Saturday was Christmas Tree Day for my family. The Salis Six, as my wife affectionately calls us, trudged out into the Colorado mountain forest with our tree cutting permit and killed the healthiest looking evergreen we could find. It’s now slowly rotting in the corner of our living room.
As strange as this tradition is when you really think about it, I love it just the same. It is my favorite day of the year. We listen to Bing and Eartha croon about the magic of the season, drink hot chocolate and eat a lunch of chili-cheese dogs at the volunteer fire station on the edge of the forest. It’s as much fun as my family can have together.
When we pulled into our driveway at home, I left the tree on the roof of our Jeep and went inside to retrieve the tape measure. As I entered the house, my wife’s heart sank. For just a moment, her memory of Christmases past dragged her back to the many times when arriving at home sent me immediately to the refrigerator for a beer. Old patterns die hard, and memories die even harder. Reality set it, and the terror passed for my wife as quickly as it came. She told me about it later, and I told her I understood. Because I did. Alcoholism is a very emotional disease. The pain and resentment is thick and not easy to wash off. Only time can heal some of the wounds. And sometimes, they reappear uninvited, unexpectedly.
This is my third consecutive sober Christmas after twenty-five in a row where I drank my wife and I into various levels of misery. On Christmas Tree Day a few years ago, I awoke still fairly drunk from the festivities of the night before. I clandestinely drank a couple of beers for breakfast, and was playful and jolly with the kids as we got ready to go. By the time we were back in the car heading home, I was hurting. My buzz had worn off, and my dehydration and exhaustion had to be addressed. I stopped at a bar and grill under the guise of buying the kids a hot chocolate. I drank my beers quickly while the server tried to find the powdered cocoa mix that no one ever ordered from the menu. The kids were young enough to only feel confused by this unusual addition to our traditions of the day. But my wife knew why we stopped, and the disappointment clung to her like an ugly Christmas sweater.
That was a bad night. I barely got the tree in the stand before passing out while the Salis five hung the lights and decorations. I drooled and snored on the couch while they ordered Chinese takeout and watched a Christmas movie together. It was our annual kick-off to the Christmas season, and the kids didn’t understand why daddy was so tired and missed it. The shame and regret overwhelmed me when I awoke in the middle of the night. That’s probably the memory that gave my wife a moment of terror as she worried that I was heading for the beer fridge instead of the tool chest this past Saturday afternoon. Some miserable memories are hard to shake.
This year is different than that miserable Christmas season past, and it is so very different from my first sober Christmas two years ago. In 2017, I was committed but fragile, and I didn’t appreciate how weak my sobriety muscles truly were. Every experience was a trigger to drink, and I was hanging onto my sobriety by my fingernails. My wife’s office Christmas party left me feeling like an outcast and a loser because I was the only one who couldn’t drink. I felt like all eyes were on my patheticness. I didn’t yet understand that nobody cared if I drank or not. I watched as one of Sheri’s coworkers overdid it and said things he would surely regret if only he could have remembered. I’d never noticed anything like it before. It occurred to me I’d never noticed because in the past I was too intoxicated to care. Or worse – I’d never noticed before because in the past the overindulgent buffoon was me.
Last year was my second consecutive sober Christmas, and things were definitely better than the first. Still, I was mostly sad, most of the month of December. I didn’t feel like an outcast or a loser anymore. Most everyone I was around was accustomed to my abstinence by then, and even the few who originally objected seemed to have accepted my decision. The truth is, I didn’t care what anyone thought about me on my second sober Christmas anyway. My sadness wasn’t about other people, it was about my own feelings of not belonging. It seemed everyone else was comfortable with his place in the family or her role in our group of friends. I still felt like Bambie trying to get my footing and walk my new walk. It was a lonely feeling to hear the cues to drink but know they weren’t meant for me. The festivities of the season were less triggering and more depressing. It was as though I wasn’t invited to the parties I was attending. I wasn’t jealous. I knew I was on the right path for me. Knowing, and being comfortable in my own skin – well, those are two very different things.
This Christmastime feels like everything finally fits. I’ve stopped living my alcoholic lie, but it goes much deeper. I’m not only my true, authentic self – like it or not – but I’m comfortable being the person I’ve become. A couple of nights ago, a friend in early sobriety told me he wanted to get on with life just without a drink in his hand. It doesn’t work that way. For us former heavy drinkers, life changes in sobriety. Everything changes. How can we expect to be comfortable with the new us until we take the time to get to know ourselves. And it takes a lot of time and repetition. It takes going through the experiences we know with an open mind and a patience few of us possess.
Last night was my wife’s office Christmas party. I didn’t think about drinking at all this year – neither worry that everyone noticed my abstinence nor observation of the consumption of others. I ate too much and told bad jokes and felt indescribably comfortable in my own skin. No feeling like an outcast. No jealousy, and I didn’t miss out on a thing. I was present – my true, unembellished self – and it felt better than I’ve felt in December for a very, very long time.
When alcohol takes over your life, taking it back is a long process. I couldn’t possibly be having this joyful Christmas season if not for the extreme discomfort of that first sober December. And without the loneliness and longing of last year, I wouldn’t be ready to welcome complete acceptance of the new me. Alcoholism is a bitch. Defeating it requires unimaginable persistence. Sobriety is a gift that reveals itself over time. In our instant gratification society, we lack the patience to delight in the things that come to those who wait. That’s really too bad, because the reward for waiting is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced with a drink in my hand.
If this is your first sober Christmas, I hope you’ll hold on tight. Go to meetings, read, talk incessantly to your sober community and go home and cry as often as you feel the need. Just don’t drink. If this is your second sober December, let the sadness wash over you. It is cleansing you in a way you won’t understand until later. It might seem hopeless this year, but the answers you seek will come in time. Don’t give up now. Don’t drink.
You can’t get to the joy of your sober holiday seasons of your future if you don’t endure the challenges of the first couple. If you give into temptation now, you are a full year away from starting the three year cycle. Don’t rob yourself of another year. Hasn’t alcohol stollen enough of your life already?
If you’re ready to start the process of getting back to a place of contentment and joy where you’ve never been before, I want to help. Please consider enrolling in SHOUT Sobriety, our online program to help people through early recovery. SHOUT Sobriety is a donation based program, and we ask participants for an ongoing monthly recurring donation of $25 to support this mission and keep the program thriving. Don’t wait until after the holidays. Take back your life now. To enroll, for more information or to make a donation, please click the button below.