A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime
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I’m a recovering alcoholic, married with two teenagers and a mild in-law problem that really bothers me during the holidays. To some degree, what I am struggling with is naming why my holiday situation bothers me so much. May I bend your ear?
My in-laws are nice people and regularly invite my family to stay with them in their very rural home town for the Christmas holiday. The kids both love Christmas with their grandparents and cousins, and the event is the peak of my wife’s year. Generally, the whole week around Christmas is packed full with caroling parties, fancy meals, long sessions singing in groups, unwrapping presents — about as wholesome and Norman Rockwell as it gets.
Unfortunately, something about the overcrowded conditions, being surrounded by other people’s traditions, and unable to break away for even an hour of solo time becomes overwhelming for me. I have tried many times to find things to do to get away — the only criticism I would make of this group is their complete inability to understand why someone might need some alone time. In general, there is nothing else to do in the town we visit. If I manage to get away for a ski afternoon or something, invariably much is made over my absence and the unavailability of the car I use (even if it is my own rental). Clearly, it is a breach of their rules for someone to leave the group.
I feel that a normal person ought to be able to overlook and overcome this small inconvenience for the sake of my wife and kids, who truly love this annual outing. Still, here it is only December 3, and tonight I am sick to my stomach with dread, fearing Christmas as I never feared a final exam. In my inventory tonight, I have to acknowledge resentment of the fact that I am the outsider in this group, the only one with no musical talent, doomed to hold coats and mind the little kids while others sing and demonstrate their excellence on various instruments, the guy who gets ten sets of socks at the gift exchange. I’m sure there is also a link between these feelings and some truly miserable childhood Christmas memories, and with my near-total separation from my birth family. I wish none of this were so.
So, in general, sobriety is going well. It’s been a little more than seven years, and I feel like I’ve moved a long way from the bitter, scared person I was when I was drinking actively. As I went through the steps with my sponsor, who is someone I have known my entire life, I had to recognize that a particular kind of retributive anger was my main driver — what some of my friends call the “racing brain.” I was caught up often and simultaneously in revenge fantasies and unbearable self-doubt. I learned that the sad truth about me was that these fantasies were precious to me, and that to the same degree I drank to escape them, I also somehow was defined by them. My daily inventory was, for years, an exercise in recognizing and rejecting these thoughts by — I hope this does not sound too weird — offering them up to my higher power as the only sacrifice of value that I could make. I would visualize these feelings, which unfortunately were the most precious possession of my soul, being burned on an altar, and therefore no longer mine. It has generally worked.
Except, well, you know. The resentment I feel about being cooped up all through the holiday to celebrate someone else’s idea of Christmas, the feeling of being an outsider. I am powerless over this feeling tonight. Any thoughts?
Very truly yours,
Another Hill to Climb
Dear Another Hill,
Let me help you first with naming it. How about we call it deprivation disguised as plenitude? For you sit at a great banquet. Yet you feel empty. It seems to work for these other people. Yet it doesn’t work for you.
Does that mean there’s something wrong with you?
Well, yes, if you want to put it that way, there is something wrong with you. You’re an alcoholic. It may seem harsh or un-P.C. to say there’s something wrong with you but of course there’s something wrong with you! You wouldn’t be in recovery if you were fine. You’re not fine. You respond to things differently. Your psychology is warped. You have, heroically, and for your own survival, learned much about your own perversity. As I have. Have learned enough, one hopes, that you can say with equanimity, Yes, there’s something wrong with me. I’m alcoholic. I don’t respond to alcohol like others, nor do I respond to social situations like others. Nor do I respond to pain and discomfort like others. One could say that. I can certainly say that of myself: There is certainly something wrong with me!
Luckily we have found a way to live as alcoholics. So let’s ask, What would an alcoholic in recovery do?
What about service? Service does not mean just making coffee and straightening chairs. It means changing our entire posture toward the world, so that rather than self-seeking we are of service. Rather than thinking of our own delight we are looking for ways to be useful and in harmony. It is of course hard at this time of year to look on a happy, singing crowd, full of good cheer and possibly good scotch too, and not wish that we could have what they have.
But we have something else: We have been saved from an awful death and we know what to do. We make ourselves of service.
Forget yourself and your longing for the good cheer others find so easily. Accept the fact that you were put here for something else. You were put here to be of service. Being of service can be subtle. It can mean just being pleasant. It can mean letting everyone do what they do and not getting in the way and endeavoring to at least appear to enjoy it.
In the midst of all this frivolity, it’s easy to think, Aha, all this frivolity is just what I need! Without quite realizing it, we start thinking, How can I get jolly and carefree like them? How can I have some of that good cheer? Once that thought takes root, it is hard to let go of. We start to feel like we can’t be OK unless we are in that state of frivolous good cheer which looks so attractive and beguiling. We start to feel like we can’t survive unless we get some of that good cheer!
Underlying this, however, is the belief that we cannot survive without what we think we need. That is an interesting proposition for an alcoholic, isn’t it? For what we think we need is not actually what we need. Strangely enough, we have demonstrably unnatural appetites. How many times in the past have we believed that we needed certain things or we could not function? How many times in the past did we think we simply could not function without at least a beer? How many times did we assume that life without alcohol was an impossibility?
On the flipside, how satisfying has it been to learn that we can at any time experience, in the absence of any mind-altering drug, the sheer, naked hum of being? To experience, unfiltered, the majesty of the moment, to quietly, while others are lost in frivolity, become aware of the holiness of the moment? And to contemplate the possibility of an ancient bond with the very living, breathing human historical beings whose stories and actions come alive this time of year? To imagine them in their robes, speaking their strange tongues and yet as tormented and full of doubt as we are. To make the leap from being trapped in the narrow now, looking at historic figures as mere symbols, to communing with them directly, through a kind of soul-melding or psychological identification on a deep level, so that the holiday and the spirit of the holiday comes alive for you.
It is a resonant myth, this notion of Christmas. I’m not a Christian but neither am I insensible to the awesome power of the story. To celebrate the idea that someone was born, a savior was born: What an awesome thing to contemplate; what nectar for the thirsty soul, even if we do not believe it, even if it conflicts with other things that we might believe, religion-wise: what an awesome and wonderful thing to imagine, that a savior might have been born who would transport us out of torment and death.
It’s not a bad thing to think about as the lights come on and the eggnog comes out. It certainly is not a bad thing for an alcoholic to think about. For anyone who has recovered from the torment of alcoholism has been literally given a new life. Most of us had reached a point where it was clear that no human power could have relieved us of our alcoholism. Yet it was relieved. So we have been touched by something beyond the rational; we have been saved from drowning; we have been pulled safely into the boat.
That alone is something to celebrate. You may celebrate it differently from the way Christians celebrate their union with God, and differently from the way pagans celebrate their union with the earth or indeed differently from the way any of the many major and minor religions celebrate. You may celebrate it quietly, away from the singing and the egg nog. But celebrate it. Celebrate your own birth and rescue. And then place yourself in the service of these people, these good, loving people who accept you into their house, who want the best for you, who bear you no ill will, who would clasp you to their bosoms and make you feel a part of their family if they knew how.
Most of all, listen. For you can be sure that just beyond the gaiety is a burning need to be heard. In fact, I have noticed that the salient fact about many such outwardly cheerful and brilliant families is that their members secretly feel unheard; in the rush to participate, something is sacrificed: perhaps that very interiority that you find so essential. The fact that this family does not recognize the human need for solitude indicates that at least some of its members probably bear an unexpressed need for the kind of full and generous hearing only a sympathetic sufferer like you could give.
Nor castigate them because they don’t know how to make you feel a part of their family. Accept the fact that you are the stranger. The stranger is a problem for a family. Its individuals may not want to, consciously, yet the very existence of the family requires that it exclude the stranger. To do otherwise is not easy, especially if the stranger is like you or I, a stranger vast in his interiority, inscrutable to others, possessed of manic, howling impulses of retribution and perversity!
We alcoholics are not easy people to love, my friend. So do not place too heavy a burden on those around you. They will love you in their way but it will not always be what you would wish it to be.
Instead, find a dish to wash. Find a porch to sweep. Lend a listening ear to anyone who seems bursting. Also, let them to teach you their songs. Or, assuming you can at least keep a beat: Play percussion. That is one thing such gatherings often lack: Someone to beat the tambourine steadily, humbly.