Supporting Family and Friends in Recovery This Holiday Season

December 18, 2017

Bill Coffey, MSS, LCSW is a Staff Therapist at our Center City and Voorhees, New Jersey locations. Bill has decades of experience working with individuals, couples, and families in recovery.

‘Tis the season to be full of cheer, happiness and food! For most people, the holiday season means cherished family time, exchanging of gifts, and children’s eyes open wide with wonder.

For years, I have referred to the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s as the “drinking and eating season.” During this time, many indulge in their favorite libation at office and family parties. Even folks that normally don’t drink too much will suddenly have regrettable episodes of drunkenness.

When we go to a house party, one of the first things asked is ‘what are you drinking’ or ‘can I get you a drink’? If you decline, a look of bewilderment may appear on the host’s face, and they might even make a joke about you being a teetotaler or tease you about being a member of the Temperance Society. Most of us would find this uncomfortable if not downright annoying, but for some who are trying to stay sober, this commentary may be disheartening.

The same reasons that make this season enjoyable for most will actually cause quite a burden for others. Newly recovering alcohol abusers know that this is the most difficult time of year to get through, and that the first holiday season is likely the toughest. They know they are missing out on what they used to consider fun, and this can bring up feelings of nostalgia and sadness. They also know that sobriety after a relapse is not a given, and this can make it scary to be around alcohol and those who are drinking.

Advice for Individuals and Families in Recovery

I’ve worked with recovering alcohol and substance abusers for over 30 years. I know how difficult the holidays can be. I’ve included some advice for recovering alcohol abusers and their families. (Please know that this advice does not constitute health care advice. We encourage readers to consult with their own health care professional.)

My first advice to the recovering alcohol abuser is to be mindful of what environments they put themselves in. Avoid any parties that aren’t important or that will be particularly stressful due to potential triggers or other factors. As for the gatherings that are required, it may help to arrive late and leave early. If possible, bring a supportive family member or friend to have your back throughout the event. Just having a trusted friend nearby may provide the confidence to steer clear of the alcohol. As many in recovery know, staying connected to one’s support system is vital.

Family members of a newly recovering alcohol abuser may experience anxiety throughout the first holiday season. It is important to be mindful that just having alcohol around can create dangerous urges in your loved one. Just seeing alcohol changes the brain chemistry of an alcohol abuser in a way that it doesn’t for non-alcohol abusers. The adage “arrive late and leave early” can be helpful for anyone. Being mindful of our own alcohol consumption is another good way to respect and support our loved ones in recovery. I think we could all be more diligent with our alcohol consumption during the holiday drinking season.


Bill Coffey, LCSW, specializes in treating all aspects of substance abuse, including working with the person abusing substances and his/her family. Other areas of interest and expertise include sexual addiction and its effect on the individual and family, and couples in high conflict. Request an appointment today.