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How to Avoid a Code-Red Christmas

Five ways to stop drunken family from ruining the holidays.

By Cathy Patterson-Sterling 20 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Cathy Patterson-Sterling, MA, is a program director for the Sunshine Coast Health Centre, which offers an expanded guide on this topic called Avoiding Code Red: Five Ways To Stop Intoxicated Family Members From Ruining The Holidays And Special Events. To download a PDF of this guide, go to www.sunshinecoasthealthcentre.ca, push the red button or click Contact Us, scroll down to the brochure order line, and then double-click the Avoiding Code Red guide.

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Uncle Joe's here!

Not all of us live in the idealized world depicted in shows from the 1950s or Normal Rockwell paintings. During the Christmas season, commercials bombard us with images of happy, shiny people beaming with pride and family unity.

In reality, the vast majority of us have family members or relatives who make us cringe.

We dread their arrival at our holiday dinners or special events since they are often intoxicated as they make rude comments, have angry outbursts, and then bumble around the room accidentally wrecking our belongings.

I remember asking my cousin -- who had just taken a drunken tumble down the spiral staircase -- if he had ever considered attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. My timing may not have been the most appropriate. He did not talk to me for five years. Then there was also my uncle who every year would sit quietly in the corner drinking his beer falling asleep. At intermittent intervals he would wildly arise out of his chair, threaten to challenge everyone in the room to a fight since he was so tough, and then slowly pass out back to his deep snoring sounds. I won't even begin to tell you about Aunt Lorna who at the age of 79 and with a few shots of whiskey in her had an eye for all the young single bachelors in the room. She would wink as she made her flirtatious moves, but fortunately all the men thought she was suffering from some type of early onset dementia twitch. I could share with you hours of stories about my Christmas dinners and holiday celebrations.

In my family, we have argued about the other relatives and found ways to avoid the most obnoxious ones. Along the way, I developed my own survival strategies. While working with families impacted by addiction over the years, I have had the honor of witnessing the healing that can occur when families stop ignoring the behaviours of chaos-creating relatives.

Family collusion

Annoyed family members may collude, trying to hide the details of where and when future gatherings are taking place in hopes that these party-crashing relatives will not attend. Like a wart that does not go away, these chaos-creators can be counted on to make time in their dysfunctional schedules to spoil family functions.

My Uncle Joe is a prime example. Family members check ahead of time to see if Uncle Joe is coming to events, and if he is then they will not attend these functions. The drama among the surrounding family members increases and plays out like a homeland security alert:

Code Green: Uncle Joe is nowhere to be found and does not look like he will be attending the family Christmas this year.

Code Blue: One of the family members spoke with Uncle Joe and he is alive.

Code Yellow: Another one of the family members spoke with Uncle Joe and he is asking what the rest of us are doing for Christmas.

Code Orange: Uncle Joe now knows the date and time for dinner and will be arriving with his latest girlfriend. Christmas is becoming a dreaded event. Family members furiously call each other. Resentments are formed towards the family member who divulged where Christmas dinner will be held.

Code Red: Uncle Joe has arrived with a smile on his face and a bottle of whiskey in his hands. He plants a slobbery kiss on each person he encounters. After an hour, Uncle Joe is bragging about how he can "take on" anybody in a fight. Before long, he's passing out in a corner, talking about how sexy he is, and clumsily attempting to peel off his shirt.

The next morning, a family member offers Uncle Joe a cup of coffee. No one discusses the events of the previous evening.

Five tips for cutting the chaos

It's the same every year. It is as if we are watching a train wreck about to happen and we can't help but sit back and watch.

Of course we do not have to be a captive audience. Here are five tips that can help us salvage our holidays and other special occasions:

Tip #1: Don't give the chaos creator all the power. As family members we can needlessly stress ourselves out by anticipating how chaos-creators will take over upcoming events. Instead, we can find some peace by deciding how much time negative people will consume of our thoughts.

Tip #2: Decide on your limits and set your boundaries. Chaos-creators do not have to have free reign over events. If you are hosting the dinner or have certain expectations about an alcohol-abuser not getting intoxicated then decide on your personal limits.

Tip #3: Pick the right time. Consider the right time to set boundaries. Do not wait until the person is intoxicated. Approach this person well ahead of time -- weeks or even months -- with your concerns.

Tip #4: Identify family enablers and support them. Some family members will take pity on chaos-creators and become upset when you set boundaries. Remember that making people aware of the impact of their behaviours is a gift, especially if a person has an addiction that everyone else is ignoring.

Tip #5: Remember this is a process. Some families have a "hands off" rule, and they protect each other from perceived attacks. When you set boundaries and refuse to be quiet about others' obnoxious or even self-destructive behaviours, then you are giving them a gift of self-awareness. Remember that we teach people how to treat us, and you can never expect anyone else to change if you never let them know about the impact of their behaviours.

By setting boundaries, you stop being a victim of other people's actions. When we no longer ignored chaos-creators' behaviours in our family, things began to change as well. Fortunately, my cousin did not need AA or treatment and he did start talking to me again. I also noticed that he has not been intoxicated at any family event since this past incident several years ago. As for my uncle, his family did an intervention and he has now been sober for two years. I supported them through this process and shared with them how to confront him about his drinking with great care, concern, as well as love. Aunt Lorna is still her old gracious self and continues her penchant for younger men.

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