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Playing the Sober Host

December 9th, 2019 Guest Posts


rustic dinner table

This guest post comes to us from the legendary Jean McCarthy, host of The Bubble Hour podcast and author of the UnPickled blog. She recently shared her Sober Story with us here. This post is an excerpt from her new book “UnPickled Holiday Survival Guide: Staying Alcohol-Free During the Festive Season” which is available here


Worried about hosting holiday events as a person in recovery? Wondering if you have to choose between social commitments and sobriety? It’s common for those contemplating sobriety to delay the endeavour until after an upcoming event.

“If I quit now, I won’t be able to join the champagne toast at my daughter’s wedding.”

“There no point in giving up alcohol before the Super Bowl!”

This type of thinking makes the holidays a difficult time to quit.

“I’ll quit on January 1st because I have tickets to a gala for New Year’s Eve.”

“I can’t get through spending the holidays with my family without a little rum in the eggnog.”

There may never be a convenient window of time on the calendar, and even if there is, it may not necessarily coincide with emotional readiness for making the change, which can come and go.

The fact is that no matter what time of year a person gives up alcohol, eventually the holiday season rolls around. Whether a person has accumulated sobriety counted in months, weeks, days, or hours, the first time encountering the holidays is a new experience.

Erin’s Nest

A Bubble Hour guest named Erin told a story about quitting drinking just before Thanksgiving years ago, even though she was scheduled to host a large dinner. She proceeded with the event for family members but took great care to protect her sobriety during the process.

Erin made herself a little nest in her walk-in closet, a comfy pile of pillows and blankets on the floor. She added some snacks, water bottles, and books. Whenever Erin felt overwhelmed during the event, she slipped away from her guests for a “time out” in her special place. She reset her energy, checked in with her online support group, took a sip of water or had a bite to eat, and reemerged ready to continue. No one noticed her absence, as it was just a few minutes here and there.

I love Erin’s story because her solution was both simple and radical. She didn’t have to go to great lengths to support herself through a difficult challenge, but only had to think outside the usual way of doing things. She also had to permit herself to indulge a little, which can feel uneasy when responsible for the comfort and pleasures of everyone else.

Expectation Assessment

It’s essential to start with sussing out any unrealised expectations you may have for yourself and others. Some expectations regarding hosting could include:

  • how elaborate the decor and menu need to be
  • how responsible you are for others having a good time
  • what others will contribute
  • how grateful people will or will not be
  • who gets invited (and who chooses to attend)
  • your appearance and behaviour at the event
  • if exchanging gifts is expected
  • traditions to be honoured

Planning an elaborate decor and menu is fine if you enjoy the extra work involved. The effort becomes burdensome when it’s considered a measure of your worth or a reflection of your love. Also, attending to too many unnecessary details may mean neglecting essential self-care like sleeping and eating properly, which can result in cravings for alcohol.

The Surprising Truth About People-Pleasing

Being a people-pleaser is common among those who struggle with alcohol. As Melody Beattie explains in “Codependent No More,” people-pleasing is a coping skill learned in childhood to get love and attention.

A people-pleaser will disregard their own wishes in order to do what they think others want of them, making a fuss over others in a way that goes above and beyond normal levels of consideration and responsible social interaction.

This behaviour is a form of manipulation, disguised as caring. It is a way to feel safe and in control, and perhaps beyond criticism. Ironically, it is often annoying and anxiety-provoking to others.

If you relate to the description of a people-pleaser, you will find enormous benefit from the work of Beattie and others on the topic of codependency.

For the longest time, I thought the term meant “the spouse of an alcoholic or addict,” but it does not. Codependency is the reliance on others for one’s definition of self.

On the surface, people-pleasers are excellent hosts. Behind the scenes, however, the extreme efforts to exceed overly high standards can take a toll. A much as they hope to make others happy, it’s difficult for them to feel approval even when they get it.

I write this from a place of personal experience. The healing work I have pursued around the subject of codependency and being ‘other focussed’ has produced some of the most significant and powerful changes in my life.

Something’s Gotta Give…

Sobriety can require a little extra planning, so budget time and energy to accommodate your own needs. Avoid the temptation to spend all your resources (time, money, creativity, and enthusiasm) on the event you’re hosting, only to find that you’ve shortchanged your recovery.

Prioritize sobriety because it is the cornerstone of your health and wellbeing.

This may mean that some components of the event are compromised, scaled-back, eliminated, pre-made or hired out. It may mean having gravy from a pouch or store-boughten pie. A simple bouquet of fall leaves could replace the papier-mâché centrepiece your mother-in-law sent you instructions for, and maybe you nap for an hour the day before instead of making hand-calligraphed placecards.

A Few Pointers

Consider declaring your event alcohol-free. Brunch can have less of an expectation for alcohol to be served than other meals, making it an excellent option.

If you choose to allow alcohol at your event, ask a friend or family member to be in charge of the bar. Do not expect yourself to handle or serve alcohol. Arrange for help with the cleanup, too. Emptying partially empty glasses can be triggering.

Have plenty of non-alcoholic options, front and centre. You’d be surprised how many people opt-out of alcohol when given other choices.

Ask guests to take leftover alcohol home with them. If any booze remains, have a helper dispose of it or take it away.

If the budget allows, hire out as much of the work as possible. Flowers, food prep, and cleaning services are an excellent investment in your health and wellbeing.

Reflection Exercise:

Imagine the special accommodations you would make for a sober person attending an event at your home. Write out all of the ways you would support a friend in recovery at your party, dinner, or gathering. These are the things you should do for yourself as the host of the event. Be as kind and thoughtful towards yourself as you are to others.


Excerpt from “UnPickled Holiday Survival Guide: Staying Alcohol-Free During the Festive Season” by Jean McCarthy. To purchase visit www.jeanmccarthy.ca/books

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