10 Tips to Avoid Extra Drama on Thanksgiving

October 11, 2020

There’s something about Thanksgiving that increases my anxiety. Maybe it’s the collection of all my family in one room and the feelings of returning to the scene of some horrible crime. Perhaps it’s the expectations I bring with me regarding what everyone is thinking about me. Or it might just be the heightened sense of literally everything coupled with the fact that some people are completely shit-faced and telling really inappropriate jokes.

Who knows?

I have yet to figure out why large family holidays are still really hard for me, even after 16 years of recovery and a shit-ton of therapy.

I know I’m not the only one, so I thought I would throw together some tips on how to combat the good, bad, and ugly moments across the table from Aunt Lucy who won’t stop asking you questions about every aspect of your life that isn’t quite perfect yet.



1. Skip it

Yes, you read that correctly.

Saying you can’t make it to Thanksgiving this year is totally acceptable. If you don’t feel comfortable or ready to confront the ghosts of Thanksgiving Past, Present, or Future—say, “Thank you for the invitation, however I have other plans this year.” Will this invoke feelings of disappointment and confusion for some of the people in your life? Certainly. However, this is not your problem unless you make it so. You are entitled to keep yourself safe (and sane) this year, and you are not responsible for all the ways other people might feel about it.

That said, if you do decide to ditch Thanksgiving, I suggest joining up with friends or keeping yourself busy.

Nothing screams “NO ONE CARES ABOUT ME,” like making the decision to isolate yourself on a major holiday and then sitting around wondering why no one is calling to check up on you every ten seconds.

If you have a safe place to host a few people, maybe send out a text inviting some friends you know are also hesitant about heading in for family time, and make plans to chill and partake in activities that you enjoy. If you’re new in recovery, perhaps you could ask one of your friends who is hosting their own crazy family if you could join them this year. That way you can sit back and enjoy the fact that everyone’s family has their issues; while also providing moral support to the host!

2. Bring a Friend

If you’re feeling uneasy about walking into Thanksgiving dinner unarmed, it is always an option to ask if you can bring a friend. If certain members of your family are aware of the fact that you’re in recovery, you can even ask them how to best address the question to the host. In some families, more is always merrier, but I imagine this is not the case with all.

3. Arrive early so you can leave early

Okay, so while I’m aware that in some families drinking starts way early on Thanksgiving, it has been my experience that the numbers are few in the earlier hours on Thanksgiving day. Calling ahead and offering to come and help set up might be a great plan that helps everyone. The host will be able to perhaps enjoy more of the day knowing he or she has an able body to assist, and you can feel less guilty for chewing and screwing an hour after dinner – when happy hour hits full swing.

4. Have an exit strategy.

There are a number of reasons it’s totally acceptable to leave family functions early. The most important one of all is because you can. As I stated in #1, you have every right to protect your recovery, and you do not have to feel bad about decisions you make in order to do this – even if it hurts someone’s feelings. Do I suggest skipping around to everyone whose action or behavior is making you uncomfortable and confronting them before you head out? Not at all. However, if you need permission to politely excuse yourself, there are a great number of amazing reasons you could.

  1. You’re going Black Friday shopping, have to be in line at Target at 3 AM and need a nap.
  2. You’re not feeling well.
  3. You want to get ahead of traffic.
  4. You need to get the kids home because … (You can basically fill in the blank here).
  5. You have a ton of laundry to do.
  6. You want to go home.
  7. You have to go binge-watch Orange Is The New Black on Netflix.
  8. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. You’re a grown-ass-adult, and you’re free to do whatever you want. BOOM.

5. Make plans to meet up with friends after.

If you’re not feeling 100% confident, but can’t get out of it, it’s always a great idea to have plans after. This provides you with good reason to leave early if you need to, but also may help you avoid drinking or use – even if you really want to—because you’re accountable to those friends, and you know they’ll miss you if you don’t show up.

6. Have your friends on speed-dial, and don’t be afraid to lock yourself in the bathroom.

Calling people you trust with your recovery is never a bad idea regardless of what day it is. During holidays though, I find it’s much easier to ensure contact with people when I give them a heads up that I may be calling in a crisis situation. This gives them the opportunity to tell me that they actually won’t be available, so I can find someone else, or invites them to keep their cell near by.

7. Be kind to you.

Look, I know family time can be difficult—even under the greatest and most supportive circumstances – and even after years into recovery. It’s okay. Please know you’re okay and that there’s nothing wrong with you for not wanting to sit around a very large table and be interrogated by people you maybe haven’t seen since last year. It’s okay if you don’t want to share, even the great things that have been going on, with those in your life that might remember when things weren’t as awesome. It does not make you a bad person to take a time out and care for yourself.

8. Keep in mind recovery is a daily process

My personal recovery is a part of me I have to nurture daily. Some days I need to pay more attention to it than others. It’s kind of like having a cat. When I’m showing it constant attention, it may appear not to need me. The more I ignore it or pretend it’s insignificant to my daily life, the more vulnerable and needy it might get.

Be aware of your triggers, and the patterns of your past. If every Thanksgiving you do the exact same thing and it lands you in a position you don’t want to be in this year, change the plan.

Even if it’s not a perfect plan, I promise it will allow you one step further to where you want to be in your recovery—whatever that looks like.

9. Be prepared to forgive yourself if you don’t have a great day.

No one is perfect, and no plan can be 100% fool-proof; especially when family is involved. If you say or do something you regret, it is possible the sun will rise the following day allowing you the opportunity for progress. Did I mention holidays are hard? Good. Please be gentle with you.

10. Do the best you can with the tools you have

At the beginning and end of each day, all we have we have is our best. Today’s best might look different from yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s best might be even more promising than today’s. Try to be patient with yourself and allow yourself the opportunity and grace to make mistakes and learn from them. You’re awesome.

And if the next day you feel you made the wrong Thanksgiving decision, rest assured, there will be another one coming around the corner before you know it.

Julie Maida has been in abstinence-based recovery since May 2, 2000. She is fiercely determined to advocate for and connect ALL women with the appropriate support and resources necessary to achieve their personal recovery goals. She writes about mothering with mental illness at juliemaida.me. 

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