Just because I no longer drink doesn’t mean I am free. This will be my fifth consecutive sober Christmas, and I still wear the chains I forged in my drinking life. They are lighter now. They no longer define me, nor do they prevent me from living the holiday season with a joyful heart. But I can still feel enough weight from the chains that confined me in addiction to serve as a reminder. I am reminded that alcohol is a diabolical poison not meant for human consumption. But I am also reminded of time lost and mistakes made in the indelible ink of holidays spent with a young family. The future is bright, but I’ll never be free of the weight of the mistakes of the past.
The ghosts are all around to remind me. The stockings hang from our fireplace as they have since each of our four children was born. Like our kids, they are ready and sparkling and full of promise. And I can’t help but remember the times my selfish drinking left the promises unfulfilled. The lights twinkle and the decorations adorn, and it all reminds me of both festive times and regrettable memories of my disease trumping the potential for peace and love. The chances are all around me this time of year. Chances to make new memories, but also chances to remember the past lest it be repeated.
Then there are the pictures.
There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.
Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”
That Saturday morning, you wake up early and sneak down two sets of stairs. The basement’s not yours. You don’t want to get caught catching him.
This is a family week, if such a thing exists. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks time spent with, or at the very least thoughts about, family. Joyous times. Painful times. Sober thoughts. Intoxicated memories. Family is complicated. The grip they have on our emotions comes and goes, often in correlation to our geographical proximity. But make no mistake about it – on a week like this one, the family-o-meter is pegged in overdrive.
I recently challenged my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety program with this writing prompt: “Describe the stages of knowing that alcohol had no place in your life.” Sarah wrote the response to the prompt that follows. As we navigate the messiness of a week with family in the spotlight, I thought it particularly appropriate to share her experience. And yes…there is a bit of irony to featuring the lessons of a Canadian on U.S. Thanksgiving week (in my defense, she wrote it very close to Canadian Thanksgiving last month).
I can’t remember not knowing that alcohol was likely to be a danger in my life – that the number of alcoholics on both sides of my family tree meant I was at high risk. I was lectured to. from a young age, about this by my mother, the same person who insisted I have a glass of wine with dinner the day my first child was born. Because that drink was safe.
Grief is an amputation, but hope is an incurable hemophilia: you bleed and bleed and bleed.
Author’s Note: This is the very first piece I wrote for the Echoes of Recovery group, by way of introduction. The prompt was: How are you preparing for Thanksgiving?
I’m preparing by remembering.
I’m remembering the last hopeful Thanksgiving.
Two years ago, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, my husband and I woke up in separate beds at four in the morning. Time to go. We slipped off our wedding rings. I stacked them on the bathroom counter and took a picture of them in the soft overhead light.
I’ve always known he did his best. That was never in question. For many years now, however, I wallowed in my belief that his best wasn’t good enough – that he should have done more and known better. But time, when combined with an open mind and considerable reflection and contemplation, is a powerful potion to heal old wounds.
I’ve long blamed my dad. Now I’m not so sure…
Tell everybody waiting for Superman
That they should try to hold on the best they can
He hasn’t dropped them, forgot them, or anything
It’s just too heavy for Superman to lift.
The Flaming Lips, “Waiting for Superman”
Someone is saying my name. Or so it seems. It also seems like I’ve been hearing it for a while, fading in from far away. Easy to ignore in the soft, quiet nowhere I am.
But I’m starting to remember. I’d just gone to sleep in the OR a minute ago. I know they’re planning to check out my liver with a scope to make sure it’s okay for donation. (The surgeon really didn’t like some of the cysts and small, stiffening spots that showed up on my MRIs. Turns out, you don’t have to be an alcoholic either to abuse alcohol, or to have scars from it.)
In a place that’s far away from everything and also at the center of the universe, a shaft of light streams through the pines and maples overhead. The maple leaves are finally turning, starting at the tips furthest from the stems, glowing autumn fire bleeding into still summer green. The beam spills through to the forest floor, where a woman stands in the ferns and the moss. She is gazing up, arms outstretched, a silhouette against brindle light and shade, her shadow long in the morning sun, her faithful dog (her other shadow) at her feet.
The smile on her face is visible.
The woman has been here before, has been in this very spot before, but it’s the first time she’s been whole here.
I was shocked when he said it. Not only did he admit to letting his drinking get in the way of spending time with his children, but even when he was actively engaged with his kids, he didn’t enjoy it. He wanted to be somewhere else. The connection with his own flesh and blood was empty for him.
For a proud father, that was a bold and vulnerable admission. I know a thing or two about vulnerability. I have written and spoken publicly about some of my most despicable behavior. But I have never admitted to hating spending time with my children.
At quarter past nine last Saturday night, there was a knock on my front door.
There’s a vanishingly short list of people who could call me after 8 p.m. any day of the week and not get my voicemail, whether I’m there or not (I probably am), whether I’m busy or not (I’m probably not). I’m a by-appointment-only sort of introvert.
But an unannounced physical being summoning me to my door, in the flesh, with midnight less than three hours away… my God, what fresh hell was this?
While I was crossing a street in Chicago, a parked car backed into the crosswalk and stopped just short of taking me out at the knees. In anger, I slammed my fist down on the trunk of the car and shouted some obligatory curse words. The driver pulled forward into the parking spot, put the car in park, got out and punched me in the ear so hard that I had to puree all my food in a blender for the next two weeks. I thought he owed me an apology. He valued his car over my right to be disappointed with his driving. That was twenty-four years ago, and I haven’t made uninvited contact with another person’s car since.