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How to make alcoholics in recovery feel welcome this holiday season

I was recently at a private home for a small holiday dinner with colleagues, all of whom work in the field of addiction. The host, himself a physician who treats substance use disorders, pressed a drink on a young male colleague who had politely declined the proffered glass of wine.

"Come on," said the host, elaborating on his favorite vino, "it’s got a great bouquet."

The young man refused again, but the host would not be deterred, and insisted that he at least try it. The room became silent, seeming to hang for a moment on the young man’s decision. He reluctantly took the drink, letting only the merest amount of alcohol pass his lips, then placed the glass on the table and did not touch it again for the rest of the evening.

I assume, though I acknowledge I may be entirely wrong in my assumption, that the young man declined the drink because he is an alcoholic in recovery - as are a sizable percentage of physicians in the field of addiction-treatment – and he was embarrassed to admit among professional peers that he abstains for this reason. Yet caught unawares, he was equally unable to conjure another explanation. If I am correct, then this scenario speaks to the need for greater general awareness among hosts about the alcoholic’s dilemma.

Addiction is a stigmatizing illness, and many individuals who suffer from addiction are careful about with whom they share this information, for good reason. ‘Recovery’ is the catch-phrase for the process whereby the addiction is treated, and for many, recovery involves abstinence from the drug of choice. The dilemma then becomes how to abstain in a context where consuming the substance is considered standard behavior, while still preserving one’s anonymity.

As we move through this holiday season and plan gatherings with friends and family - adding rum to our eggnog and whisky to our mulled wine - we might give some thought as to how to make these events as warm and welcoming as they can be for those in recovery, while still continuing time-honored traditions of serving alcoholic beverages to those who are not.

Therefore, I offer up these suggestions to guide hosts and hostesses this holiday season:

  • Serve plenty of non-alcoholic alternatives. Especially welcome are those that can ‘pass’ as alcohol, like sparkling water in a champaigne glass, or a non-alcoholic beer.
  • Host a Saturday brunch, for example, rather than Saturday dinner, when alcoholic beverages are less likely to be expected or consumed.
  • When offering alcohol to guests, offer once, and if declined, move on! Better yet, simply ask guests what they would prefer to drink, and let them generate the response, rather than forcing a ‘yes/no’ response to alcohol.
  • If you as a host are made that uncomfortable by people who do not drink, you might ask yourself what is behind that discomfort.

Naturally I look forward to the day when addiction can be openly acknowledged and accommodated, without the accompanying shame. But in the meantime, during this time between Thanksgiving and New Year's, the heaviest drinking days of the year, be thoughtful about spreading good cheer in a way that also honors anonymity and recovery from substance use disorders.

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