If you are the adult child of an alcoholic then you probably know all too well that holidays and special occasions tend to turn into disasters. It’s a phenomenon that happens to families struggling with alcoholism/addiction.
You can bet that whatever the problem is, it’s gonna explode on your special day! Family events are the worst.
While family events are fun, they are also stressful, and many adults drink to help them feel more at ease. Even “regular drinkers” drink more on holidays and special occasions, which opens up the floodgates for individuals with alcohol use disorders to splurge even more than they already do.
It’s hard to understand why people can’t seem to keep it together during these special times. The important thing to know is that, the individual doesn’t set out with the intention of ruining the family event. What goes on in their head has everything to do with how things turn out.
The person will start by having a drink or two in order to relax and be more present with the family. However, this person is may also start engaging in “sneak drinking” so that their spouse (or other family members) won’t know that they are drinking or at least won’t know how much they are drinking. Sneak drinking generally involves having alcohol hid somewhere or taking extra drinks while no one is looking. Because they are sneak drinking, they have to GULP it down, resulting in the alcohol hitting hard and fast!
They are looking to hit the “sweet spot” (that magical point of euphoria, when you have just the right amount of alcohol), but unfortunately they almost always surpass it! Their brain will then start flooding with glutamate (the excitatory chemical that the brain is using to try and counteract all that alcohol. More on that here). This chemical can make people hyper, obnoxious, and even angry. At this point the alcohol has removed the person’s filter and you never know what’s gonna happen next!
The worst part of this whole story is that they likely won’t remember it the next day. They may remember bits and pieces but probably not all of it, and whatever memories they do have will be clouded by the alcohol. The loved ones will be embarrassed and angry about the whole situation, and they will probably think that this event will surely prove to the person that they have a drinking problem, but….
The next day when they try to confront the individual with the drinking problem, they are likely to be met with some sort of minimization of what happened. They will get some sort of rationalization, excuse, or flat out denial about what happened. Both people will have completely different memories about the events, and alcoholics have a super talent of being able to turn the situation around on the other person. In the end the family members walk away with lots of resentments and so does the alcoholic, because the alcoholic will feel unfairly criticized or judged.
You can see why children of alcoholic parents have almost PTSD like symptoms around the holidays. Usually they just remember their parents fighting, someone making a fool of themselves, or someone getting aggressive. Not a pretty picture! When you live this way for a long period of time, you start to anticipate the drama and eventually develop your own maladaptive coping skills to deal with it. Maybe you drink too, maybe you hide, maybe you avoid family functions all together, but rest assured you will develop some anticipation and anxiety around these situations.
Many of the parents of children with Substance Use Disorders, also have this same anxiety around holidays and special events. They are fearful because they don’t know if their child will show up, and if they do, they worry about what the kid might do. Other parents are just sad during holidays because it is a big time reminder of what they are missing. Eventually holidays become dreaded by everyone in the family.
If this scenario sounds familiar, then it’s time to reach out and get help. You deserve to enjoy holidays and have lots of good memories too. Remember people don’t have to “want to get better” in order to get better! Any person in the family can start the process, and now is a good time to start!