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It’s Thanksgiving, and Everyone Wonders Why You’re Not Drinking: How to Explain Your Recovery to Relatives

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The holidays are just around the corner.

This may be the first time you’re seeing some relatives since you entered recovery, and if that makes you anxious, you are not alone. It can be difficult for people who are newly sober to know how to talk about changes they have made in their lives with family members they don’t see regularly. While the decision about how much to share is entirely yours, it may be helpful to anticipate some of the questions that might arise and have a plan for how you would like to respond.

“Would you like a drink?”

Because a lot of people stop drinking alcohol for a variety of reasons, there are a number of ways to turn down alcohol in social settings, only one of which is to be direct in discussing your recovery journey. You also have the option to:

  • Cite your health – alcohol can negatively impact a person’s physical well-being in many ways; whether they are trying to lose weight, are on medications that react poorly to alcohol, or are simply feeling under the weather, plenty of people don’t drink.
  • Say you’re being responsible – by saying that you’re staying sober to drive or to optimize your performance at work or on school assignments later, you offer a reason for not drinking without opening a discussion about recovery.
  • Say you’ve had enough – it’s not lying to say that you’ve already hit your limit (even if that happened long ago, before you went into treatment).
  • Stay vague – no one is entitled to know another person’s full history, so it is also perfectly reasonable to say, “I’m not drinking tonight,” “I don’t drink,” or “I quit drinking,” with no further explanation.

“Why did you stop?”

Everyone seems to have that one relative who needs all of the details. Perhaps they really care or maybe they are a busybody. Regardless of their motivations, it’s up to you to decide how much of your recovery story you would like to share. You can use the reasons above to deflect the conversation, but if you feel ready to share, it might be helpful to consider how knowledgeable and supportive your family members are about addiction. In many families, substance use disorder is a problem that multiple generations have experienced. It’s possible that your aunt, cousin, or grandfather has already known someone who struggled with addiction, or may have even done so themselves.

Attitudes about substance use, recovery, and mental health have varied over time. Not only may there have been breakthroughs in our understanding of addiction, but science has given us Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) and Narcan. It will be up to you to decide if you want to have such a lengthy and in-depth conversation about recovery with relatives you may only see a couple of times per year. If not, it may be easier to say something like, “I didn’t like who I was when I was under the influence,” and leave it at that.

“Didn’t you say that before?”

Family and friends may struggle to understand that relapse is sometimes part of recovery. Many people don’t understand addiction to be a chronic disease that can have setbacks. Again, knowing the person’s attitude and level of knowledge around substance use disorder can be helpful in deciding if this is a conversation you’re ready to have with them. You are under no obligation to gift them with the hard-earned knowledge you now have about addiction, but if you choose to share with them, it may be helpful to say something like you’re still learning about your recovery and that your misstep led you to strengthen your treatment plan.

Unsupportive Comments

Because addiction tends to be a disease that afflicts multiple generations of a family, one might assume that family members would understand and support a loved one in breaking the cycle of substance abuse disorder. Denial can be very strong, however. Also, our society has a way of reinforcing and normalizing substance use. Even if it should be abundantly clear that recovery is the best choice for you, there may be people who show resistance or even hostility toward your decision.

Rather than engaging with these people, the best course of action for your own mental health and recovery might be to limit your interactions with them. You can refuse to engage with a person who isn’t supportive of your recovery.

If it’s not an option to physically remove yourself from the problematic person’s presence or to stop conversing with them, you might consider redirection. Every good superhero has a catchphrase, and now you can too. One of the phrases below, uttered without sarcasm, but in a tone of true sincerity, whenever you encounter someone who isn’t on board with your recovery, might steer the conversation in a new direction or at least shut down unproductive talk:

  • “To each their own.”
  • “Agree to disagree.”
  • “You have a right to your opinion.”
  • “Thank you for sharing.”
  • “Tell me about what you’ve been up to.”
  • “This seems like talk that is too heavy after such a filling and delicious meal.”

If all else fails, have an escape route. If you find yourself in a situation that feels threatening to your mental health or substance abuse recovery, you are not obligated to stay. Consider driving yourself to the gathering and having an excuse for why you need to leave early should things take a turn in a negative direction.

At Fair Oaks Recovery Center, we encourage our guests to make their recovery their top priority and to set boundaries with family and friends in order to sustain that recovery long-term.

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For more information about programs offered at Fair Oaks Recovery Center, including our intensive outpatient program in Sacramento, please call us today at (888) 989-9690.