My Fourth Sober Christmas

As is true if most days, Christmas 2019 was full of highs and lows. We started the day gathered around the Christmas tree, exchanging gifts. Our son is another year older, he no longer talks of Santa, but he’s still excited by the morning. Not so excited that he’s up at 5:00, but excited enough to have some really great reactions to his gifts. I took great pleasure watching him open his gifts, taking note of which ones were most exciting. There were some surprises in there, for me, not for him. He was as excited about the new scooter as he was about his headphones, but the biggest reaction was to the tickets to see The Beach Boys in April!

After gifts, I went to make scones for breakfast not to find that we had no butter. This would be a problem since I was also on deck for some pies for desert at the families. My brain is still stuck in a small town in the 80s and so I worked myself up into a small fright about how I would be able to get butter for the cooking. Now, we live one of the most densely populated areas on the East coast and it’s 2019, so the fact was that even though it was Christmas Day, the grocery store was, in fact, open. But I was stressing about it, assuming that I might only be able to find butter at a convenience store if I was lucky. Lizard brain in action there.

At the checkout I felt myself getting emotional. No one should have to work on Christmas Day and here I was being part of the problem. I felt guilty that
I needed to buy butter on Christmas. I felt guilty that the workers at the store had to be there because I couldn’t get my shit together and buy butter beforehand. I thanked the woman at the register for being there. “Of course,” she said. And I felt more guilt.

While I was preparing the food for the day, Mrs. TKD was preparing gifts for the extended family despite the fact that we’d agreed to only give gifts to my nieces and nephew. She had made small gift bags with small items that had Mr. Grey’s artwork on them. This was generous and kind but as we were leaving I realized that this probably meant that I didn’t have gifts for the two newest members of the family, my cousin’s kids. I felt guilt again, and I lost my temper in the car.

I stopped to get gift cards, a suitable remedy for the situation by any standard, but I was angry and I drove up the road in a huff. Mrs. TKD and Mr. Grey tried to get me to smile and relax in the car but I was being obstinate. I finally cracked and shed my asshole skin after Mrs. TKD traced the outline of a smile on my face asking, “are you going to be angry all day?”

I was thinking about drinking the whole way up the road. The idea of a glass of bourbon to ease my internal pain was so very attractive. I wanted to drink — a feeling that doesn’t come very often anymore, but was there nonetheless. And I felt more guilt and shame. I thought about all the people that I’d be letting down if I took a drink. I thought about how my family would react if I took a drink on Christmas Day — how I’d ruin the day for everyone. And I resolved that I would stay sober again, just for the day. It is amazing how “just for today” works in times like this.

When we got to the family’s house I admitted to Mrs. TKD that I was having a hard time as we unpacked the car. I had tears in my eyes, but she couldn’t see them behind the sunglasses. I admitted that I didn’t know why, but I was just having a hard time.

Only today can I really identify what was bothering me. It was the holidays. All the expectation. All the pressure. All the anticipation. All the overt consumerism. It’s all a trap. All geared to get us to buy more shit that we don’t need. And it’s all ultimately a let down.

Yes, there is magic in the holidays for the little ones, and I enjoy watching that. But as I’ve gotten older, there is less and less magic in them for me.

The holidays are at odds with my values and more importantly they expose how I am not living in accordance with my supposed values. They expose a certain failure on my part, a certain dishonesty and I’m left with that sense of guilt.

I’ve long struggled with a sense of guilt about my success and privilege in life. I’ve been wildly successful in my career as well as extraordinarily lucky. I’ve written before about how this manifests in a certain imposter syndrome for me. I come from a family of largely working class people and yet I live a life of comfort and even luxury. There are times when I am fearful of losing what I have. There are times when I worry that my son won’t have the success that I’ve had. The statistic that I’m in the first generation in the US that knows that the next generation is unlikely to have the same standard of living as I do haunts me.

These are heavy thoughts for a post about Christmas Day.

To be fair, the day improved after I made a conscious choice to let go of my fear and accept that things would be how they would be. We had a nice time with the family. Mom knocked herself out with a fabulous dinner. We had ham and brisket with roasted onions, potatoes au gratin, green beans, brussels spouts, and roasted carrots — a feast! And then there were pies, and fudge, and ice cream. Good conversation and happy children. I enjoyed watching my cousin’s son run around the house with his stuffed dinosaur, roaring at us.

My uncle gave us a Buddhist prayer bowl, with the instructions to write down our prayers on small pieces of paper and place them in the bowl near a window. When the sun hits the prayers they are sent out to the universe. I love this image, and I’m learning that prayers don’t need to be directed to a deity. I couldn’t have said that four years ago.

We got home around 7:00 and I chilled out with the Dude for a bit before bed. Once again, he told me how he’d had a great Christmas and I knew it wasn’t all about the gifts. I know that part of what makes these days special for him is that I am predictable and dependable — and that’s because I’m sober.

Perhaps I am too hard on myself with all the guilt I carry around. That guilt is heavy. I am going to look for a place to set it down.

Another Sober Christmas is on the Books

And, just like that, Christmas is nearly over. All the build up, all the anticipation, all the angst, and it’s over in less than a day. I have remarked to friends in the past that the entire fall sometimes feels compressed, as if time gets accelerated and there’s not enough of it between September and December. As if the entire fall is a run up to Christmas. And then, it’s over.

In part, I believe this has to do with the waning of the light in the Northern Hemisphere. From June 21st to December 21st we actually lose minutes of daylight each day, but it never feels linear, even if, in fact, it is. Part of this is the effect of abandoning Daylight Savings Time, now in November. Funny, that we humans like to control our clocks so much that we fuss with the time twice a year in the name of “saving” daylight.

The things we anticipate rarely meet our great expectations.

In truth, I had a great Christmas. And I feel better tonight than I’ve felt at the end of a Christmas day in a long time.

I got a a few gifts that I really wanted, and some really thoughtful gifts from my extended family. I gave gifts that people really wanted and I relished watching my son enthusiastically un-wrap gifts that I swore I wasn’t going to get him. I thoroughly enjoyed listing to my 6 year old nephew bang on his new drum set, not once, but twice.

We had a wonderful meal at my family’s house. Mom roasted a rib roast and it came out perfectly. We had plenty of side dishes which were all lovely and copious options for desert. I saw my aunt and my uncle and talked to some extended family we don’t see often on the phone.

And still, there’s a slight pang. A slight remorse that it’s all over. A slight feeling that it wasn’t good enough. Maybe a feeling that I’m not good enough. A feeling that Christmas will never be what it once was.

And it won’t. It won’t because I’ll never be a child again. I’ll never have the excitement that comes from a belief in a jolly old elf who delivers presents to children around the world for no apparent reason. Christmas will never be as big as it once was.

And that’s okay.

It’s okay because it’s my turn to do for someone else what was done for me. Life is like that sometimes.

Recovery is like that. We give others what was freely given to us. We accept the newcomers as we were accepted. We give the advice that we were given. We shine a light and offer hope.

And sometimes, we are rewarded for these efforts. Sometimes, we get to see the changes in someone else.

Christmas actually came early for me this year. In the 48 hours before Christmas, I got news from two friends who have chosen to enter the world of recovery. One had spoken to me on and off a few times about getting sober. The other was a complete surprise. Both told me that my writing helped them, inspired them, to seek a new life.

And that’s why I share my story, here and in person. To show others that there is a way out. That we can have a great life. One that exceeds our wildest expectations.

This was my third Christmas sober. It was much easier than my first, and somewhat easier than my second, but I’ll be honest, it’s still hard. Christmas brings up feelings. Feelings of loss, nostalgia, and even fears. Fears that things might never be like they were. Fears that my best years have passed me by. Fears that I’ll lose the people closest to me.

But I have tools to manage these feelings today. After my son woke us up at 5:17 AM and we opened presents in the dark, I baked some scones and fed the family. Then I got myself on line and found a meeting to go to. There weren’t many folks there at 9:00 AM, but it only takes two alcoholics to have a meetings so it didn’t matter. I got a chance to listen to others. I got a chance to voice my concerns for the day and to express my gratitude.

And gratitude is what I feel most tonight. Gratitude smothers the pangs. I’m grateful for a third Christmas sober. I’m grateful that I’m doing the right things. I’m grateful that my son loves me and thinks I’m the greatest dad in the world — even if I’m not sometimes. I’m grateful that my wife stuck by me — even through the worst of my drinking. I’m grateful that I’ll be going to bed soon with a clear head and a clean conscious.

Most of all, I’m grateful for another day.

Old Habits Die Hard — Feelings, Self Pity, and Regrets

From a very early age, I harbored a deep sense that I wasn’t good enough, that I didn’t fit in somehow, that I was less than. Growing up in the country, my early feelings of unworthiness stemmed from the fact that my family didn’t have a farm, that I didn’t have my own bb gun, that I didn’t have a pocket knife and of all things, that I didn’t have a down vest. See, those were the things that the “cool” kids seemed to have.

As a kid, I was oblivious to the good things that I had. It didn’t matter that my father was a world renown instructor at the National Fire Academy. Never mind the fact I was sent to private school because my parents desperately wanted to make sure that I got an education in a town where education wasn’t valued as highly as a set of antlers mounted on the wall of your living room.

When I reached the age that little boys start to think that it might be nice to be around little girls, I felt like all the girls wanted nothing to do with me — and for the most part I think that was true. I asked the same girls to “go with me” over and over and got the same response every time, “no.” Not even a “thank you.” It didn’t help that my options were limited to about 15 girls in my class, but I didn’t understand that.

Years later, I still struggled with this. On the night that I met my wife, I was so convinced that she wouldn’t want to see me again that I struggled to ask for her phone number — after talking to her for nearly two and half hours at a bar in DC. Finally, in desperation she pulled out her card and said, “Call me” before leaving for the night. See, my feelings of unworthiness were so strong, perhaps only outweighed by my fear of rejection, that I’d never asked for a girl’s phone number in a bar. I was 31 years old and couldn’t work up the nerve to ask for her number.

At times, those feelings are still strong in my recovery. Continue reading

The Greatest Gift

Of all the gifts I gave or received this year for Christmas, the greatest gift is my sobriety.  I did a calculation yesterday and figured that this was the first Christmas I’d been sober in 27 years.

That is not completely accurate, my wife was expecting in 2007 and I know that I didn’t drink on Christmas day that year because we didn’t know when the baby would get here. If Mr. Grey hadn’t been on the way, I certainly would have been drinking.

In those 27 years, I there were many when I drank in moderation, perhaps even normally, but in the past 7 there was nothing moderate or normal about my drinking.  And my recollections of those Christmases are somewhat foggy.

But not this year.  This year, I was sober and it was the greatest gift I could have given — to myself, and to my family. Continue reading