5 Ways To Set Boundaries With Familia When Staying Sober

Talking to family about your choice to stop drinking alcohol can be tough. This Sober Latinx parent shows us the importance of prioritizing our own limits during Dry January and beyond.

Family laughing together during outdoor dinner party
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Over the past few years, many of us have become familiar with the concept of "Dry January," a time when people pledge to temporarily quit drinking after an overindulgent holiday season. I've even seen my wine mami friends put down the glass and use this time as a break from alcohol. According to a 2020 RAND study, women's heavy drinking has risen by 41 percent and Latina moms are reporting higher instances of anxiety and depression. So, it's no wonder this month-long trend—intended to help people reimagine their relationship with alcohol—is more popular than ever. Especially with the broader availability of booze-free drinks.

But as the month comes to a close, many of those who gave up the booze for a short while are now wondering if staying alcohol-free for the long-term may be for them. Sober curious perhaps?

Marisol Solarte-Erlacher, M.A., LPC, a trauma expert and resilience coach based in Denver, says she has seen a significant increase in drinking during the COVID-19 pandemic and that problematic drinking "has become a dysfunctional coping strategy." Her work focuses on helping women of color with post-traumatic growth and resilience, such as healing childhood trauma that led to substance abuse.

"I have heard stories from Latina moms who take a 'couple of shots' of tequila when finishing the workday, partially to cope with the microaggressions and racism they have to deal with throughout the day and to 'relax' before having to start dinner and engage with their family," she says. "Another Latina mom shared how her husband makes sure to have wine and other beverages stocked weekly so that her week will go more smoothly."

For Latina moms who began drinking more during the pandemic, Dry January (or February) may seem like the way to curb their habit—but it may not be quite so easy to put down the bottle. "Alcohol, for many Latinx families, is a staple of our gatherings and celebrations," says Solarte-Erlacher. "For many, it is so normalized that not partaking in alcohol consumption makes you seem like the 'difficult' one or someone not willing to have a 'good time.'"

I was one of these women who always said "yes" to a good time until six years ago when I was forced to say a big "no" after losing a job I loved due to undiagnosed anxiety that I was calming with too many drinks. Eventually, I was able to give up alcohol after finding the support of a therapist to deal with my anxiety. However, my Cuban familia didn't quite understand why I couldn't still have "just one" drink at family gatherings. Thankfully I was able to work with my therapist to figure out how to establish boundaries—particularly with my papi—so that I could confidently say "no" to my family when I needed to.

Without understanding our own boundaries, we end up people pleasing our loved ones instead of prioritizing our own desires. Whether you're giving up drinking for a week, a month, or indefinitely like me, setting boundaries is a crucial step to creating the life you truly want—with or without the booze.

Separate Your Cultura From Your Substance Use

Celebrations are a big part of our culture—and drinking is often a big part of how we celebrate—but "it is important to remember that we can separate our culture from alcohol use," says Solarte-Erlacher. She explains that part of this struggle comes from us feeling like saying "no" is disrespectful to our elders. So to work on establishing boundaries, you need to first recognize that you can still fully participate in the things you love about your culture even if alcohol is no longer a part of your life.

For instance, my parents love hosting get-togethers with a lot of food, cerveza, and time spent in the pool. These days, I will still come over to partake in those gatherings but I bring my own non-alcoholic beer.

Let Go of the "La Loca" Narrative

For me, I realized that before I could maintain healthy boundaries, I had to understand why it's so difficult to talk about recovery and mental health in my family. Mental health struggles are not shameful but rather something that 16 percent of U.S. Latinx people deal with—and since long-term alcohol use can increase depression and anxiety, taking a break from alcohol or getting sober can greatly help. Even if—as I learned when I began talking to my familia about how my anxiety increased my drinking and my drinking made my anxiety worse—it can be a difficult conversation to have.

Prepare Your Family for Your Sobriety

Once you have set these boundaries for yourself, it's time to tell your loved ones about your break from alcohol. "Prepare your elders before a large family event," recommends Solarte-Erlacher. "Let them know what your plan is so that they feel prepared and you feel less pressure the day of the event."

When your family is prepared for the fact that you are sober, they can prepare themselves for when you say "no" to their drink offers. Although they may not understand at first, the hope is that if your family knows that you're not drinking, you'll at least avoid any questions as to why you're toasting with sparkling water instead of sangria.

Make Sure You Have Someone in Your Corner

Building a solid support network has been a crucial part of my sobriety. My husband is my biggest cheerleader and has my back during difficult conversations with loved ones who may not be so supportive.

"When we are trying to establish new boundaries, it is important to find support since we are going to encounter resistance that could trigger intense feelings for us," says Solarte-Erlacher. "Having someone who can encourage you will give you the fortitude to stick by your boundaries." For me, even a quick text with someone who can offer reassurance is incredibly helpful.

Step Away or Leave Early if You Need To

"When you are at a family function and you are trying to maintain your boundaries, give yourself permission to take a break," recommends Solarte-Erlacher. "Step away when you need to take some breaths, remind yourself that you have the right to set boundaries, and ground yourself."

This may be a great time to reach out to your support buddy or maybe even decide if you want to stay until the end of the fiesta. I always have to remind myself at family events that I am there by choice and that although leaving early may feel disrespectful to some of your family members, keeping an essential boundary to you—such as not drinking—is a massive part of your overall happiness and progress.

*If you or a loved one need help getting sober call SAMHSA's National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357). They can provide referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations in English and Spanish, 24/7. You can also search for treatment services nearest to you.

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