'Tis the season to get plastered. And while nobody enjoys being the Fun Police, it's even less fun to wind up in the emergency room at 3 a.m. If you think it can't happen to you or your kids, the New York City Health Department just released statistics showing that nearly 74,000 people came to New York hospitals for alcohol-related reasons last year
, a 250 percent leap since 2003. That was because binge drinking led to alcohol poisoning, bar fights and drunken spills.
The scariest statistics came from a recent international study by a British physician group, which showed alcohol was the most harmful addiction, worse than heroin and crack cocaine, BECAUSE OF THE HARM IT DOES OTHERS. So, even if you're moderating or sipping Virgin Marys, the inebriated revelers around you could still destroy your dinner, celebration -- or your life.
You don't have to play sober Santa or prissy preacher during seasonal dinners and parties. Just remember that many people -- perhaps some in your own family -- have trouble tolerating alcohol, and overuse can hurt or kill innocent bystanders. Here are 10 tips for how to help those with often-hidden addiction problems and thus keep yourself, your family and everyone around you safer.
Be a Bad Bartender
You don't need an open bar stocked with every kind of booze to be a great host. Just serve wine and beer, or one drink, like wine spritzers, or eggnog. Have nonalcoholic or light beer and bottled water handy, and an array of special coffees, teas, smoothies or exotic fruit juices like passion fruit, guava and pomegranate. This might welcome – and not ostracize - someone struggling to stay off the sauce.
Booze Isn't Always the Best Present
Yes, your mother said don't show up to someone's home empty-handed, and guests love leaving with goody bags and leftovers. But mom probably didn't tell you -- or know -- which relatives were in A.A. or if your host or her daughter might be on the verge of a relapse. So reconsider one-stop shopping at the liquor store for hostess gifts and rethink doggy bags filled with brandy beans and candy rum balls. Instead, try mixed nuts, vegetables from your garden, potpourri or a big bouquet of cherry blossoms -- presents never known to be a bad influence on anyone (except asthma sufferers.)
Say It Straight
While confronting a person who is high or drunk never works, secrets and fakery cast a pall over holidays events. If someone close has over-imbibed and fallen asleep at the table or put their head in their pie, don't be afraid to speak about it. Quietly acknowledge it to the other people nearby with a calm, accurate statement: "Unfortunately Aunt Jenny drank too much again." If you've been in A.A., Al-Anon, Al-Ateen or therapy yourself to deal with your own addiction issues or alcoholic relatives, talk about it so others with alcoholic relatives might feel less alone and safer opening up.
Change It Up
For years your family has sat around guzzling beer and watching football, or gorging on nachos and margaritas. That can lead to boisterous spats, bellyaches and blackouts. Create a different ritual. Why not suggest a long walk among the leaves? Or a bicycle ride, touch football on the lawn, group dance a la "The Big Chill," karaoke hour, bowling, sledding or board games. Get outside to burn off some of the alcohol, calories and old habits.
Don't Encourage Underage Drunks
In her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch reveals her drinking problem started by tasting martinis she'd mixed for her parents as a teen in Detroit. Similarly, many alcoholics say their addiction began as kids, when they were offered booze at holiday bashes. Some teenagers may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism that you -- and they -- don't know of. Letting children sip from your beer mug or champagne flute sends a bad message that can backfire. Plus it's illegal. Asking for help serving food or sharing a toast is a better way to make a child feel big and special.
Yes, alcohol evaporates when you cook such old favorites as rum cakes, beer-boiled shrimp and bourbon-mustard-glazed ham. Yet many don't realize the dangerous dilemmas these ingredients can have for those batting the bottle. It's difficult to tell who has addiction issues. Alcohol-laced food might touch the lips of underage children or guests you're not aware are trying to stay sober. Even a tiny taste of alcohol can be a trigger. When possible, try cooking "dry" this year. Added benefits: It's cheaper and less fattening.
Be an Early Bird
It's easier to control the flow of liquor and its aftermath in daylight. Serve meals and host parties as early as possible, which parents with young children will appreciate. Mention it's "last call" while serving dessert. If there's a choice for post-meal parties, hold late-night rendezvous and gatherings at coffee houses, diners and juice bars where Uncle Dave won't be as likely to overdo it in public, in front of minors.
Drive It Home
If you're serving liquor at your place, you should have alternative rides and routes available, whether it's a train schedule, phone for a car service or a designated driver. Yes, it's annoying when adults aren't responsible for their own safe transportation. Yet imagine how you'll feel if your guest doesn't make it home or crashed her car on the highway. Now picture your child in the next lane.
Plane travel followed by a family reunion does not equal serenity. More likely it causes anxiety and fights -- big triggers that could make anyone reach for a nightcap (or seven). So, promote ways for everyone to get enough sleep, exercise, eat well and keep a normal routine. If there's fear that a particular event -- like meeting new in-laws or coming out at Thanksgiving -- will be emotionally fraught, limit the time frame. After three hours, if someone says, "Oops, have to run to Aunt Lisa's for dessert," let them go without an argument or guilt trip. Presents that might help soothe the savage or sloshed guest: prepaid cab fare, a gift certificate for a massage, manicure or pedicure, a free pass to a local gym.
Don't Be Extreme
Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa are not the best time to push somebody to get sober cold turkey, start a strict diet, and/or put on the nicotine patch. Aim for moderation this month. Sobriety can be a goal for the New Year -- that's what making and breaking resolutions are for.
Frederick Woolverton, an Arkansas psychologist specializing in substance abuse, and Susan Shapiro, Manhattan author of "Lighting Up" and "Speed Shrinking" are working on an addiction book called "Unhooked."