In this seasonal guest blog, therapist Tania Glyde looks at what makes this time of year such a challenge.
Whether you love Christmas or hate it, your relationship with alcohol is likely to be intensified over the next couple of weeks – at least until New Year’s Day comes and the good intentions start to kick in. If you’re thinking of slowing down your alcohol use, this time of year (however much we may love it in other ways) sits in the calendar like a big monster waiting to pounce on our plans.
The pressure to fit in
The greatest pressure on us at this time of year is that we are supposed to be happy and like things that everyone else seems to like doing. This often involves participating in activities with groups of other people, in noisy environments, with food and/or music playing, and little chance of escape. We may feel obliged to join in with games and other group things that we actually loathe. These kinds of activities are traditionally accompanied by alcohol, perhaps because it is the alcohol that makes it seem so much more fun.
A testing time for many reasons
- Christmas has a horribly long lead-up as office parties get backed up into November. Tinsel and Santas start to appear not long after August bank holiday.
- There is vast pressure to spend money – especially when it’s your round – and especially if you have children.
- Relationships are often pushed to the limit.
- You may well be feeling obliged to spend time with relatives you would normally avoid.
- You may find yourself staying in an inadequate (or even abusive) relationship in order to save face. If you are single you may feel obliged to spend the day performing acts of charity, to avoid being seen as selfish; or you may simply be feeling isolated and without friends.
If you’re used to coasting through this period with half a bottle of vodka in your pocket, the sober wake-up call can be powerful.
Further emotional triggers for seasonal drinking
- Memories of the past, which can be particularly intense at this time, especially if you have lost someone close to you.
- The sense of obligation to be someone you are not.
- Children, if your childhood wasn’t great.
- Other peoples’ marvellous lives being played out online and very hard to escape from.
For more on this, try Part One of my seasonal survival guide – What makes the festive season so stressful?
Ways to make it easier
- Prepare in advance. Really think about what you want and what you don’t want. Is there a party that you are looking forward to only for old times’ sake? And if you turn up sober it won’t be the same, and even a bit boring?
- Draw firm boundaries in advance about what (or who) you will and will not tolerate, even if these boundaries are only in your own head.
- Can you share how you feel? Do you have a partner in non-drinking? A sober (or semi-sober) buddy? If not, now would be a good time to find one (or preferably a group of them).
- Get your story straight. In an ideal world, we would not have to provide ‘excuses’ to others about why we are not drinking. But UK binge culture is not an ideal world. For the sake of personal PR, there is nothing wrong with faking an illness or health condition, or saying you need to drive someone home, or are volunteering early in the morning, to get people off your back when you have just one glass of wine, or none. (Just bear in mind that these things can come back to bite you if you didn’t think your story through.)
- Try not to take other peoples’ pushiness personally. I have found there is almost no limit to the rude questions that people can come out with at a party when you’re standing there with an obvious fruit juice. You may be asked why you aren’t having a ‘proper drink’, and worse, asked – totally out of the blue – if there was a ‘problem.’
- If you don’t want this kind of aggro, find a soft drink that could resemble alcohol. Low or no alcohol free beer or wine may be useful right now.
- Do some social media husbandry and don’t feel guilty about unfollowing the friends who are giving you FOMO.
For more on how to make this time of year go more easily, try Part Two: Strategies for getting through it.
Gendered aspects to sobriety or cutting drinking
Men may be expected to buy all the drinks, and may be especially shamed in a group for not getting a round in. Men are also expected to consume large amounts and not be a lightweight. Excuses involving sports may suffice if a man is cutting down.
Women often do a lot of the emotional load-bearing at this time of year. They will be organising get-togethers and cooking huge meals and contributing heavily to seasonal social cohesion. This will be a source of stress that may or may not be helped by drinking. A woman may also be called a lightweight for not obeying group intoxication rules. A low or no drinking woman will be less pliable and less likely to laugh at bad jokes, and therefore in some quarters seen as suspect or even unattractive.
Christmas on your own?
If the alternatives feel too complicated, you may decide to spend Christmas on your own. Some people think this is the worst thing ever. Actually it can be great. Take some time for yourself. You could spin a yarn about visiting a long-lost friend and just barricade yourself in with your pets (if you have them), the telly, and a nice cake or two.
Post Christmas you may experience a comedown. You got through it, but what now? There can be a sense of anticlimax that manifests in a number of ways. You can be left with a strong sense of the year ending and everything being the same, and this in turn may tempt you back to old drinking ways.
For more detail see Part 3: When it’s all over.
You discover all sorts of things about yourself and the world when you stop drinking, or just slow things down for a while. If you want this change to be permanent, you may find yourself making long-term changes to your life, about what you do and who you choose to see.
I wish you an excellent holiday season, and here’s to exciting changes in the new year.
For more on this subject, try ‘Surviving your first Christmas without alcohol’.