A Cup of Good Cheer: Drinking and the Holidays

It's getting close to midnight on New Year's Eve. About 50 people are gathered in a big room. In one corner, a giant coffee urn sends its invigorating fragrance into the air. Mounds of donuts and cookies are disappearing rapidly. One man tells the crowd, "There isn't a place on earth I'd rather be right now than in this room with all of you." He gives a mock shudder. "You couldn't pay me to be out there on Amateur Night!" The room rocks with laughter.

Is it a party? A church social? A remake of Cheers? None of the above--it's one of the marathon meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous that take place in cities and towns all over the country on the night when a lot of people, many of whom are not considered problem drinkers, think it's obligatory to go out and get as drunk as they possibly can. What else is there to New Year's Eve as a holiday? Turning on the TV and watching the ball drop in Times Square? Not much of a high old time, is it, unless you booze it up--whether your alcoholic drink of choice is Veuve Cliquot or White Lightning. As a result, a lot of people spend the latter part of the evening throwing up, crashing their cars, or having sex they'll later regret. No wonder recovering alcoholics call it Amateur Night.

If those who get loaded on New Year's Eve are amateurs, that must mean that if you're a pro at drinking, you're probably an alcoholic. The folks in the AA meeting can reflect on their past behavior and its consequences only because they're sober. If you pride yourself on your hard head or how little you're affected by large quantities of booze--or wine or beer or eggnog--you may have increased tolerance for alcohol, which is a symptom of alcohol dependence. If you can't wait for the holiday season to make it okay to get blitzed, maybe alcohol is getting to be too important to you. That could be a sign of an emerging alcohol problem, or it could signal some other emotional problem. Are you running away from your feelings? from responsibility? from depression or anxiety? from unmanageable relationships? When you add alcohol to problems, they mask the problems briefly. But when the alcohol is gone, the problems remain--as do whatever additional problems result from your drinking.

If you drink too much at a party, get behind the wheel, and end up with a totaled car and the death of friends or strangers on your conscience, it doesn't matter if you never really drink like that except on New Year's Eve, or Christmas, or whatever excuse you gave yourself. The trouble with "drinking responsibly" is that even a little alcohol in your bloodstream affects your judgment and your ability to behave responsibly. And if you are an undiagnosed alcoholic, you may find that once you've had a little, you're unable to stop. Loss of control is another symptom of alcohol dependence--as is the denial that makes people with alcohol problems blow off any suggestion that they're in trouble with their drinking.

The current trend of appointing designated drivers who haven't been drinking to take the wheel after a party is a great improvement on the carefree way in which people used to ignore the fact that a car with a drunk driver can be a lethal weapon. But it isn't enough. Car accidents are only a fraction of the damage that can be caused by too much alcohol. Alcohol abuse or dependence can cause such severe illnesses as hepatitis and pancreatitis and can be a factor in health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, and some cancers. Problem drinking can affect your work, your relationships, and your ability to tolerate your own normal feelings, which is the key to emotional health. A government fact sheet from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse (updated 2018) reports more than 15 million adult Americans with alcohol use disorder, of whom only 6.7 percent got treatment, though there are 88,000 alcohol-related deaths every year. Denial means continuing to drink in spite of adverse consequences.

If what the holidays mean to you is license to party hearty, ask yourself some hard questions, and see how willing you are to answer them honestly. How much and how often do you drink? Do you need more than you used to to feel the effects? Can you stop at a preset limit every time? How well do you manage at a social event, such as the office Christmas party or a New Year's Eve blast--or a stressful situation, such as spending the holidays with family or getting stuck at an airport--if you don't drink at all? What happens when you drink? Do you say and do things that you regret later? Do you say and do things that seem to be a problem for others, especially those you love? If your drinking is criticized, how important is defending yourself and finding someone or something to blame? When the holidays end each year, do your New Year's resolutions include stopping or cutting back on your drinking? If so, how long, each year, does it take to break that resolution?

If this article rings a bell for you, you might need help. You could start by searching online for some good information about alcohol problems. You might also consult a professional to assess your alcohol use. If this article reminds you of someone you love, you too might need help. Worrying about someone else can be a sign of living with alcoholism, especially if it takes up so much of your attention you neglect yourself. Your health, happiness, and quality of life may depend on your becoming more conscious about drinking during the holiday season.

©2003 Elizabeth Zelvin