The night before Thanksgiving, Sarah Allen Benton would meet hometown friends to begin a season of binge drinking.
"During the holidays, even those without alcohol problems may find that they are drinking more than they have the rest of the year," said Benton, a therapist in Waltham, Mass., and author of "Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic: Breaking the Cycle and Finding Hope" (Rowman & Littlefield), a term that described her until eight years ago.
But even with a packed holiday social calendar, it's possible to combine moderation with celebration or to abstain while having fun.
Setting some intentions and boundaries can help thwart overindulging or just manage stress over the holidays, said Gregory Jantz, author of 28 books and founder of the treatment center A Place of Hope in Seattle.
Get an index card and write a simple commitment, such as, "I'm going to handle the holidays differently by (whatever)," Jantz said. "I want you to carry that card with you. I don't want you to put it on your smartphone. I want you to write it in your own handwriting. Three times a day I want you to pull it out and say it right then." If you decide to cut alcohol, consider one benefit: "The average person gains 7 to 8 pounds at the holiday season," Jantz said. "You're making a decision, 'I'm going to build some strong self-care during the holidays, which has to do with less alcohol.'"
Identify triggers — people, topics — that may bring on anger, fear and guilt, which Jantz says are three deadly emotions. Identify two or three people at a gathering with whom you feel grounded and circulate back to them. Come with a conversation starter that can fill a void. Get some exercise and consume a source of protein just before going. Drink two glasses of water when you arrive. "If someone wants to hand you a cocktail, say, 'Oh, thank you, I'll have that in just a minute,'" Jantz said. Avoid mixed drinks. It's harder to control the amount of alcohol in them.
Plan your drinking. "People go in wishy-washy and say, 'I'll have just a few drinks,'" Benton said. "If you plan to have two, if you don't have a problem, you should be able to stick to that. If you plan to have two and have eight, that's a problem." Those who want to abstain should consider bringing a substitute drink with them. If you'll be expected to consume alcohol, prepare a line or quip to explain why you're not — that you're fighting a cold or training for a race. Don't expect applause for your restraint. "If I relied on others' opinions, I'd be drinking again," Benton, 36, said.
Set a time frame, as in, "I will stay at this gathering for two hours." Resist pleas to stay. "Over time I realized that if someone does care if I leave, it's going to be for like 5 minutes," said advertising executive Peter Rosch, who finished rehab just before Thanksgiving four years ago (see related story). "The world doesn't revolve around me, and people know how to have a good time when I'm not there." Rosch uses an exit strategy from his drinking days. "I used to just leave parties without saying a word; I'd do the Irish goodbye. I adopted that in my sobriety. And much like when I drank and disappeared, most people didn't notice, and those who did knew what was up."
Create a new tradition. People often attend an event or linger for fear of offending or missing out, Benton said. If a large event is too much for you, consider hosting or coordinating a smaller one. "People are afraid to make changes or to not show up," Benton said. "Be honest with yourself: Do you enjoy it? There's a lot of obligation over the holidays, but the holidays aren't the only time to spend time with family or friends. People become victim to the holidays, but you can take a proactive stance."
Rosch's wife comes from a large Italian family that often has a triple-header of Christmas functions with 25 to 40 people apiece.
"When I was drinking, I would have been gung-ho about going to all three," he said. "Now it's like, 'I'm going to do that one.' You have to be a little more selective about where you're putting yourself and remember that the moment it gets uncomfortable you can just leave. It's about taking care of yourself."
All of this said, if you're dwelling on a drinking strategy, look honestly at whether drinking works for you at all.
"People can go through heavy drinking periods and phase out of them and not be an alcoholic," Benton said. "But I wasn't one of them."
Learning to be the life of the party — sober
Today, four years into sobriety, advertising executive Peter Rosch can linger at any party and, he said, "carry on far more interesting conversations than anyone ever got from me in those last few years of being a drunk."
Now 39, Rosch thought for years he was no heavier a drinker than most of his friends and colleagues.
"New York City is a big drinking town, and advertising is a pretty hard-core-drinking industry," he said. "I lived sort of a work-hard/play-hard lifestyle, which isn't something that's necessary, but it's a common mentality that people in high-pressure jobs adopt, and I went with that. … There were nights here and there where there were incidents, but it kind of worked for me. I was a functioning alcoholic for a lot of years."
Alcoholism, though, is a progressive disease, and by his mid-30s, Rosch started wondering if he had a problem. But he ignored his own concerns. "Around the time I was 34 or 35, I started to think that maybe I'm going to have a problem, but I was certainly not ready to admit it. I surrounded myself with other problem drinkers and alcoholics to keep it seeming normal. A lot of the people who were out drinking, as it turned out, were not drinking as hard as I thought they were. That was the biggest shock when I got sober."
He hit bottom in 2008 after a decision to go freelance and a breakup afforded him more free time.