In a recurring skit on “Saturday Night Live,” Bobby Moynihan plays “drunk uncle,” a character who becomes more outrageous, combative and inappropriate with each gulp from his ever-present glass. The routine gets big laughs, but in real life, it’s anything but funny dealing with the anxiety, embarrassment and frustration that an actual drunk uncle (or sister, son, nephew or parent) can cause. If there’s someone in your life whose drinking always seems to culminate in a drunk uncle-type scene, you may find yourself dreading the holiday get-togethers and wondering how you can keep things from going off the rails this year. Should you just keep your fingers crossed and hope for peace? Do you finally say something and risk making things worse? Do you lay down ultimatums that might cause hard feelings throughout the family? Each situation is unique, but there are three key things to remember when trying to determine the best response:
- You can’t stop drinking for someone, but you can help them want to stop.
- Problem drinkers face very real consequences that shouldn’t be minimized or ignored — addiction, DUIs, damage to physical and mental health, potentially deadly accidents and overdose, to name just a few.
- No matter how severe or entrenched the substance abuse problem, recovery is possible.
An Education in Sobriety
The first step in trying to help your own “drunk uncle” is educating yourself so you’ll better understand what they’re going through — and perhaps be able to help them understand it as well. Groups like Al-Anon can be an important source of information and support from those who share your experience. And take advantage of the wealth of online resources to learn about the science behind their loss of control. For example, addiction was once written off as a weakness or a moral flaw. Today, a growing body of research explains it as an acquired, progressive brain disease that some people are more susceptible to than others due to issues such as genetics, environment and underlying conditions such as depression or anxiety. ` Over time, addiction changes the brain’s structures and reward circuitry and diminishes the person’s ability to make good choices. That means recovery takes time, as the damage slowly heals. It also means you can’t expect to shame a person into quitting. All that does is increase their stress and self-loathing and make them more likely to turn to the bottle to handle the uncomfortable emotions you’ve inspired. Some people may be able to learn to moderate their drinking (and if you confront your relative, he or she will undoubtedly insist they are one of this group). Others, however, will come to realize they’re dealing with addiction and need support and treatment in order to abstain and recover. And if you’re not sure there’s really a problem? “Someone who consistently overserves themselves during family functions, that in and of itself speaks volumes,” says Jon Perkins, licensed clinical social worker and the executive director of The Right Step Hill Country alcohol and drug treatment center in Texas. “If they can’t tolerate being around family without being drunk or if they can’t participate in family functions without being buzzed, that’s a sign they may be relying too much on alcohol or drugs.” And if they show that combative “drunk uncle” behavior? “Conflict in and of itself is normal,” Perkins says. “Conflict while intoxicated is a sign.”
So how and when do you broach such an indisputably sensitive subject? How do you tell a family member “Your drinking is ruining the holiday” without ruining the holiday in the process? “Most times, it’s more helpful to have the conversation prior to the event,” explains Todd Dugas, LCSW, the executive director at Promises Austin, a leader in holistic addiction treatment. “The people who care about the alcoholic may feel burdened, like somehow they have to create the container and both not offend the affected individual and also maintain a holiday spirit.” Trying to set some parameters in advance can lessen that stress for everyone, Dugas says. “You might say, ‘I understand it may be difficult for you not to drink on the holiday. And if you find it too difficult to be abstinent while you are at the family functions, maybe it’s best if you limit your time here or not attend.’” That, he admits, is “a real awkward conversation. But the other option is to wait and hope for the best, and that may not turn out well. Because most times the process is this: The person will think OK, I’m gonna do well this year. And they might be OK by lunchtime, but by early afternoon, they’re intoxicated. Everyone there is hoping somebody would say something. But by the time someone does, they normally over-respond and things gets very tense and uncomfortable.” The person may or may not be receptive to the message when it comes, but the point is to make it clear that you are in their corner but that all of you, the drinker included, deserves a better family moment.
Drunk Doesn’t Equal Happy
It’s fine if the topic of their drinking and alcoholism does come up spontaneously during the gathering, Dugas says. The key is to avoid doing it in such a way that it triggers a shame response in the person that can cause them to shut down emotionally or find it even tougher to regulate their drinking. Jason Powers, MD, a positive psychology expert and the chief medical officer of Promises Austin and The Right Step addiction treatment centers, agrees. “I think it’s never a mistake to share how you feel,” he says. “If you feel afraid, share that. Just make sure you talk about your feelings, not judgment. If you do that, even if a person’s got active addiction, their soul will be touched.” The message that each of your efforts should be aiming for is that good times aren’t dependent on getting drunk. “Nobody gets into recovery and regrets not having active addiction,” Dr. Powers says. But that can be tough for the drinker to believe. “If you’re an alcoholic, the thought of not drinking is misery because when you don’t drink you are generally in a bad mood, you’re suffering, you’re under this impression you need it,” Dr. Powers says. “But drinking is a coping skill, sort of like a parachute. And nobody wants to jump out of a plane without a parachute. But without fail, you make a new parachute before you hit the ground. You just have to take that leap.” By Kendal Patterson Follow Kendal on Twitter @kendalpatterson