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A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime

A letter to the alcoholic at Chrismastime


Write for Advice

Dear Cary,

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.





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  2. Cary, you do good and important work. I am addict. I am printing out this letter to help carry me through the holidays. Thank you.

  3. Powerful column – it resonated with my own situation and will help me through the Holidays. Thank you!

  4. The letter writer could break away and get to a 12 step meeting, where he could also be of service and get a little serenity. And a little self-deprecating humor about his need to have alone time might help defuse the situation with his hosts. And a wish list on ann online retailer’s website might help with the ten pair of socks problem . Also, maybe a nice reward after it’s all over…an activity the letter writer truly enjoys?

    • Wish list – great idea!

  5. I tried to registered weeks ago but never got the instant email so of course have never commented.

  6. Ugh! Like LCC, I, too, would like to edit my comments. Things like ones instead of one’s. Yikes!

  7. Love the letter and the restraint by the LW, Cary’s comment and all the other one’s as well. So much wisdom all around. I feel like Debe that it’s wonderful how you, Cary, so often go to “higher ground” to the spiritual perspective. I think it might serve the LW to get a mix: One part psychospiritual perspective, one part acknowledgement and suggestions that serve the complaint and one part new ideas. I think all the comments combined offer that. I just had the thought, which is why I am commenting, that maybe the family doesn’t want to let the LW out of their sights for fear he might go have a drink somewhere and an open convo of sharing concerns might create confidence all around and with the confidence some space.

    My 2 cents about logging in: I did that once here and now I’m just always logged in, so no problemo. On the other hand, when I’m on a blog for the first time, unless I’m really wowed and already know I want to commit to it, I won’t comment if I have to log in and won’t return, either, unless I’m at least medium wowed. ;) But it’s a barrier that I often don’t vault. Oh, I also just worry about giving over my email address. I trust you, so it wasn’t an issue for that reason. I’m curious how the donate button is working for you.

  8. Love your take on things, Cary. Love the way you always go to higher ground, helping us see things from a spiritual place, a place of higher consciousness. Not always the easiest place from which to act, but the better place. Thank you.

  9. As an introvert, the idea of engaging every Christmas in the activities you describe sounds like a kind of hell. I like the concepts that Cary brought up, about service and especially the idea of service to yourself. When the glass is empty, the only way to fill it up is to get some alone time, a service provided ultimately to others. What about bringing up the subject of introversion and an introvert’s needs as an open topic among these folks? Bring out the elephant and dance around it, joke about it, give them a window to view your actions other than the one that might imply rejection of them for personal reasons or a red flag about your alcoholism, a necessary tool in your kit that keeps you from returning to alcohol? Give yourself a block of time as a legitimate activity. Schedule it into each day. A couple hour walk, maybe?

  10. Thanks, Cary and everyone, for a great letter and great discussion. I’m an introvert who is a recovering compulsive overeater, so I try to balance togetherness with alone time at family gatherings. Going on a walk, hanging out with one of the family pets, or even standing at the sink and humming to myself while doing dishes can be a refreshing break from interaction.

  11. I have two thoughts about this letter. First, I’m surprised no one has suggested that the letter writer talk to his wife about this issue. My only sister got married a few months ago, and my husband’s role at this event sounded just like this guy: coat-holder and kid-minder. I knew it wasn’t the most fun for my husband; he was doing it for me, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I can’t imagine asking that of him every single Christmas. It sounds like the letter writer has no family to spend the holidays with, so he and his wife have been visiting hers every year for their entire marriage. Perhaps his wife has no idea how stressed out and left out he feels, and he should definitely share this with her. Together, they may be able to come up with some solutions – such as visiting every other year, making their visit shorter, or concocting a good excuse for him to take breaks or skip a year altogether (tell everyone he’s thrown his back out and needs to rest and recuperate). She could also just be honest with her family on his behalf and support him in his desire to not participate in every single activity. Why can’t she just say, “John’s going to take a pass on caroling, but he’ll meet us at the restaurant afterwards”?

    This question brings me to my second thought: The letter writer doesn’t say how long he’s been in recovery. If his kids are teens, I’m assuming he and his wife have been married for at least 15 years or so. If he was an active alcoholic during their marriage, that may have something to do with why her family doesn’t feel close to him after all of these years (ten pairs of socks), and possibly why they might be uncomfortable with his wanting “alone time” (is he going off by himself to drink?). I bring this up because, if his alcoholism is the elephant in the room every Christmas, his wife may be able to stop the comments about the “unavailability of the car” (which isn’t the real issue) by assuring her family privately that she doesn’t have any concerns about her husband’s recovery and they don’t need to, either.

    • Sorry, I seen now that the letter writer says he’s been sober 7 years. As I mentioned, if that means that he was an active alcoholic earlier in his marriage, it might be worth considering whether his wife’s family still has concerns about that. Addressing those concerns might make Christmas more comfortable for everyone.

      Aside from that, I just wanted to emphasize that although it is admirable that the letter writer wants to be able to put up with a holiday celebration that isn’t fulfilling and joyful for him for the sake of his wife and kids, he shouldn’t have to do it every year. It’s his Christmas, too.

      • And, Cary, in answer to your question, I will log in if necessary, but I’d rather not.

        What I would like is to be able to edit my comments after I hit submit so I can correct embarrassing typos, such as “I seen.” :)

  12. I would like to propose for consideration the possibility that when they make much of your absence from the festivities, it may be less a judgment of you, and more their perception of your actions as a judgment and a rejection of them. Maybe this celebration is their way of being of service to each other, and they are clearly failing when it comes to you. So maybe you could learn to accept what they offer fully in the moment with gratitude for their intention (which I think is what Cary is suggesting, with many excellent ideas for how to do that), and teach them, gently and with gratitude for their wish to be of service, how to succeed.

    Teaching them how to serve you would be risky, because it would entail being honest about who you really are, not just with your actions (e.g., leaving for a while) but with your words. You would have to start by stating what you value about them, because it is possible that they are feeling rejected and not valued by you. You would also have to be clear about who you are and what you need, appropriately, and unapologetically, but gently. (Whenever we reject a gift or service that someone offers us, it’s kind to do it gently.) And if you choose to do this, it would have to be done laying none of the responsibility for your feelings at their door. You would have to own it completely. (If you decide to do this, it’s important to do those things in that order, because if you only assert your needs, it could be taken as further rejection of them, which would likely backfire.) If you take these steps, they would start to know you. They don’t know you now…thus all the socks.

    Maybe you are an outsider because you are protecting yourself, and, if that is so, you probably have all kinds of good reasons for doing that. Not only that, if you let yourself be known, they could reject you, and that could be crushing. But if they don’t reject you, maybe you could really know how it feels not to be an outsider any more. I don’t mean that you would learn to be like them. I mean that you would come to feel what it means to be accepted for you. Maybe this is a group of people who could do this. Or maybe there are some people in this group who could do this. Maybe not.

    You were thrown a lifeline when you were offered the tools and support for your recovery. Maybe you were pulled into the boat. But you grabbed that lifeline and held on. Is life reaching out another helping hand now? Taking these steps wouldn’t be easy, and it entails considerable risk. Maybe it’s not the right thing to do at this time. Maybe these are not the right people to do it with. Are you strong enough? Are you ready to genuinely appreciate their strengths and their intentions? Do you have sufficient evidence that there is the possibility that they could be trusted? Maybe this is still the time for self-protection. You are someone with demonstrated courage, insight and power. Be gentle with yourself. You can trust yourself to know what to do. Don’t rush your decision. Gather your data. Amass your resources. If it’s the right thing to do, there’s always next Christmas.

  13. Hey Cary–

    I don’t mine logging in if it is easy and quick and I don’t get spam from it. Logging in to comment on blogs on blooger, for instance, is a total pain an something I avoid. But this was fine, at least for me. I don’t know your old system because this is the first time I commented on your new site.

  14. What about [to the group, when a tv show is on or there's a lull in the activity]: ‘Hey, I’ve got to get out for a walk/a ride/a trip to the store…Who’d like to come with me?’ Someone will. How ’bout an honest, “You know me…gotta go for a bit…” They DO know you, and guess what? It sounds like they’re accepting you for who you are.

    We are so quick to cast judgment on ourselves – sometimes it’s not actually being offered by others.

    And regarding the singing/musicianship etc – well, it doesn’t matter if you’re talented or able. But you knew that, didn’t you? It’s just the participating that makes you an equal part of the group. You are already a part of the group, by the way. It’s just sometimes you’re choosing to not be a part of it. And if you’re a really bad singer? Awesome!! How much fun are your kids – and the rest of the family – going to have with that?

    You’re not doomed to hold coats or chase kids unless that’s the role you’re assigning yourself. You’re not exiled to the outside looking in – unless you put yourself there. [By the way, do you know the song 'Christmas Dinner' by Peter Paul and Mary? Awesome]

    I just want you to be gentle with yourself. Forgive yourself. Allow yourself to have fun. Allow yourself to just be the person you are. You know what? Just about everybody there LOVES that person, warts and all. And welcomes him. Allow yourself to participate. Allow yourself – for just a brief time if it has to be that – to be good enough. Recognize that not everybody participates in everything – and that’s okay. It’s okay if you don’t. But please, be gentle with yourself, accept equal membership in the family, recognize that we all have different gifts and wants and contributions and that’s what makes a family so richly woven, it’s what makes the memories that everyone treasures.

    I just wish you everything on the holiday cards…peace, gentle, calm and the recognition of the divine – however it is defined – in YOU.

  15. Hey, glad to see your comments. I’m curious: Does it make a difference to you if you have to log in to comment? We’re still trying to figure out what is the best way to administer the user functions. We get some strange spam from time to time and thought asking commenters to log in as users might curb that. But then (this may be coincidence) it seemed like requiring people to log in cut down on comments. Thoughts?

    • Nope, doesn’t matter to me. I was expecting to have to log in when I started posting the comment above.

  16. I love Cary’s advice and it made me tear up. Back away from yourself, sit and be still, find a way to serve, be open to those others. But I agree that if the LW needs some time alone, a walk in the woods or down the street every day is a good idea.

    As to the ten sets of socks…give your wife some idea of other things you might like. Let hints of your passions and interests out while you visit. Or…ask for no gifts, but donations to some cause near and dear to your heart.

    And if you can, please find a way to participate in the music. You don’t have to be good if you’re relatively quiet. You just have to be there. It will be good for you. And maybe even for them.

  17. Sometimes it seems to me that alcoholics like to run … as in run away. So don’t’ run. Sit with your feelings of discomfort, don’t run and don’t start with the stories. Just sit and notice, but don’t dwell and start making *!$# up. It’s OK to feel a certain way. It’s not OK to use that feeling to do bad things.

    That being said, going out for a walk if you’re feeling cooped up, claustrophobic, tired of people is not a bad thing. maybe you’re an introvert in a house of extroverts. i know because I am one and I have extroverts in my family that literally can’t do a bloody thing by themselves.

    So if you’re going off by yourself to gain some sanity – who cares? It’s not a bad thing to gain some sanity! Just because other people don’t understand or aren’t crazy about it doesn’t make it wrong. You showed up for the party, you’re being a good sport, you’re there some of the time getting along with everyone and making conversation and smiling. That’s good! But if you need a break here and there, take break and to heck with the E-verts. They’ll be OK in the long run.And so will you.

  18. I agree with the above commenter, I like ‘Carry’s letter, I think it contains good advice, but that the advice doesn’t seem to be meeting the case stated by the letter writer.
    He didn’t even say he was tempted to drink while visiting relatives (I imagine it’s implied to some extent, but that didn’t seem to be really the big issue weighing on his mind here), just that none of his holiday hosts seemed able to imagine that he might need something they haven’t provided (solitude or at least down time). It would make me very angry at my hosts if I were in that postition because I’m a total introvert and it would be a struggle to me to even go in that case. I can see that the letter writer is keen not to give in to any anger he’s feeling, and I can see why. I feel like there must be some one in the situation to whom he can admit that he needs something–not that he needs to be having a smashing time like everyone else but that he needs to do something in order just to get through the tedium of constant stimulus. I imagine that’s all been tried, but I just find it hard to believe that no one is willing to take seriously his assertion that the togetherness would be awesomer if it were broken up occasionally, even by like, a quiet nap or something. Having criticized the advice columnist (although as I say I liked the advice in a general way), I feel like I ought to have some really great suggestion, but I’m stumped. I wonder if the original writer’s sponsor might have some thoughts–if the writer has known him most of his life he’ll probably know at least some of the “major players” in the situation, but beyond that nothing leapt out at me.

  19. I feel really bad for the letter writer, and just have to chime in. I love Cary, and Cary, I’m so glad you are back, but I just think your’re really wrong here. The letter writer is at a breaking point. He doesn’t want to go. It’s okay to set reasonable limits: “I just really need two hours a day to do my own thing.” Maybe there’s a cafe somewhere that he can drive to where he can have coffee and read the newspaper. Just knowing that he has an out every day would mean the world of difference. If the others are resentful about the car not being available for their use, maybe he and his wife can both rent cars so it’s not an issue, if they are able to afford that. Or maybe it’s really not necessary for him to go. Maybe he gets a pass this time. He does not have to be at the others’ service. To my mind, he’s already done that plenty. Maybe this year it’s his turn to do what he wants to do. Maybe others can rise to that, and if they can’t they can’t. But he needn’t continue to sacrifice himself.

    • I think it’s unreasonable of the family to expect a guest to indulge completely and unceasingly in their activities for days on end. Some people NEED alone time (or at least quiet time), it’s essential for their mental health. The family needs to understand that there are different kinds of people in the world, and some need a break from constant, days-on-end socializing and gaiety. It doesn’t make him a bad person. Jollying someone to the brink of insanity is not being “nice” or a good host.

    • You know, I really agree about taking time. I didn’t mean to say that he shouldn’t take time. Absolutely. Get that alone time. No contradiction there, in my mind, I mean, I don’t think it’s selfish; it can be spun as a kind of “service,” too, i.e. taking care of oneself is important.

      • I am the letter writer and very much appreciated the advice. Thank you.

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