Coping With Alcohol During the Holidays

Musicians' Assistance Program

Volume XCIX, No. 11December, 1999

Jackelyn Frost, CSW

Seasonal “cheer” has become synonymous with overdoing it – too much shopping, too much spending, too much eating and too much alcohol. Celebrations ringing in the new millennium are also expected to greatly increase alcohol consumption. So much so, in fact, that some are worried there will be a champagne shortage.

It is believed that approximately 10 to 20 percent of all adults use alcohol in ways that can create problems for them – and, in turn, affect many friends and loved ones. Reunions with family and friends can be tense and uncomfortable, and often people try to cope with the stress of forced conviviality by drinking or using other drugs.

In addition to the holiday pressure that most people feel, musicians often experience added pressure. You may be working a great deal, feeling that you must earn the bulk of your income during this busy season. Along with this stress, you may be coping with performance anxiety, peer pressure, loneliness, a wish to be part of a group, feelings of alienation or money anxiety.

Turning to alcohol or drugs may look like a solution. You may also think that your music is better when using these substances – but the cost to your personal and professional life will far exceed any perceived advantages. And ultimately, in addiction, your music can take second place to the demands of alcohol or drugs.

Developing an awareness of your feelings and planning how to cope with the stress of the season can help you let go of unrealistic expectations, acknowledge spiritual traditions, and find safe, healthy holiday customs to enjoy. These, in turn, can help you stay centered and sober. Here are a few suggestions:

Take care of yourself. Slow down and have some quiet time each day. Plan relaxation and meditation into your day. Relax your standards, reduce overwhelming demands on yourself, and delegate responsibilities where possible.

Don’t overindulge. Try to follow a balanced diet. Monitor how much caffeine, nicotine and sugar you take in. Make time for exercise. But keep your expectations reasonable and find a good balance – don’t try to increase your usual exercise routine, and don’t give up on exercise all together.

Don’t try to do too much. Try to maintain some kind of schedule. Get plenty of sleep. Fatigue is a stressor that can make you more vulnerable to relapse if you are in recovery. Don’t wait until the last minute to purchase gifts or prepare to entertain.

Enhance your support system. Holidays can trigger painful memories. Spend time with supportive, sober people in activities that don’t involve alcohol or drugs. To ensure that this happens, schedule a get-together. If you are in recovery, plan to connect with your sponsor and with recovery people, and plan to attend special AA holiday events. During the holidays, give more attention to the Twelve Steps and attend extra meetings. If you’re not in recovery, now might be a good time to start going to 12-step meetings if you feel your alcohol use can become problematic.

If family gatherings are too stressful, perhaps you should consider not attending or limiting the time you spend there, especially when these events center on drinking. You may want to take periodic breaks to call a sober friend. Also, if possible, plan to drive your own car so you can leave whenever you chose.

Find new ways to celebrate. You might host your own alcohol-free holiday gathering. Or, if you do serve alcohol, make sure it’s not the focus of the party. When possible, always offer traditional liquor-spiked beverages with the liquor on the side – like mulled cider with rum as an extra. And use fruit juice instead of carbonated mixers, since carbonation speeds alcohol absorption.

Offer appetizing non-alcoholic beverages as tempting alternatives. Try exotic tropical juices, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and sparkling mineral waters with sliced fruit. Also, never give alcohol to children and young teens; they have immature livers which cannot safely process alcohol.

Alcohol and drugs can derive their power by creating the illusion of self-transcendence and intimacy with others. You can have the real thing by reminding yourself of the spiritual basis of the holidays. This may be a time to evaluate your spirituality and find a personal way to draw support from the spirit of the season. Consider reconnecting with the religion of your past or redefining your spirituality.

If you drive, don’t drink. There is no safe limit for drinking and driving. Impairment for some people begins with the first drink. What’s more, each of us reacts differently to alcohol on different occasions. Impairment of reflexes, visual acuity, peripheral vision and ability to gauge distances can start at 0.04 percent blood-alcohol concentration – well before legal drinking limits in most states. And coffee cannot sober up an intoxicated person.

If you are currently struggling with alcohol or other drugs – or if someone else’s use is affecting you – help is available. The MAP office offers free, confidential assistance for a wide range of personal and family problems, including substance abuse problems. We can also help connect you to services in your community including drug treatment programs and 12-step programs.

Call the MAP office at (212) 397-4802 to speak to a social worker for additional information and confidential assistance.

This column is based on material from the following articles found on several web sites: “Alcohol and the Holidays: How to Drink Responsibly,” by Dr. Nicholas Pace; : “Alcohol and the Holidays – ‘Tis the Season to Take Care,” by Patrick Conlin; and three articles from – “Tips for Enjoying the Holidays” by Darlene Gish, “Recovering People Need to Manage Holiday Expectations” by Sue Hoisington, and “Alcohol Fallacies Can Make Holiday Time Dangerous,” author unknown.