Noticing colorful decorations, playing in fresh white snow, hearing familiar tunes such as Jingle Bells and getting a whiff of gingerbread or other wonderful aromas of the season often trigger warm, nostalgic feelings. Unfortunately for some, though, these same experiences can also bring on subtle, vague memories of abuse, neglect, shame or conflict.
For those who live with an alcoholic on a daily basis, Christmas and New Year’s can be brutal. Sometimes the smallest, most innocuous incident can trigger unhappy memories and bring on dysfunctional coping behaviors such as self-effacement, self-neglect and increased attempts at controlling a situation.
How Unidentified Emotional Triggers Affect a Family Gathering
Painful memories are buried deep inside those who grew up with alcoholism as well as those who have lived with an alcoholic as an adult. Many have no idea what a “happy holiday” would look like for themselves, and try to emulate a Norman Rockwell painting in their households instead. This simply doesn’t work.
For example, at a family gathering, a certain tree ornament or door wreath might bring on a vague feeling of upset for Susan as she enters Mom’s house. But she quickly “stuffs” it without taking the time to identify it, and the festivities continue. But later, Susan starts trying to control everybody, is filled with “good ideas” for everybody else, becomes touchy and defensive when she doesn’t get her way and generally misinterprets the actions of others. If there are four or five Susans in the family group, it becomes a power struggle rather than a holiday celebration even though everybody in the room is behaving “normally” on the outside.
What Happens When the Drinking Starts at a Family Gathering
Inevitably, someone will start drinking. If Susan is an alcoholic, she will join in, but if she’s not a drinker she will likely start making passive-aggressive attempts to control the drinking and/or behavior of others. Al-Anon refers to this behavior as “forcing solutions.” Susan will find herself “irritable and unreasonable without knowing it” (from Al-Anon’s Suggested Welcome). If she can’t control the drinker she will try to control the meal preparation or the gift unwrapping or the selection of music or whatever, because it gives her some temporary sense of power. Others around her will begin to have their own vague feelings of upset and their own triggers just from being in Susan’s presence.
All this is happening on an unseen level, of course. On the surface, to a casual observer, everybody is having a great time and it looks just like that Norman Rockwell scene. There is laughter, singing, joking and joviality. Alcoholics are often the “life of the party” and others are unaware of the effect that alcoholism is having on the group.
Detaching From a Dysfunctional Family Gathering
A roomful of Susans and other dysfunctional family members can soon create havoc in even the most well-meaning group of people. A person who recognizes what is happening and their own part in the insanity can choose to stay in the room, participate in the superficial, friendly exchanges, or they can choose to detach from the craziness whether or not they physically leave the premises.
Setting boundaries or detaching from five Susans can be stressful for those in recovery, but it is well worth the effort. Here are some techniques that have helped Al-Anon members in similar situations:
- Find an empty room, even a bathroom, and take a few minutes to check in with your body. Breathe deeply, relax, say a prayer and acknowledge whatever emotion it is that is trying to surface.
- Let go of any preconceived notions about how others “ought to” behave. Allow events to unfold as they will, trusting that a Higher Power is in charge of everything and everybody concerned.
- If someone tries to control you or “help” you by offering unsolicited advice (another form of control), remember you have the right to say “Thanks, but I’m sure I’ll be able to [whatever] just fine” or simply, “You could be right, I’ll think about that.”
- Affirm yourself to yourself. Remind yourself that you are entitled to feel your feelings and that you are not required to “obey” another adult who thinks they know how you ought to live.
- Let go of your own need to control the behavior of others. Detach with love if possible. If you can’t do it with love, do it with anger. But do it. It will save your psyche and your sanity.
As long as alcoholics attend family gatherings, and as long as family members try to reason with or control an alcoholic, families will continue to ride the “Merry-Go-Round Called Denial.” Try Al-Anon for yourself and reconnect with the precious child of God you see when you look in the mirror.