For many people, the holidays are an exciting break from routine: think shorter hours at the office, most of them spent dealing with the onslaught of chocolates that show up in cubicles and the subsequent worry about gaining a few extra pounds (Turtles? Who can resist Turtles?)
For others, though, a break in routine can be dangerous. For people like me – problem drinkers – it's not the Turtles that cause anguish, it's the pressure to unwind with alcohol. The endless parties, dinners and glasses of sparkly become an avalanche of anxiety. There's the bad stuff – close proximity to relatives and people we find judgmental can make having fun rather stressful.
Then there's the confusingly good stuff: a rush of warm nostalgia brings its own triggers (remember how fun drinking was, once?) and when coupled with the company of tipsy friends, it sometimes gives the impression that alcohol isn't that big of a deal at all.
December doesn't just seem like an unlimited fountain of booze, it is one. Andrew Murie, chief executive officer of MADD Canada, says only summer long weekends might top this time of year for an expected increase in alcohol consumption and subsequent drunk driving.
The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse estimates that alcohol companies make more than a quarter of their yearly profits during the holiday season. When coupled with the stressors of the holiday season, these increased opportunities to drink make unhealthy behaviours, including relapse, a real possibility.
"People experience powerful emotions brought on by stress, guilt, pain, shame, and their perceived expectations as to how they should feel towards the holidays and how to behave when with others," says David Bohl, a former problem drinker who's now an addiction counsellor based in Chicago. "In addition, feelings of abandonment and betrayal can be magnified as the expectation of joyful peace and merriment is advertised to be the norm."
As party season ramps up, Bohl says that having a coping strategy is a must. He advises those who don't want to drink to be "pro-active, not reactive." His tips include declining invitations if the pressure feels too great and having an ally nearby or at the other end of a phone call for a pep talk if necessary.
"If I go to a party [that has] professional bar staff, I speak with the bartenders as soon as I arrive so they know I am not to have alcohol," the counsellor says. "I'd tell guests that I don't drink by saying something like, 'I've had enough alcohol to last me a lifetime.' This is easier because it is assertively true, rather than simply saying, 'No, thank you,' and feeling like you've pushed people away by doing so."
Torontonian Luke Costello has been sober for 2 1/2 years. His first party-going strategy is to carry a bottle of San Pellegrino and not let go of it all night. His second is to prioritize sobriety over appearances. "If I'm ever at a party and start feeling that uncomfortable, anxious feeling that sometimes occurs with unfamiliar people, I just give myself permission to say my thank you and goodbye to the host, and leave," says Costello, who works as a political campaign organizer.
Another Torontonian, writer Yuula Benivolski recently celebrated five months of sobriety. Being self-employed, she doesn't have an office party to worry about attending and other social events of the season don't stress her as they used to. "The truth is, at this point, alcohol for me is just not an option," she says. "I try to see it as a non-food, a poison, something that shouldn't be ingested."
What people might not understand, she says, is that triggers aren't always negative – nostalgia for parties gone by can also inch problem drinkers close to the edge. "The self-destructive urges are easier to keep at bay because they feel desperate and harmful," Benivolski says. "But all those other moments, the nice moments during which I drank, I remember them fondly."
That's all too familiar to me. I've been avoiding New Year's Eve for years now, as it's too easy to decide that it's okay to booze it up because others are doing it. Last year, I went to Cuba and, after nine days of watching everyone indulge in the non-stop drinkathon so common at all-inclusives, I deluded myself into believing it was going to be okay to drink.
That celebration ended in a collapse at the Cuban airport – as Communist guards and their German shepherds looked on, I swayed and cried over what I'd done. The happy holidays became an unhappy memory, one that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.
My strategy this year means limiting my celebrations to Christmas Eve at home with my family, indulging in Turtles and forgoing booze. The other day, I made Christmas decorations with my six-year-old son: for the first time, he's interested (actually, obsessed) in getting a tree and making a big deal out of the season. And it will be a big deal because, in the end, it's all about the spirit of the holidays, not the spirits.
Dos and don'ts for accomodating non-drinkers
As party host, it's your job to make sure everyone has a good time, even if they don't drink for religious, health or other reasons. Here, some expert tips.
Do: Make sure company events include everyone. It's better for team-building and it's also the law. Nafisah Chowdhury, a partner at Miller Thomson in Toronto, says Ontario's human rights codes requires accommodating all employees. "I'm a visible Muslim, I wear a hijab. Everyone knows that I don't drink and that I am not interested in drinking," the litigator says. Her firm's main holiday party is in the afternoon, and not at all booze-oriented. "For those who want to continue enjoying the eggnog into the late hours, they are free to take the party elsewhere, after the event. But for people like me who don't drink, we're not excluded from the firm's festivities."
Don't: Ask someone why they are not drinking. "[That] could put someone in a very awkward position," Chowdhury says, of sharing personal information. Nosy employers could also get into legal trouble: Imagine that you ask a woman why she's not drinking and she discloses that she's expecting; later, if her employment is terminated for an unrelated reason, she can allege that's why she was fired. "You don't want to invite any allegations of discrimination," Chowdhury says. Plus, it's simply respectful to just mind your own business.
Do: Ask guests in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction if they'd like to bring a friend who is also in recovery. "It just allows them to have someone who understands what it's like for them. They can support each other," says Andrew Galloway, national director at Edgewood Health Network, which offers addiction treatment across Canada. "Just offering says to the person: 'We want to make sure you take care of yourself and we want you to be here.'" If it's a sit-down dinner, make sure to sit them next to light drinkers.
Don't: Take it personally if someone leaves early. "It doesn't mean they didn't have a good time," Galloway says. "It's important that people in recovery take care of themselves, and if that means they leave at 10:30 p.m. and not 1 a.m., that's okay. The important thing is that they were included," he says. This also goes for pregnant guests, who might just be plain tired. By the same token, don't be hurt if someone declines.
Do: Serve a seasonal, non-alcoholic punch. "You could do eggnog or apple cider," says Jordan Maxey, co-owner of Smitten Events, a Vancouver-based event planning company. Guests who do drink alcohol can have the option to spike their own glass. Be sure to put a sign next to the bowl making it obvious that it is non-alcoholic. Guests might otherwise avoid it out of uncertainty and it spares you endlessly repeating yourself. "Especially for something like an open house when you maybe don't have everybody arriving at the same time, having signage for what you are serving is really easy," Maxey says.
Don't: Only have one beverage on hand. "Don't have something super specific and serve only one thing," Maxey says. "It can be awkward for people to have to turn it down." Some people might not drink. Others might have celiac disease or just hate mulled wine. Having a range of options means that people who don't drink aren't stuck choosing between whatever is in the punch bowl or a bottle of water.
Mocktail to cocktail: Ginger beer, multiple ways
Decision fatigue is a real thing. As such, smart people minimize their everyday decisions: truly seasoned drinkers pick a cocktail and stick to it. So, presuming you're among the latter and don't want to re-invent the wheel on every social occasion between now and New Year's, make up some homemade ginger beer and get on with life. It's a refreshing, seasonally appropriate, signature non-alcoholic drink, but also an amazing base to spike with booze for cocktails, mixed drinks or, in case of company, punch.
Homemade Ginger Beer
(Adapted from Jeffrey Morgenthaler's The Bar Book.)
Take two dry, empty one-litre swing top bottles and add one-eighth of a teaspoon of champagne yeast to each. Next, peel and juice fresh ginger until you have five ounces of liquid. Mix ginger juice with one litre warm water, eight ounces strained fresh lemon juice, 14 ounces simple syrup and mix thoroughly. Add ginger mixture to yeast in bottles. Shake. Store in a warm, dark cupboard or pantry for 48 hours and then transfer to refrigerator.
Serve on the rocks and it's a non-alcoholic Mule. Add a little mint and lime to make it even more refreshing. Spike with whisky and a spritz of orange juice for a Whisky Buck. Or, sub in tequila and lime to make an El Diablo; rum for a Dark 'n' Stormy; or brandy, pineapple and champagne for a quick and easy punch.
Christine Sismondo, Special to The Globe and Mail