The Ghosts of Christmas Past

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

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.


The ghosts are alive in the pictures. They are in albums that appear on coffee tables in early December and in framed photos on the mantle among the reindeer and holly and bells. There are even pictures in the ornaments that hang from the trees.


But the pictures only reveal a fraction of the story. The pictures depict a happy family in Christmas dresses and collared shirts, going through the festive motions. Our smiles hide the turmoil of a family immersed in alcoholism – never knowing from one moment to the next if the joy is sustainable, or if it should serve as a warning that angry chaos will surely ensure.


But I see the truth.


In fact, when I look at pictures of Christmases past, the ghosts of addiction are sometimes all I can see.


No matter how far I put them into the past, they haunt me because they represent a period of childhood innocence that no amount of repentance will ever bring back. Memories seared and opportunities for lightheartedness lost forever.

Christmas with My Oldest Kids

The smiles are wide and thick with Christmas anticipation. I can tell from our church clothes that we are about to leave for the candlelight Christmas Eve service. I can tell from my face, flushed with color, that I’ve been drinking. Likely, I’ve been drinking a lot of beer, and I’m anticipating eggnog drowning in rum once we blow out the candles on the final verse of Silent Night in an hour or so. I’ll soon be blackout drunk.


I don’t remember the details of this Christmas Eve night. When you look at the picture, you can’t help but smile at the joyous expressions on the faces of my oldest two children. When I look at the picture, I can only pray that they took that carefree joy all the way to bed with them that night.

Christmas 2009

My whole family, including our youngest in the womb, is preparing for Christmas Eve church once again. Thanks to the time stamp on this one, I know that I was right in the heart of my decade of active alcoholism. Again, the kids are full of excitement and Christmas spirit. When I look at our daughter clinging to my wife, I can’t help but feel like that is more than a daughter hugging her mother. In my eyes, she is a victim of unknown chaos clinging to the safest thing in her life. There is no threat evident in this picture, but as long as I am drinking (and I was definitely drinking), the threat of raised voices and irrational anger is ever present. I am thankful that my kids had my wife to cling to. I am devastated that I was often the reason they needed to cling.

Note to Santa, Milk, Cookies and a Carrot

Visions of sugarplums will soon dance in their heads – or something like that (I have no idea what a sugarplum is, and I don’t imagine my children know either). My daughter is writing the note to Santa while two of my boys are busy preparing Rudolph’s carrot and hugging their mother. That’s what you see. I see the ghosts.


I’ve been drinking for hours. Holiday drinking – the kind of drinking without the stress of restriction. The kind of drinking that doesn’t leave room for consideration of the impact on those around me. My wife, Sheri, is surely hoping desperately to get the kids to bed before I pass out. And yet, she is hoping I pass out without incident. It is like threading a needle when she is holding neither the thread nor the needle. It is a sad, desperate Christmas wish for the incapacitation of the person on whom she is supposed to depend.

My Last Alcoholic Christmas

This is my last Christmas in active alcoholism. Just weeks from now, I will start the long and treacherous trek to healing…healing myself and healing my family. This is Christmas Tree Day for my family. We buy a permit from the National Forest Service, and trudge into the mountain woodlands to cut an imperfect, nature-grown tree. It is a highly revered annual tradition for us, full of as much alcohol-induced stress and tension as candy canes and visits with Santa.


On this particular Christmas tree hunting adventure, my buzz is wearing off as we head back to Denver. I insist that we stop for hot chocolate for the kids. I insist that we stop at a hole-in-the-wall bar…for the sake of my children. They get some powdered cocoa stirred into lukewarm water. I get two more pints of IPA to hold me over until I get home to my beer and eggnog. My wife gets the kind of disappointment reserved for when her husband drags her kids to a bar during a very special Christmas festivity. And she gets a headache from trying to understand exactly how she got into this despicable mess of a marriage.


Look at this picture. The smiles of our kiddos are weak and strained. Sheri and I have the telltale fake smiles of alcoholism. When I look at this picture, I can see the ghosts swirling around, threatening to take everything that matters in my world. They have already taken much of the joy. When will enough be enough?


Do you see ghosts? Do your holiday pictures hide the rest of the story? Are you ready to change the narrative before you add to the horror?


I often hear, “I’ll quit drinking after the holidays.” I don’t understand that logic. Your family will likely be far less impacted if you drink in the natural isolation of January. Why would you want to put them through one more festive season of tension? Stop now. You can’t dispatch the ghosts of Christmases past, but you can stop forging the chain you drag without making it one alcoholic holiday heavier.


Don’t make the mistake I made. Make this family holiday the start of something new, not the last change to capture photographic proof of your pending demise.


If you’re ready, we’re here for you at SHOUT Sobriety – our program for high-functioning alcoholics seeking sobriety.

SHOUT Sobriety

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  • Reply
    December 9, 2021 at 6:17 am

    Wow, Matt. That last picture packs a punch- so recognizable is the sadness in the smiles of the older children. They are so blessed you are on the other side, and they know it.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      December 12, 2021 at 12:41 pm

      Blessed indeed, Melissa. We all are. Thank you.

  • Reply
    Sloane Wilke
    December 12, 2021 at 10:18 am

    I was reminiscing about a past Christmas with my son. I believe he was 10 or 11 when this happened. He reminded me that I kept “running upstairs to drink beer while I was opening presents.” And here I was thinking I was slick!

    Although he said it in a joking tone, I don’t doubt there was pain and resentment beneath the surface. I can’t change the past but I can learn from it. Watching my kiddos open their gifts will have my full attention this Christmas.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      December 12, 2021 at 12:42 pm

      I’m so happy for what this sober Christmas holds for you, Sloane! Thanks for sharing such a relatable and honest story.

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