what your response will be to any drunken behavior by them, and have a plan. Set clear limits so they know that that kind of behavior during family time – not just at the holidays but at any other time of the year – is unacceptable.”

Above all, Dr. Finkelstein explains, “let them know that their family loves them and only wants to help them get better. Make it clear that they are ‘sick,’ not ‘bad.’’

And if they get angry at you or deny that they have a problem? “Communicate ‘stern’ love. Tell them you care so much that you want to help them get well, rather than support them in destroying themselves. Offer to meet with them before the holidays or the family event to discuss how their problem affects you, and to help them find treatment. And remember – ‘invite’ them to get help. Pushing them or acting as if you’re trying to control them usually only makes things worse.”

Because a family member has an alcohol abuse problem doesn’t mean you or your other guests have to abstain from drinking – responsibly, of course – at holiday gatherings. “You shouldn’t feel bad about serving alcohol,” says Dr. Finkelstein. “Most people with an alcohol abuse problem are focused on their own recovery. They don’t expect or necessarily want the rest of the world to give up drinking along with them.”

At the same time, it’s important to be a responsible host. Some people can get caught up in the spirit of the party and have a hard time turning down a drink when it’s offered to them. “As a host, don’t push too hard,” he adds.

Dr. Finkelstein has some simple advice for anyone at a holiday event who feels they’re being pressured by friends or family members to drink more than they should: “Don’t have an empty glass in your hand. Fill it up with soda or a non-alcoholic mixer and drop a lime in it. People won’t push you if they see your glass is full.”

If you or someone you love needs help with a substance abuse problem during the holidays or at any other time of the year, Lakewood Regional Medical Center is here to help. For a physician referral to an Addiction Medicine Specialist please call 800-813-4345

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