This piece is part of my Dear Laura series where I answer letters submitted by readers.
My question is about my mother-in-law and the upcoming Thanksgiving meal.
I have known this woman for nearly 20 years and I have rarely been able to be around her without drinking alcohol. My time around her has been like suffering a thousand little cuts. Wine and Bloody Marys always made the pain more bearable.
I am 15 weeks sober (yeah me!) and I have been able to share a few sporting events and lunches with her without drinking—no invasive questions asked. But Thanksgiving will be different. She is a drinker and very nosy. I fear she will make a big deal about this (it will definitely be shared with EVERYONE she knows). I don’t want to be a topic of gossip and I don’t want to share with her any personal struggle I’ve had with alcohol.
What do I do when my response of “No wine for me,” is not enough? I don’t want to engage in this discussion with her. I know this sounds like a lot of thought put into something which hasn’t occurred, but again, I’ve known this woman for 20 years; I know she is going to make an issue of this.
It will also be the first question she asks me for the next couple of years…
Any advice is greatly appreciated.
First, huge congrats on your sobriety. I am so happy for you.
Let’s do a little exercise. I’m going to rewrite your letter and replace “her” with “you”.
My question is about myself and the upcoming Thanksgiving meal. I have known myself for nearly 20 years and I have rarely been able to be around myself without drinking alcohol. My time around me has been like suffering a thousand little cuts. Wine and Bloody Marys always made the pain more bearable.
I am 15 weeks sober (yeah, me!) and I have been able to share a few sporting events and lunches with myself without drinking—no invasive questions asked. But Thanksgiving will be different. I am a drinker and very nosy. I fear I’ll make a big deal about this (it will definitely be shared with EVERYONE I know). I don’t want to be a topic of gossip and I don’t want to share with myself any personal struggle I’ve had with alcohol.
What do I do when my response of “No wine for me,” is not enough? I don’t want to engage in this discussion with myself. I know this sounds like a lot of thought put into something which hasn’t occurred, but again, I’ve known myself for 20 years; I know I’m going to make an issue of this.
It will also be the first question I ask myself for the next couple of years…
Any advice is greatly appreciated.
I did that because your letter isn’t really about her. I mean, it’s a little bit about her. But it’s mostly about you: how you view your sobriety; the shame you’re holding about it; your projection of what she and others will think; your need to control things you cannot control, like other people.
She just happens to be a great mirror. She’s showing you where there’s work to do.
AND THIS IS FINE! TOTALLY NORMAL. And necessary.
Sobriety is hard not just because we have to quit the thing — alcohol or drugs or whatever — but more so because it removes the insulation between us and our bullshit. I say that in the kindest way. We all have patterns that keep us stuck, make us wobbly and weak, and almost always they have to do with how we relate to other people. Often they are patterns that we developed to keep us safe and alive as children — like people-pleasing, for example — but as adults, those same behaviors are crippling. This is what I mean by “bullshit”.
When we stop numbing we start to see our stuff — and its associated pain — very clearly.
This is not about your mother-in-law. It’s about you. And that is good news.
Okay, now that we have that established, let’s discuss a few things.
First, people are never thinking about us as much as we think they are. When we quit drinking, we think everyone is noticing, watching, so curious and interested and hyper-aware about what we’re putting in our glass. But most people don’t give a shit. And the ones that do? Well. They care because they have their own issues with alcohol. I know because I was one of those people.
Which brings me to my next point.
You might think it’s your mother in-law’s personal mission to dig into you not drinking and pull out your drama and spread it all around like dandelion seeds. And that might be true. But what’s probably truer is that she gossips because she feels like crap about herself and it’s cheap and easy and deflects attention away from her — a person she probably doesn’t like very much. My point is, whatever she’s blabbing about has nothing to do with you.
So, let her do her thing!
Let her make assumptions and spread rumors and dig for salacious stories and spin herself into tizzy sharing your business. Your mistake is thinking you can somehow control her (or anyone else). You can’t. You never will.
Meanwhile, you’re doing one of the most courageous, badass things in the entire goddamn world — something most people will never do. It is bold and hard and scary and beautiful and YOU ARE DOING IT. That’s so much bigger than any petty story she or anyone else has about you. You are becoming a woman of dignity and honor. You are changing not just your own life, but the lives of everyone around you. It takes so much to do that, but one thing it definitely takes is letting people go who are not along for the ride. This is a process, it does not happen overnight, but it sounds like your mother-in-law is one of those people, and it sounds like you’ve needed to let her go for a couple of decades.
You said, “I don’t want to be a topic of gossip and I don’t want to share with her any personal struggle I’ve had with alcohol.”
You can definitely control what you share with her, but again you can’t control — will never be able to control — what other people say about you. So long as you try, you will be a walking target, an open invitation for judgment and pain.
Let me tell you a story, which I write about at length in my book.
When I was about four years sober, I dated a guy briefly. One of his friends mentioned to him that he heard we were dating and that he may want to stay away from me. My guy asked why, and his friend said, “Because the word is at the rumor mill that she was a raging alcoholic who cheated on her husband and lost custody of her daughter and I’m not sure you want to associate with people like that.”
I was piiiiiiissed, of course. At that point, I’d been writing and talking about my sobriety openly for years. There was no need for a rumor mill. I never lost custody of my daughter. I don’t even call myself an alcoholic.
I wanted to go on a hunt for the rumor mill and torch it, and them.
But then, pretty quickly, I realized it didn’t matter. It wasn’t even real. What mattered was what I thought of my life. My sobriety. My relationship with my daughter. My relationship with my ex-husband. I felt good about all of those things and I had people in my life who saw me, loved me and supported me. I had worked my ass off and no one at the rumor mill, or anywhere else, could take that from me. Whatever they said had nothing to do with me.
Focus on the ones in your life who get it. Even if there’s only one person right now. And if you don’t have that person, focus on me; I get it.
(Also, pro tip: never, ever date someone who relays this kind of conversation with you.)
Here’s an exercise to help you work through this. Go get a pen and a piece of paper.
Now, imagine the worst possible thing that could be said about you. The most shameful, denigrating, horrible story that could be told about your drinking.
Go there. Really go there. Write it all down. And then imagine it being said, out loud, behind your back.
Now, take a very deep breath.
“When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do you no harm.”
— African Proverb
And then another.
Feel it all the way in..
Notice the sensations in your body.
And then notice something else…
You are still here.
You made it.
You’re just a person sitting in a room feeling a feeling.
There’s an African proverb that says, “When there is no enemy within, the enemy outside can do you no harm.”
The only enemy you need to worry about is the one inside your own head. Talk to her. Engage with her. Love her. Get to know her. She needs you. She needs your attention to stay with you, not to go off hustling futilely to manage your mother-in-law.
Which brings me to my last point, which is a longer-term question, not likely to be addressed before Thanksgiving.
Who on earth told you that you have to subject yourself to anyone that feels like death by a thousand tiny cuts?
Why would you do that to yourself?
I’m going to guess that this is a “family comes first” thing and that you believe you have no choice, but Oh My God, you do.
As for Thanksgiving and how to respond to her, I wrote a long post about this a while back, but the short answer is, a simple response will do. “I’m not drinking today,” is enough. If she asks why, you can say, “Because I don’t feel like it.” And if she asks more, you are not required to answer. You do not owe anyone an explanation for anything, even though you think you do.
I know this is not easy. At all.
It might be incredibly uncomfortable. You might fail wildly and over-explain. You might stumble. You might have a shame attack. But guess what? You’re not going to drink. And the true story, underneath whatever ingrained behaviors pop-up this holiday, is that you now have a fucking superpower that nobody can touch. Your sobriety is a superpower and you get to hold that superpower in the center of your heart every time you walk into a room, every time you have a conversation, every time you do anything at all. It is yours.
Lastly, be kind to you. Take breaks. Show up late if you can. Leave early. It’s just one day and whatever happens, it’ll pass. And once it’s done you have a whole year to think about how you’ll do it differently next time. Because guess what?
You have choices. You have so many choices now. You are free.