Uncle Dan’s ‘not feeling well,’ kids

Experts offer tips on how to handle alcoholic siblings during the festive holiday season
Julia McKinnell

Uncle Dan’s ‘not feeling well,’ kids

“Christmas is a great time for a drunk,” says a recovering alcoholic from Ontario. “I could go out at a moment’s notice for ‘more ribbon’ or smuggle home large bottles of vodka with the bundles of Christmas presents.” Not only that, but no one at Christmas ever questions a locked door: “Everyone thought I needed privacy to wrap their gifts.” Christmas may be great for drunks but at least one brother in British Columbia is dreading a repeat of his older brother’s annual drunken shenanigans on Christmas Day at his parents’ place. “It’s a huge problem. I’ve tried confronting him to disastrous effect,” says Kevin in Vancouver, whose brother starts each day with a joint and rum in his coffee. “Telling him not to drink fuels the fire, and as a result, he drinks more. My poor mother.”

Now there’s a book of advice for the brothers and sisters of alcoholics, including how to cope with a sibling’s drinking over the holidays. To start with, the time to negotiate behaviour is before Christmas, not at the dinner table, says Patricia Olsen, co-author, along with Dr. Petros Levounis, of Sober Siblings: How to Help Your Alcoholic Brother or Sister—and Not Lose Yourself. “It’s futile trying to have a conversation with someone under the influence,” writes Olsen, adding on the phone last week that it’s even more hopeless if the person is in denial (Olsen grew up with two alcoholic brothers). When Kevin in Vancouver challenged his sibling last Christmas about his drinking, “he ordered me out of his house.”

In some cases when the sister or brother won’t admit to a problem but you still want to send a warning, it may work best not to mention the word “drunk.” Instead, Olsen suggests saying, “I noticed you weren’t feeling well on Thanksgiving. If you’re not ‘feeling well’ again on Christmas, I’m going to drive you home.”

Olsen warns against banishing your sibling from the festivities. In one case, “it caused a big family uproar because the mother was not willing to exclude the brother.” If your alcoholic sister is “simply talkative and giggles too much when she drinks, or falls asleep, then you may want her there no matter what,” writes Olsen. “But if the worst comes out and she ruins the occasion for everyone,” find a “loving way” to tell her she’s welcome if she agrees not to drink. Say, “We’d love to see you but I have to say, when you have four or five drinks, it’s a problem for us. I’d rather not have Christmas the way we’ve had it in the past. I have children now.” “[Then] maybe they won’t come,” says Olsen.

For a few years, Kevin lived close enough to drive his brother to and from his parents’ house. He’s learned to “keep the attitude light” when offering to be the designated driver. “Don’t relate at all to the reason you’re doing it. It has to be, ‘This is going to be fun blah, blah, blah.’ ”

Kevin’s brother now lives an hour and a half out of town; he doesn’t know how to stop him from driving drunk this year. The year he confiscated his brother’s car keys, it didn’t go well. Olsen stresses, “Never argue with someone who is drunk or high.” If it appears your sibling plans to drive drunk, “Locate the keys while he’s preoccupied and take them away. Most likely he’ll think he’s lost them.”

In April, “Jim” checked into Nanaimo’s Edgewood treatment centre for a six-week in-patient detox program. He hasn’t had a drink in eight months. A few weeks ago, his sister “Tamar” took a risk and asked Jim to drive her to the liquor store so she could buy wine for a dinner she was attending. Tamar kicked herself as Jim sat in the parking lot, thinking, “Why wasn’t I more organized? I knew I was going for dinner.” On the other hand, she told herself, “He has to live in the real world. People drink and do what they do.” She’s still not sure whether to mention alcohol around him. “I don’t want to get his curiosity up.”

Olsen says, “A person in recovery has a right to participate in decisions that directly impact recovery: ask the person what he or she is comfortable with.” Olsen suggests asking, “Do you mind if we drink in front of you? Would you like me to have a non-alcoholic beer for you? What would you like to drink?” Olsen herself found out too late that her younger brother didn’t appreciate her stocking non-alcoholic beer for him. Last May, when she was writing the book, he fell and hit his head and died. His wife told Olsen afterwards he “didn’t need non-alcoholic beer and it only reminded him he couldn’t drink.”