Six years ago, exactly one month and one day before Christmas, my husband nearly died. He had a four week stay in the ICU where it was touch and go, another two weeks in a step-down unit and then finally discharged home on Christmas Eve, I suppose to lessen the load on the staff for the holidays but he was in no shape to be going anywhere. It took him twenty minutes to get into the house, up our flight of stairs and into bed. I remember tucking him in, and watching him immediately fall asleep from exhaustion. I bundled up the kids, holding the baby as my two older kids ran gleefully out into the frozen yard to sprinkle reindeer food in preparation for Santa’s arrival. I checked on my husband, then made a bunch of trips up and down stairs carrying packages from their hiding place in my closet, placing them under the tree. When everything was set for the morning and I was sure the kids were all snug and asleep and meds had been given to my husband, I finally flopped on the couch, sitting next to the plate of Santa’s cookies and drinking a very large glass of wine that I had filled to the brim. I don’t think I even tasted the cookie that I ate for “authenticity”, I was so lost in the feeling of absolute certainty that the magic was over and that things would never be the same again.
I knew my husband had a long, long recovery ahead. We had three children under the age of five, had just purchased our house, were debt free for the first time in our lives apart from our mortgage, and were both having success at jobs we loved. I had taken the kids to see Santa the day before it all happened, and we had gone to bed that last night, leaving the naked Christmas tree we had chosen that afternoon waiting in the stand for us to decorate the following night. Instead, my husband was rushed into emergency surgery, barely alive. And the tree sat for another few weeks, forgotten in the chaos. I have a snapshot us from that day with a sweet, twinkly-eyed, real beard Santa, the kids smiling hugely in their matchy-matchy outfits, and even if baby was looking a little askance at the big guy, she didn’t cry. My hair was done, I was showered and wearing festive colors and I remember having a fleeting thought that day that maybe I was finally getting the hang of this three kid thing. And that was the last moment where anything was remotely ok for a long, long time.
That Christmas Eve I lay awake on the couch downstairs, staring into the fire with eyes that felt like sandpaper. The month before had been an exhausting trek back and forth to the hospital, shuttling and passing my kids off on friends, dealing with a baby who was weaning and wouldn’t take a bottle from anyone but her parents, fielding a house-decimating run through of the norovirus that left me up to my eyeballs in sick kids and laundry and disinfection while trying to find coverage for my shifts at work and sneaking in to the hospital after visiting hours to check on my husband when I had a neighbor over to listen for wakeful babies. I was utterly terrified and overwhelmed and at a level of fatigue I had never experienced before, but still wanting to give my children the perfect magical Christmases I had always remembered as a child. I knew all of it was more than I could handle.
I rolled over trying to get comfortable on our shabby sofa and smooshed a tiny penguin toy someone had given my youngest for Christmas. It was a cheapy drugstore toy with a lopsided hat, stripey scarf and sang “Holidaaay, celebrate, it would be so nice” in a squeaky little penguin voice when you pressed its tummy. I think I had hidden it behind the pillows to get a break from it’s cheerful chirpiness. So, lying there in the light of the dying fire and the glow of the Christmas tree I had decorated with the big kids “help”, listening to that little voice echoing in the quiet house I remember thinking it would be so nice not to be in this moment at all. I wanted to forget that upstairs my three children slept, unaware of how close their dad came to dying, how close I was to utterly falling apart. How the man who was usually so strong and had already survived two brushes with death as a career soldier could barely even sit in a chair for more than ten minutes or string a sentence together. I couldn’t fathom how long it would be before he could return to his job. How would I get back to my job as a weekend option nurse with no one to help watch my kids or provide care to my husband? What about the huge hospital bills? How would we pay the new mortgage with just my income and on and on… My brain was racing and I felt a lump of fear sitting in my chest that no amount of swallowing would make go away. So, I got up and refilled my wine glass. And I refilled it again a little while later. And that was the exact moment I opened the door and let the monster in. The smooth-voiced monster that would lie to me and tell me I deserved it, as a break, to take the edge off, to help me sleep, to help me get through it all. Mommy’s Little Helper. And God knows I needed help. But it numbed the fear enough for me to get up and get through the exhausting days and not admit how much I needed help.
I had no idea how important the image of penguins would become at that time, or how many other Christmases full of pain and alcohol were waiting. It would be four years before I decided I was finally ready to put all the pieces of myself back together and cease living a sort of half-life. I let my inner self just crumble as I handled all of it with a smile. Not one soul knew and I never let on.
The online support group that helped me finally get sober refers to its members as Penguins. Real penguins function in a hostile environment by huddling together. The weaker or wounded members stay in the middle of the flock, and the stronger ones stand on the outside of the ring and withstand the blast of icy wind and rain, providing shelter to those inside the huddle. Then when they are weary, others rotate to the outside to take their turn being strong and protecting those on the inside. Its the perfect metaphor for how people in recovery serve and help each other through tough times. But more on that later.
I also didn’t expect as I came into this, my second sober Christmas, that I would occasionally still have wistful thoughts about being able to enjoy eggnog or peppermint martinis like a “normal” person. But taking a step back, and acknowledging that “it would be so nice” also brought me to another Christmas revelation. My past and my present fold into each other as I journey further into sobriety. Its no joke how tough it can be at holidays when expectations are so high and swirly memories and emotions lie just below the surface. I read somewhere that every sober day during the holidays should really count as two. That feels true.
My kids and I were watching A Christmas Carol, three days before Christmas. I prefer the old black and white version with Alastair Sim since he still has the best, most exuberant, throaty deep smoker’s laugh when he realizes the moment that his entire life is ahead of him and he can’t contain his joy and gratitude, running about in his nightdress and scaring the neighbors. This version was the kind of creepy CGI one that seems to be on all the time on the “25 days of Christmas” on tv but the story still sucked me in. Who doesn’t love the moody atmospheric gloom of Scrooges’ lonely cold house and empty stingy life and the sudden shocking appearance of Marley’s face on the door knocker? The other side reaching out to this world… And that immense, trailing rattling iron chain he drags behind him.. My nine-year-old son Jack asked me what it was and why he had it wrapped around him and I told him “that’s the chain that represents his deeds and attitudes; every time he was unkind or selfish or unforgiving another link was added. He’s telling Scrooge that his is even longer since he’s had more time to work on it.” The horror is visible in Scrooge’s eyes as he imagines that.
“TIS A PONDEROUS CHAIN” Marley intones…
And I had an epiphany sitting there on my same shabby couch from six years ago. Shame was my ponderous chain. Each time I drank and blacked out, each time I woke wondering what I said or did and each time I couldn’t look myself in the mirror because I knew I was failing to be truly alive, failing to face my life, failing my children, I added a link. And each time I smiled and told people I was fine and accepted their praise of “I don’t know how you do it” when I knew I was barely surviving I added a link. Each time I lied and presented the overcompensating perfect exterior, I added a link. Forget living with real joy or authenticity. I was a fraud, a liar, and every time I picked up a drink I added a link to my ponderous chain.
And when I got sober, and stayed that way, at some point that chain fell off. Of course, I still have days where I disappoint myself, or lose my temper or have deeply embarrassing why the heck am I so dense moments. But that terrible heavy chain of shame that was around my neck, dragging me down and choking me is GONE. I never imagined it could ever go away. I thought I would always feel its weight pressing me down, making it hard for me to breathe. But so much hatred and self-loathing and fear and lies all fell off when I stepped out into the light and chose to stay there. And suddenly I was much like Scrooge in his bed slippers flinging open his windows to see the white snow of London with new eyes and the whole entire world was full of wonder again.
So, as we careen into the end of the year and life feels spiky and pointy and possibly less than magical, I’m going to strive to maintain a sense of gratitude for my second chance and my own little visits to Christmas past that help point me where I want to go. In spite of dysfunctional families and mud instead of snow and a lot of nights where my eyes still feel like sandpaper and days where all of it feels like too much, this I know in my bones: Sober is better. It’s a miraculous gateway drug to a whole new life of possibility and transformation. The penguins I’ve met along the way make it less lonely and help remind me of the truth when I get pummeled by the storms of life. They remind me to tell the truth, to huddle in when I need to, to rest and take my turn in the quiet until I feel ready to rotate back out there. And that is gift enough. More than enough.