How Can You Avoid the Dreaded Holiday ‘Freelapse’?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

It’s obvious that for a person in recovery, the holiday season can be tough to navigate. Cocktail parties, champagne toasts and mini wine bottles sold as stocking-fillers are practically designed to trip up the sober reveler.

You may not be able to indulge in the wine or brandy eggnog, but those enormous platters of food are definitely up for grabs. Rum-glazed turkey with cider-apple stuffing, Christmas pudding rich with brandied fruit, truffles with your coffee at the end of the night, and then some. You may be sober, but you can still stuff yourself to staggering point. Or can you?

Why Freelapse Should Be Taken Seriously

Accidentally ingesting alcohol or other drugs is colloquially known among people in recovery as a ‘freelapse.’

Accidentally ingesting alcohol or other drugs is colloquially known among people in recovery as a ‘freelapse.’ It doesn’t—at least among AA members—require the unfortunate person in recovery to reset their “day count” back to zero. Indeed, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that while this mishap is common, if you didn’t intend to use, then accidentally eating a pot brownie or a mouthful of alcoholic fruit salad won’t trigger a dangerous relapse.

For those who are struggling, the mild buzz that can result from too much brandy butter can trigger a full-blown relapse.

One reason is the all-or-nothing mentality that some people in recovery have. If too much stock is put in the “currency” of days sober, then the idea that you’ve fallen can lead to recklessness. Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb, as the saying goes—and thus a teaspoon of liquor can turn into a bottle.

And then there’s the time of year. In an NIAAA paper entitled “Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal and Relapse,” Dr. Howard Becker writes: “Events that potently trigger relapse drinking fall into three general categories: exposure to small amounts of alcohol (i.e., alcohol-induced priming), exposure to alcohol-related (i.e., conditioned) cues or environmental contexts, and stress.”

Depending on how you feel about your in-laws, holiday dinners are likely to fall into all three categories, which means you need to be extra vigilant about your sobriety. If you’re already coping with strong alcohol-related cues, while spending time with a group of people who are likely to be drinking, then that slight taste of Kahlua in your coffee could easily trigger something more serious.

But perhaps you’re lucky enough to be celebrating the holiday season with your soul mates, with no family drama to be found. If there are no other stressors present, do you still need to worry?

A 2013 study out of Indiana suggests that you might. A group of men were given a very small amount of beer—15 ml—enough that they were able to taste the flavor but not to feel any intoxicating effects. A control group tasted 15 ml of a non-alcoholic drink (Gatorade). The researchers found that the taste of an alcoholic beverage was enough to trigger in the brain a release of dopamine—a neurotransmitter commonly associated with addiction. Participants also reported an increased craving for beer after tasting the liquid, even where they preferred the flavor of the non-alcoholic drink. And tellingly, the effect was also significantly heightened in participants with a family history of alcoholism.

When an alcoholic is abstinent, that old brain pathway which screams out for more alcohol after the first sip, isn’t erased; it just lies dormant. Ingesting alcohol in any form will ignite that old brain pathway again.-Beth Burgess

Beth Burgess, an addiction therapist and author, agrees that even accidental ingestion of alcohol can cause a relapse. “When someone becomes addicted to alcohol, the dopamine system in the brain becomes permanently compromised and a pathway is formed that leads to alcohol cravings whenever alcohol is ingested,” she says. “When an alcoholic is abstinent, that old brain pathway which screams out for more alcohol after the first sip, isn’t erased; it just lies dormant. Ingesting alcohol in any form will ignite that old brain pathway again.”

Many experts believe that just tasting alcohol is likely to trigger cravings in anyone who has had alcohol problems, and those cravings are even harder to resist when other relapse triggers are present.

Alcohol is (Almost) Everywhere in Holiday Foods

Most people tend to assume that even alcoholics in recovery can eat food cooked with alcohol, because the cooking process means that the ethanol content will burn off completely.

But the reality is not so simple.

“It’s believed that when you cook with alcohol, most of it evaporates or dissipates, canceling its participation in the food,” cautions certified nutritionist Ashley Lied. “However, it’s not scientifically possible for the taste to remain if alcohol is absent in the food.”

Indeed, a 2007 USDA study found that some ethanol remains in food even after several hours of cooking. “Food absorbs anything from spices to liquids, so it’s extremely hard for you to dissipate all traces of alcohol,” says Lied.

Casseroles that are simmered over a number of hours, such as coq au vin, are a relatively safe choice for the sober gourmand, with a mere 5 percent of the original ethanol being retained in the food. But shorter cooking times result in higher retention. Mussels tossed in white wine, for example, may keep closer to half the original ethanol. And that’s just the main course.

Anyone trying to stay completely away from alcohol should beware of desserts that they didn’t prepare themselves, because Aunt Mary’s ‘secret ingredient’ might just be booze.

Anyone trying to stay completely away from alcohol should beware of desserts that they didn’t prepare themselves, because Aunt Mary’s “secret ingredient” might just be booze. From spiced bourbon apple pie to vodka lime sorbet, it isn’t always obvious that you’re about to put something alcoholic in your mouth – until it’s too late. Uncooked desserts retain the highest levels of alcohol, with the USDA finding that only 15 percent of ethanol evaporates in an uncooked dish prepared ahead of time.

Even baked desserts are typically only in the oven for 30 to 60 minutes, so you can expect them to retain around half of their ethanol. And alcohol that is only briefly cooked—such as the brandy traditionally poured over a Christmas pudding and set aflame—barely burns off at all, with 75 percent of the ethanol typically remaining. Where alcohol is added to boiling liquid, stirred in but then removed from the heat, barely 15 percent is lost, leaving 85 percent of the original ethanol in the sauce. It’s a minefield!

How Can People in Recovery Avoid Freelapse?

One safe way around this dinner table dilemma is to do the cooking yourself. You can soak your pudding in ginger ale and skip the flambé altogether. And while vanilla essence often runs at 40 to 45 percent alcohol content, alcohol-free versions are available if you’re doing the shopping. In fact, there are enough substitutes on the market to make any dish imaginable.

But if you’re a guest, the stakes are higher. How can you ensure that your food is alcohol-free without offending anyone? Not all of us are comfortable with announcing to a table of rarely-seen relatives that we are alcoholics, and Aunt Mary may not want to give up her secret recipe without a compelling reason.

With all due respect to the principles of authenticity and truth, both of which soundly underpin successful recovery, this is one time to make an exception. Lie and cheat, if that’s what it takes!

Claim to be on antibiotics, or say that you’ve received medical advice to abstain. (A word of caution; if you are female and of childbearing age, then no matter what excuse you give, it will be assumed that you are concealing a pregnancy.) A newly-acquired gluten intolerance will give you an out from the Christmas pudding, and probably do your waistline a favor. And make use of the fact that no one (hopefully) wants you to drink and drive; make sure you drive to dinner or, if it’s at your house, that you’ve offered another guest a lift home.

Ultimately, everyone in recovery has to draw their own line when it comes to ingesting small amounts of mind-altering substances.

Ultimately, everyone in recovery has to draw their own line when it comes to ingesting small amounts of mind-altering substances. Some of us avoid mouthwash, whereas others are happy to drink non-alcoholic versions of their favorite drink—which are actually extremely low-alcohol versions. Your recovery is personal, and your triggers are, too.

What is important, though, is having the knowledge to make informed choices. If you prefer to keep your alcohol intake at zero, then don’t eat the tiramisu. And if the festive season feels more like work than play, then remember, as Beth Burgess says, the holidays are “a great time to celebrate sobriety—and making a gratitude list for all the reasons to be thankful is the perfect way to celebrate.”

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