On Learning to Swim: My First Sober Christmas


The first Christmas I remember drinking my way through, I was 19. I carried an “iced tea” bottle full of Jack Daniels everywhere. No one suspected a thing. I giggled through Christmas Eve service, sending the scent of whiskey floating over heads bowed in prayer. They just thought I was being a brat. That Christmas was when I first realized how easy it was to conceal my constant drinking.

Before I met the tragic, star-crossed love of my life (it’s alcohol!), spending the holidays with my family had been a stressful, miserable and achingly empty experience. I know in my head that everyone is not suddenly perfectly happy just because it’s the holiday season. Doesn’t it feel that way, though? We all put on our happy faces. How can you tell who else is faking? We all talk about fellowship, comfort and joy. Where do those things live? I could never find them. Were they avoiding me? What did I do?

I know in my head I’m never alone in this. So many of us are drowning in depression in the dead of winter, in the thick of presumed Holiday Cheer. It doesn’t matter what I know. It still feels like slipping through the cracks. It still feels like playing hide-and-seek when the seeker forgets to look for you.

Then I found the quick fix. The miracle cure.

God, it’s so easy, isn’t it? A few sips and you’re alive again. You can talk and laugh and dance again. Everything that hurts feels so far away. Everything that scares you feels so quiet. You can play nice again. Everyone loves you. Everyone laughs at your jokes. (I assume. I mean I wasn’t paying attention, but why wouldn’t they?) You smile. You enthusiastically hug all the people who insist on wounding you over and over and over again. It’s warm, it’s safe, and you never want to live anywhere else. Until it wears off.

The Holiday Cheer you find in a bottle is fleeting, but great news! There is always another bottle. Even if you have to overdraw your bank account to get it. When your health bar is low, you drink a potion. Repeat ad infinitum. You will survive. A couple miniature rum bottles up your coat sleeves at church. A tumbler of wine stashed in your brother’s car at the family gathering. You came prepared, and you will survive.

Vomit in your sister’s bathroom. Nurse a hangover in fetal position in the guest bed that used to be yours. Vigilantly scout for empty rooms to duck into and, um, “recharge.” This is surviving. This is happy. This is Holiday Cheer. Isn’t Christmas magical?

I got lucky. I met people who cared about me. As a person. As an individual. Not just as a part of the collection of family members. Not as a missing piece of the obligatory set. Not as a fraction of something else so large and busy and overwhelming I only feel lost inside it but as something whole and independent and worthy of value on its own.

The people who cared about me as a person made me want to be better. For them and for myself, too. They made me want to heal. Really heal. Not just survive. Not just play nice. They made me want to thrive. For them and for me. I am now nine months sober, and this is my first holiday season without alcohol.

Sobriety hasn’t “cured” my depression. Sometimes, it feels like it’s made it worse. When I first got diagnosed with depression and anxiety, my doctor told me, “Be careful not to drink too much. That can worsen your condition.”

I nodded quietly, but inside I laughed. I thought, “Funny. Drinking is the only thing that actually makes my condition better.”

Sobriety hasn’t cured my depression, but it has shut off all the white noise and let me see clearly the work I have to do. I’m healing. Really healing. However, I’ve still only just started, and life is still scary and hard. Once again, the radio plays songs of contentment and anticipation. Once again, I can’t relate. I’m drowning, and I don’t have my handy life preserver. I am drowning, but guess what? I am learning to swim.

So here’s the question. Where do you find this Holiday Cheer if not at the bottom of a snifter? I am looking for it in replying to text messages, making time to see my friends, caring for the lost, confused and lonely ones I meet. I am looking for it in hot cocoa, trees wrapped in lights, small children in comically oversized coats they will have grown out of by April. I am looking for it in stalwart self-protection, unflinching self-honesty and total self-acceptance. I am looking for it in the compilation album of Shania Twain’s greatest hits.

The other afternoon as I walked down the icy Chicago sidewalk underneath a pitch-black 4:30 p.m. sky, stereotypical sobriety cigarette in hand and Shania’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” in my headphones, I noticed a small bounce in my step. A slight smile twitching in the corner of my mouth. No booze necessary. Where did that come from? Look at me, I’m learning to swim!

I’m not just going to survive this holiday season. I’m going to thrive.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Thinkstock photo by Digital Vision.

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