Christmas is a fraught time for many. Despite the glowing depictions of family bliss beaming from your television, the holiday is ripe for triggering any number of hard-weathered problems, from loneliness to debt, mental health issues to repressed family matters.
Of particular concern for many is alcohol. Alcohol is normalised at Christmas. Overindulging at the office Christmas party, drinking sherry as soon as the stockings are opened, keeping the party going until New Year. For most of us, the consequence of this focus on drinking is indulging a little more than normal, a couple of hangovers, a general feeling of unhealthiness and a desperate longing for Dry January to hurry up and start.
But for the children of alcoholics, Christmas is a treacherous time. With alcohol more prevalent, the triggers for their parents to drink are everywhere.
"Christmas is traditionally a time of the year when heavier drinking is more acceptable," explains Andrew Misell, the director of Alcohol Change UK in Wales. "Many of us will have more alcohol in the house, and this means that it’s easier for problematic drinking to pass largely unnoticed among the general merriment."
NACOA (The National Association for Children of Alcoholics) is a charity committed to providing a support line to children (grown-up or not) who deal with alcoholic parents. Christmas is a particularly busy time for them. Ahead, three of their ambassadors – all children of alcoholics – explain what Christmas is like for them, and how they try to cope.
If you are worried about a parent's alcohol consumption and need support, please contact NACOA via their website, or on their helpline: 0800 358 3456
"My mum has been an alcoholic for 32 years, ever since I was born. She is very much aware of her problem as she is a large binge drinker, meaning she can consume huge amounts of alcohol in a very short space of time and then stop.
Christmas is the one time of year everyone has a unity of celebration. It's the most sociable time of year and one of the largest social exercises is drinking. The Christmas party, the Christmas Day eggnog and mulled wine, the brandy pudding, the alcoholic gift packs on the shelves. The adverts scream alcohol at you. Most non-alcoholics don’t see this as difficult but for alcoholics it’s a reminder of everything they can’t have, they can’t do, they can’t buy, they can’t taste.
For my mum, Christmas is also a reminder of family and friends she has lost because of her drinking. The TV adverts with families sat around a table will be something she knows she is unable to experience. So to combat this she drinks, but unlike most times of the year, people don’t question someone buying 30 bottles of wine because 'it’s Christmas'. However, for Mum, these are not for presents – instead she will stash the bottles in carefully selected places to ensure that she has a constant supply. And if she runs out, there is plenty still available in the local shop and on offer, just to incentivise her more.
During a bad episode my mum can drink anything from two to seven bottles of wine a day and if not, she will inevitably choose something stronger such as vodka. She doesn’t drink to taste the alcohol, so most of the time it'll be drunk in four gulps and then on to the next. Once she is drunk, she has no inhibitions so when I was younger it would start with 'I’m sorry' and turn into violence if we tried to dispose of the alcohol. Now she is older, she is too weak to be violent, so she will be verbally abusive or she will pass out.
During a really bad episode, anything from her assaulting us or someone else for money or her being caught stealing can happen. She disappears for hours at a time. She has been found in numerous ditches, pubs, strangers' houses, in shop doorways or in police stations. The range of what could happen is so large that you learn not to be surprised by anything or you run the risk of feeling disappointed.
In short, there is no perfect way to tackle it. It is the hardest time of year for myself and my family, however there is no magic button or special idea that can fix things.
Me and my family have tried several things over the years to try to tackle the problem. First was finding her stashes and getting rid of them as soon as possible. This would lead to her becoming violent towards us. Then, we tried allowing her to drink in our presence so she could see the benefits of being social with it. This failed as she would need to drink far more. One year we cancelled Christmas to see if she would understand and try to stop, again to no avail.
Mum has attended rehabilitation four times over the years. Unfortunately, within weeks of returning she hit the bottle again. She also never found Alcoholics Anonymous helpful, despite several attempts. As with most alcoholics, she is not open or accepting of the problem and while she knows she has one, the depth of the issue never really hits home. When it does, she will just self-medicate to hide the shame and then the cycle begins again.
What has helped me and my family cope is accepting that nothing we do will change that outcome. She must make that decision on her own. In the meantime, we carry on as normal and make the best of the situation. We still decorate the tree, we still plan the dinner, we still share gifts and while it may be interrupted by the drinking, we don’t allow it to take up so much of our time. We wish each other well and we see it out like most families. If we can’t have turkey because Mum burnt it, then we have canned soup and pull a cracker. If we can’t drink wine, then we drink squash and pretend. Nowadays I have a family of my own, so my dad can spend Christmas away if he chooses and that is a little respite for him.
My advice to anyone going through anything similar would simply be not to blame yourself or think you could have done any more. As we grew to learn through years and years of experience, she will always manage to find the drink if she really wants it, no matter what we do. Never put yourself in danger and most of all their drinking must not be the centre of your world. You must be the centre."
"I would say my mum is a sporadic alcoholic. For as long as I can remember she would not drink and be fine but then she would fall back into it and drink for a week or two and argue with me, my sister and stepfather. I think she thinks she has a problem with alcohol but she doesn't want to admit that she does because she only falls into it sometimes, and has periods of being okay.
For my mother it has always been Christmas and birthdays that are the worst. I think this must be because although there are a lot of good things associated with Christmas, there is a pressure and stress to have a 'good Christmas' which my mother does not respond well to.
During a particularly bad time she will argue with me and my sister and say horrible things which she doesn't mean and would never say unless drunk – she is one of the loveliest mothers out there when she is sober. She argues more with my stepfather and gets more violent with him than she does with me and my sister. She usually disappears as well and goes out to pubs where she can drink without us interrupting. Furthermore, she gets suicidal and even tries to jump out of windows sometimes.
When I was very young I would always think that if I talked to her and was a good daughter this would help, so I would usually stay and try to support her and listen to her talk. However, looking back I have realised that although you should support your parent, you need to realise that you have nothing to do with it yourself and it is not your problem to fix.
She has spoken to psychologists but so far it has not worked because she never wants to continue as she believes that they are accusing her of being an alcoholic when she is not.
I think firstly, it is important that children of parents who drink too much should look out for themselves and focus on their own wellbeing. When I was younger, I remember looking out for signs such as changes in behaviour and this would trigger me to try to find where alcohol was hidden so I could get rid of it. This put pressure on me and I would blame myself if I did not manage to deal with the situation in a way that my mother would stop drinking. Rather than doing this I would advise people who are worried about their parents drinking to look out for themselves and make sure they do not take responsibility. It is easy to become a parent to your parent because you love them so much, but you must remember that some things are out of your hands.
Furthermore, try to be supportive but do not let this put you in situations where you are the victim of your alcoholic parent. I think it is perfectly okay to protect yourself from that side of them. Finally, do not compare your Christmas to other people's; trying to keep up a facade during Christmas can be hard when you hear about the lovely times your friends are having when Christmas is a disaster in your household. But when I look back on two Christmases ago, when my mother had run away and we ate Christmas dinner extremely worried, the bond we created that day was very strong because of the crisis we were facing. Although it was a horrible Christmas that left me very shaken up, I think something positive came out of it. The bonds with those around you and your parent get stronger in such extreme conditions – my sister and I are very close and I think this is because we have faced things together."
*Name has been changed
"I think my father was aware he was an alcoholic, however we never had an open conversation with him about it and he never admitted it to anyone. My guess was he was scared to seem like a failure. Friends had tried to talk to him about it but he was always defensive.
It brought a lot of tension in the house. When he was drunk he was a lot more argumentative. We would often worry about him returning home safe after a night of drinking, so there were a lot of sleepless nights.
When he passed away (Jabz's father died in an accident where alcohol was involved), I had the initial feeling of shock and immense sense of disappointment. I used to ask myself, 'Why would he not try to seek help, at least for the sake of his family?' But after I processed those emotions, it may sound cliched, but I was at peace with the fact that he was in a better place. That he no longer had to deal with whatever demons led him to drink. Although we miss him dearly, there is a noticeable change in atmosphere in the house, the tension that existed is no longer there.
There's definitely nothing wrong with enjoying a drink. A problem drinker is not necessarily someone who drinks every day, but is definitely a person where alcohol interferes with their day-to-day. For those worried about their parents I would say that aside from the obvious signs of alcohol dependency, also look out for subtle things like being unable to attend work the next day on more than one instance (or shirking other responsibilities), skipping hobbies that they once enjoyed, being frequently disruptive at family activities, and engaging in behaviour that is dangerous to themselves and others. Do they tend to use alcohol as a crutch during difficult times such as bereavement, job loss and more?
There is no formula or one rule fits all when broaching the subject with a parent. It's a very hard discussion. It is important that the children involved have someone to confide in, possibly outside of the family dynamic, who may not be able to provide a solution but can act like a listening ear, to validate and hold importance to the child's feelings. In situations such as these, often the child's feeling get overshadowed as most of the attention is directed towards the alcoholic parent. I appreciate it is difficult to find a listening ear, particularly for children under 18. This is a service that NACOA provides over the phone but also doctors and teachers are a good point of call.
If you do choose to have a discussion with the parent in question, it should be voiced from a place of concern. With less focus on what the parent is doing 'wrong' and more on how worried or scared it makes you feel when they are in a state and the possible risk of harm. It is vital for children to remember that they themselves are not to blame for such a situation. As children, we forget that our parents are very much human, prone to bad choices and still in the process of learning life's big lessons. It is by no means an excuse for their behaviour but just something to bear in mind."