Of course, the parents and grandparents and the siblings will be there. And, then there’s the newest significant other auditioning for a permanent role. And Uncle George, the family drunk. Or, maybe it’s your sister Sally who just got out of Rehab and is 60 days sober. Quite the guest list.
Of all of them, Sober Sally may be the scariest name on the list. At least you’ve heard she’s sober.
Over the years, your family gatherings have likely fallen into patterns. You bring expectations to this year’s gathering built on how gatherings have turned out in the past, one year after the other. You expect that one particular person will jump up to cut the turkey, another particular person will argue that they saw a you-tube hack on a better way to do it, and yet another particular person will roll their eyes watching the other two duke it out. Your recollections of last year’s gathering and the gatherings before that create an endless movie loop in your brain to create expectations of a repeat performance at this year’s gathering. This is actually a thing. It’s called Family Systems Theory, and therapists spend many sessions helping us grow out of it.
But, back to Sober Sally not behaving as she’s behaved in the past. She’s not pouring the wine into your glass while she pours yet more wine into hers. One for you, two for me sort of thing. Over and over again. Sober Sally is standing off to the side with eyes wide open, looking at the goings-on like she’s never seen these people before. And she’s getting the same stare of non-recognition back from you.
Everybody knows she’s been “away” (said with a whisper) dealing with her “problem” (said with another whisper), and you’re all walking on eggshells. Wanting to be supportive, but not knowing what to say. “Hey, how’s the not-drinking thing going?” doesn’t feel right. Nor does saying “I feel your pain” when you’ve got your 2nd goblet of cabernet in your hands and the 1st one still on your breath. Or, demonstrating your efforts to be accommodating, you say really really loud: “Hey, if anyone wants non-alcoholic wine (which still has alcohol in it, BTW), we’ve got some over here. I mean, just in case there happens to be someone who wants it.” Admit that you thought about not inviting her in case she would feel awkward (Her?), but don’t say it out loud. You can’t act as though nothing is different, but Sober Sally not drinking (drunk?) is completely different than it has ever been in the past. So, you default to ignoring her.
Frankly, there is no perfect answer. It’s different than it’s been before and that’s always uncomfortable.
If I were Sober Sally*, here’s what I’d want you to say: “Hey, Sally, great to see you.” Or, “”I’m really glad you’re here.” Or, I’d want no one to be drinking. No, wait, I wouldn’t want that because that would make me feel uncomfortable that all of you were feeling uncomfortable and that would make me feel even more self-conscious and anxious and even more uncomfortable than you’re uncomfortable. And, I’d feel guilty that I was depriving you of what I know you wanted to do, which is drink (a lot), which is sort of what I’m feeling like I want to do. Or, I’d want to stand on my chair and shout “I’m sober. None of you believed I could do it and on some days, I didn’t think so, either.”
It’s confusing for all of us.
So, to Sober Sally’s family, I get it. Hug Sally, welcome her, and give her room to feel how she feels.
If I were Sober Sally, I’d be grateful if you engaged me a way that built relationship and wasn’t related to drinking – or, not drinking – in any way. Because for me, frankly, this day stopped being about family the day I realized I could drink to oblivion and it was considered to be accepted. Help me find a way to be a part of the family in a new way. Include me in setting the table, serving the food, washing the dishes. Help me stay busy and be less alone as the only drinker in the group.
Know that her attendance at a family gathering – or, not attending – is not the same as loving you. Or, mix it up this year and celebrate the holiday in a completely different way at a completely different place so Sally being sober isn’t the only thing that seems different and unfamiliar than years past.
And, to Sober Sally, realize that you have choices. You can stop by the traditional booze-filled-family Thanksgiving celebration to give everybody a hug, enjoy some of your favorite artichoke dip, and then slip out to other plans: hit an AA meeting or join a Thanksgiving celebration with other sober people. The family? They’re going to talk about you anyway.
*I’m not Sober Sally, because I was still in treatment for my first sober Thanksgiving. Started with Halloween, then my first sober birthday, then Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then New Years.
ODAAT: Some people say “you can’t go back” with a tinge of sadness in their voice. The Promises on p. 83-84 of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous tell us that “We will not regret the past nor with to shut the door on it.” Living a sober life, I get to say “I don’t want to go back to the way it was.” I make a different choice.