Staying sober through the holidays can be tough. Staying sober, period, can be tough. The holidays seem to add a little more expectation and stress. It’s like we are expected to be cheerful, grateful, sparkly and loving. And while some of us are those things naturally, this is not true for everyone. It has a cost associated with it, that not everyone feels they can afford, and I’m not talking just monetary.
I know I particularly struggle through the holidays. I am not naturally grateful at this time of year, and I hate the cold. It’s not uncommon for me to mutter under my breath, a zillion times, “I fucking HATE Christmas”. The holidays always bring up that old wound of not having a close immediate family. It brings me back to a house full of chaos, that is messy and dirty and unorganized. It brings me back to childhood, and while most kids were dreaming of tons of presents under the tree, all I wanted was a mom and dad. All I wanted, was to be a “normal” kid. Now I know, there is no such thing as normal. It is only now looking back that I can begin to try to be grateful for what I had, and step out of what I didn’t.
It was hard being a kid, magazines and media and friends at school portrayed happy families standing around a Christmas tree, or families gathered around a large table for a Thanksgiving Feast. I always felt so left out, like I was missing something, like life somehow gypped me out of having what should have been a basic human right. My family, never looked like the one on the cover of the LL Bean Magazine. I craved and desired having a mom and dad so bad I would try to fit in to any family I could. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked aunts & uncles or friend’s moms and dads if I could call them mom and dad. I was not an orphan, I had a mom and a grandmother, and aunts and uncles who did love me; but their love was toxic. My mom was an addict and alcoholic, and she could never quite love and nurture me the way I needed her to. My father died when I was six. Looking back, I was one lost little girl. Even though I was one of those kids that swore I would never be like my mom, I did also end up becoming an alcoholic and addict. There is a quote I love by author and spiritual guru, Neale Donald Walsch that comes to mind, “That which you condemn the most will you become.” I did condemn my mother, at times I felt nothing but rage and hatred toward her. I put her down, I judged her, I made her feel like she was never good enough for me.
I don’t want to make excuses for myself, but childhood for me was not easy. My mother had me at 17. My father had been in the Vietnam war and had literally been blown to smithereens. He split with my mom when I was one, and ended up getting sole custody of me. A fact that always made my father the real MVP. He was, precisely, my hero, in every sense of the word. I lived with him till I was six when he was killed in an auto accident and I had to go back to my mother. My parents were from two very different socio-economic worlds. My mother’s family were poor, the typical welfare-Wiggletown family, and my father’s family was more Park Ave. When he died, I went from a nice home with a dad and step mom to a run-down shack full of kids and chaos. I spent from ages six to eleven going back and forth between my father’s family and my mother’s. My mother’s family called my father’s family snobs, and my father’s family called my mother’s family trash. Was I trash too? I spent nearly every day of my childhood missing my father, and wondering what my life would be like with him.
We were so poor at my grandmothers that I remember one time there was nothing in the fridge but maple syrup and I added it to water to drink. I am not exaggerating here. I was very bonded with my grandmother, but I started resenting her as I got older, because I found out my dad’s sister Carol had been trying to get custody of me and my grandmother wouldn’t let me go. I remember thinking, why did she keep me if she couldn’t afford to give me a good life? My mother finally came around and took me to live with her in a run-down one- bedroom apartment in downtown Plattsburgh. I started drinking and discovered boys. I didn’t have to go to school, no one cared if I did. I failed fourth and fifth grade in a row. I thought I was dumb. Then I went to live with my Step Uncle Steve and his wife Rose. I loved Rose, she may have been the first person that ever heard me when I spoke. She took me everywhere with her. I wanted to call them mom and dad, but they said no. I think looking back, they were too young. Did I mention how much I loved Rose? I ended up getting wasting and had my first suicide attempt. Then I was finally shipped off to live with my Aunt Carol. This was the first time my family photos looked like the LL Bean catalog cover. But eventually, I didn’t fit in there either. No matter where I was, it was never MY family. It seemed like every time I looked around, it was someone else’s family I saw. I eventually left to be with my mom. This later became the biggest regret of my life. Today I am so grateful for all my Aunt and Uncle taught me. They taught me the importance of education, cleanliness, good personal hygiene, language skills, and to believe in myself, only the later wouldn’t come for a long time.
I found alcohol, and with that first sip, all the anxiety I had my whole life disappeared. Only, eventually it wasn’t enough, I needed more. I found marijuana, oh this was it! Only, eventually it wasn’t enough, I needed more. I got married and had kids, they would fix it! Only, eventually it wasn’t enough I needed more. I discovered cocaine. I had finally arrived. I could be and do anything I wanted. Only, it wasn’t enough, I needed more. I found heroin, and IV use, with my mother. Yes, MY Mother. All my fears were erased. Numbed out into complete oblivion...This was really it. Only this didn’t work either, it sent me crashing hard into a brick wall. I ended up in jail, and then prison. All in all, over my years of use, I spent about a decade in between couch surfing, detoxes, psych wards, rehabs, halfway houses, jails and prisons. I was morally bankrupt, and the woman I am today, barely recognizes the person I became back then. Jails, Institutions, Death…
I still don’t know how I was lucky enough to get it. I don’t know why, when so many of us are falling all around…. here I am, still sober, coming up on seven years. I know I had some very clear spiritual experiences, and I do credit my sobriety to the Source, Creator, Universe, God, whatever you want to call him, her or it. I just know… that my God wants me to be sober. I know after having survived the hand I was dealt early on, after having survived my addiction and all the danger that came with it, I don’t take my sobriety for granted. It is the one thing I have to hold on to, in good days and bad. It is the thing that sustains me. I was lucky enough to take the thing that almost broke me, and make it my life’s work out of it. There are things I will never forget. Things seared in my memory forever, like finding my mother dead of an overdose. I will never forget the position she was lying in on the couch, the blank stare of her face, the stench in her tiny trailer, the helpless animals running around. I will never forget what it was like to have no place to go, and that feeling of emptiness stretching around me a like a desert. I will never forget the cries of my children as I was ripped from them time and again to a disease that had me in it’s grip like a prisoner in Abu Ghraib, there was no escape. I will never forget the feeling of insignificance, like I was nothing but a drop of water in the ocean. This is why I stay sober, not just through the holidays, but every day.
With each passing year, the holidays get easier. I may even enjoy them now. When I can move into gratitude and out of selfishness. When I can remember what my sponsor taught me, the most valuable lesson of all: It’s not all about ME!! I can plug in my Christmas tree and stare at the lights in silence with my husband, and find pure joy. I can reflect on the popular Grinch quote, “Maybe Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store, maybe Christmas perhaps, means a little bit more.”