Our last Christmas as a couple was in 2020. I knew going into December that if nothing changed, this would be our last time through the holiday season together.
Nothing changed. No Christmas miracle.
Starting in 2021, I found that some traditions and memories were too sad or too hard to continue. But I like the holidays, and I didn’t want to abandon them. Here are a few things I have done, and continue to do, to help make this time of year different.
For a large part of my seven years of sobriety, I had conscious thoughts about alcohol. I was alert for potential triggers. I considered how alcohol would enhance, then ultimately unravel, various situations. I worked to combat the shame of addiction, then the shame of sobriety in a society that reveres alcohol.
I felt pity for people who tried to quit drinking to appease a frustrated spouse. I felt pity for people who tried to quit drinking without a plan for recovery – as though not drinking was some sort of solution. I felt pity for people who put rules around their drinking and tried to control it. I thought about all the people I pitied, and it helped me maintain my commitment to sobriety.
But I don’t have a commitment to sobriety anymore. Not really. I don’t think about drinking or not drinking. Sobriety isn’t my thing anymore. At least it isn’t my thing any more than not drinking Drano or gasoline is my thing. I have no intention of ever drinking battery acid, but I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about not drinking battery acid. It is hard to consider your thing to be something you never consider. How can I claim sobriety to be my thing?
I can get to the other side of the world in one day. I can connect to the other side of the world in seconds. Human ingenuity is amazing. We are connected in previously unimaginable ways.
And yet, we’ve never been so disconnected, It is killing us.
I sat on my front porch alone Sunday afternoon. I had just finished a painful, hour-long discussion with my wife about one of our kids. He is struggling with an issue that is not the point of this writing, and so in an effort to protect his privacy, let’s just say it is one of the hundreds of challenges young people face as they grow and mature.
The discussion was painful because Sheri and I mostly agreed about what was going on, but we had a slightly different take on the nuances. It was painful because despite having four kids, this is our first time dealing with this particular issue, so we are a bit lost as to what to do next. But mostly, it was a painful discussion because we are both hurting for our son, and feeling immense guilt for our potential roles in causing his struggles, and for our inability to make the struggles go away. Like most parents, we would do anything to take pain away from our kids, and when we can’t, that is about as helpless a feeling as I know.
Addiction is a coping mechanism.
It is not weakness or a moral failing. Addiction is not a choice, although with rare mental and behavioral health education, we can avoid making lifestyle decisions that set us up for disaster. Addiction has very little to do with genetics, and much more to do with generational trauma and familial patterns that can result in a family tree dripping with alcoholics.
That first paragraph is thick with stuff it took me over a decade to learn. You don’t have to understand it all. But if you can’t reject the fallacy that addiction is about willpower, genes and morality, then you’re stuck, and none of the rest of this is going to make any sense.
“There’s more food on the stove. Please have more dinner! I’m glad to see you like my cooking.”
One hour passes.
As you take the Tupperware from the refrigerator, you hear, “You’re eating again?”
Sometimes the judgment is so subtle, it is hard to hear. Keep listening.
I was leaning in toward her, trying to hear her next words just slightly sooner than the rest of her audience. I was mesmerized by the story to the degree that I was losing awareness of some of my physical presence. I didn’t notice that my jaw had dropped and my mouth was hanging open like a baby waiting for someone to insert a spoonful of pureed carrots. Have you ever heard a TV advertisement for the monster truck rally at the fairgrounds next, “Sunday! Sunday! Sunday!”? The part where the pitch-man bellows, “We’ll sell you the whole seat, but you’ll only need the edge!”? That was me. Mouth agape, surely drooling a little, butt cheeks barely hanging onto the front half-inch off my chair, and astonishment coursing through my body.
It’s not that her story was so captivating that I had never heard anything quite like it before. I had. I hear lots of unspeakable tales. It was that she was telling the story. Her. She had come to our little writing workshop every Thursday for months. She always wrote, but only read on occasion. Usually, she shared something that felt like the tip of the iceberg. Like she wasn’t sure if she could trust us with what was below the surface. I’m not sure she’d trusted anyone ever. At least not since someone ruined it for all of us – proving the human species so untrustworthy that she’d chosen never to trust again.
I was blown off by a high school principal for a Monday morning meeting. It was work related and had nothing to do with my kids. She requested the meeting. It was based on her calendar availability, but she was too busy (forgetful?) to show up.
My wife had a very empathetic and meaningful conversation with a friend about the anxiety of trying to maintain a busy family with a busy work schedule. Then her friend proceeded to drink wine enthusiastically, not making the connection between alcohol and the nervous system.
Major League Baseball instituted some drastic new rules this year to speed up the games. Now many ball clubs, including our Colorado Rockies, are cutting off beer sales in the eighth inning instead of the traditional last call in the seventh because their revenue from alcohol sales is down. Wait a minute. Wasn’t the three-inning pause designed to give people time to sober up before driving home? Now the innings are faster, and people get fewer of them to dry out?
There is a curse that goes along with the blessings of sobriety. I can’t unsee the stupidity all around me. I used to be able to drink the ridiculous away. In fact, I used to contribute mightily to the lunacy. So when you keep drinking to fit in and be one of the crowd – when you decide your drinking is not a problem because everyone else is drinking like you – there is one massive problem with that justification.
Everyone is pretty dumb.
I’m a pretty selfish person. I’m not ashamed of that fact. I seem to have found a way to align my own personal interests with that which is in the best interest of some other humans, so me looking out for number one has some pleasant byproducts. That last part has not always been the case.
But I have always been selfish. The two differences between my selfishness then in active addiction and early sobriety, and my selfishness now in permanent, long-term sobriety, are awareness and impact. The impact my selfish drinking and my selfish focus on transitioning into sobriety had on others was quite negative. Gaslighting, denials, mood swings, rants, temper, inconsideration, emotional immaturity and down right meanness took a huge toll on me and the people inflicted with my presence. Anyone who has experienced addiction first or second hand can likely relate.
Why do we all think we’re different? Like we are the one and only person who can control the uncontrollable? Like we invented the concept of putting rules around our drinking? Like we are the only earthling with a nagging spouse who is making marriage impossible (it’s a good thing we’ve figured out alcohol so we have something to soothe us in the face of being married to a tyrant)?
Why do we think we’re unicorns?
If we are unicorns, then unicorns aren’t really all that rare. In fact, there are millions of us. Unicorns must wear blinders like race horses. How else can I explain all the stories I’ve heard – the same stories – the similar stories – the stories of otherwise intelligent, caring, responsible people doing the exact same illogical things, trying objectively failed tactics and embracing denial like they are doing scientific research on a brand new toxin (alcohol) that was only just invented (discovered?) in 7,000 B.C.?