Column: The worst Christmas I ever had was the one that changed my life
(Bet_Noire / Getty Images / iStockphoto)
During this pandemic year, I've spent a lot of time praying for the children of alcoholics and addicts, trapped by an illness that requires us all to stay at home - and cornered by another who can have a loving parent in the blink of an eye An ice cube, the squeak of a Chardonnay cork can turn into a fearsome abuser.
I love and miss my mother, who has been gone for almost 15 years, but I can't imagine locking down with her while she was drinking; The vacation was bad enough.
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For all the joy and beauty they can bring, the holidays are always stressful, even in a year without a pandemic. Joy and beauty take a lot of work and, like all those Christmas lights, are often growled on to make everything "perfect" - the decorations, the gifts, the endless baked goods that are tossed down like a glove from every overcrowded food area annually. Is it any wonder so many Christmas traditions are soaked in alcohol - what is eggnog if not an annual trial to prove that a person can drink anything if there is enough alcohol in it?
When I was growing up, Christmas was a time of joyous anticipation and fatalistic fear. My mother, a lovely, fun, generous woman when she wasn't soaked in gin, was a high school business teacher and a very good one. Her job made her an expertly controlled alcoholic for many years: she knew exactly when to stop drinking in order to function the next day.
During the winter break, however, she did not have to stop for two solid weeks.
Even so, we were a Christmas family devoted to many festive rituals, each of which could be completely delightful or absolutely terrible, depending on my mother's level of drunkenness. Growing up in a time when there was no public talk about alcoholism, it took my brother and I years to realize that there was a direct link between my mother's yelling that I was the laziest, irresponsible, and worst child of all Times - because the tablecloths I had just ironed for two hours didn't have enough starch - and the amount of gin and Diet Rite she had recently consumed. (My mom drank gin because, God bless her, she was an alcoholic who didn't like the taste of alcohol - you really have to admire the devotion.)
But even as those drinks became more numerous, there was the advent wreath and calendar, cookie-baking, and secret gift-wrapping, and each year our Maryland home was decorated inside and out within an inch of its life. My father, who loved Christmas more than anyone I've ever met, always said he wanted enough lights so Santa could see where he could land even when it was snowing. Our tree was inevitably a matter of excessive fame.
Like good addicts, we looked at it every year, hoping this Christmas would be different, and every year it was the same except a little worse.
My father tried several times to help my mother drink, but as anyone who has ever loved an alcoholic knows, it rarely works. A person can only sober up when they are ready to sober up. Still, I can't help but believe that his deep trust in Christmas and everything it stands for played a huge role in my mother's decision to finally stop drinking.
In fact, it was a real Christmas miracle, although it didn't seem so at the time.
At the time, it felt like the worst Christmas ever.
I was a junior in school, my brother a freshman, and we were home for the annual vacation roller coaster ride. On this special Christmas day, the events had developed like so often - the opening of the present in the early morning (hats off to mom, who must have felt like crap at 6 a.m., but got up anyway), then a big meeting with extended families and Lunch during the afternoon. Things inevitably went ... and after our guests left, my brother and I retired to our rooms and out of the line of fire. I remember lying in bed thinking that in two years I would be leaving college and living somewhere far away; so far that I might not be able to come home for Christmas. This could break my father's heart - but I thought he was going to live.
I was soundly asleep when Papa had his heart attack.
It wasn't a big one - he remained conscious - but when I heard him repeatedly tell my mother to call an ambulance in a broken and strained voice, I was frightened.
Then after my brother called 911 and things seemed as bad as they could, the energy blew.
Maybe it was the overload of all of us turning on our lights at the same time, or maybe it was the burden of all those crazy Christmas lights, but suddenly our house was in complete darkness.
I mean total darkness. We lived in rural Maryland in a corner house that was set back and surrounded by trees. There were no street lamps, few neighbors; Even in broad daylight, people armed with only one address often struggled to find us. There wasn't even a moon that night. So my brother and I looked for flashlights and ran out into the bitter cold in our pajamas to stop the ambulance.
I already told you my mom got sober, and in case you're wondering, my dad lived many years after his heart attack - so it would be easy for me to bring this moment into the black humor that many adult children of Alcoholics often have Use this option to describe the standout moments of a dysfunctional life. I mean, it's pretty funny in a way - "and then the lights went out" is a pretty good punch line for any type of story, "it could be worse". But some stories even defy black humor; 30 years later, my brother and I almost never talked about that night because we were just two children at the time, trembling in the snow, desperately signaling for help.
The ambulance came and Papa survived, but the days that followed were a blur of fear. In the intensive care unit, papa was told he would need a five-fold bypass. Mom drank a lot and refused to speak so we stayed as far away from the house as possible, visited our dad and hung out with our aunt, who was the only person who had ever told us that the real problem was in our house It wasn't that we were lazy and ungrateful, it was that our mother was an alcoholic - and it wasn't our fault.
I remember telling her that it would probably be best if I skipped the next semester of college to stay home and take care of my father. My mother was certainly not up to the task, and my aunt, a widow with four young children, already had way too much on her plate.
My aunt gently suggested that leaving school might not be the best plan. Then she called one of her friends, a recovering alcoholic, who immediately took me to a meeting of family members who were dealing with alcoholism. I sat in it in silence, crouching miserably in my coat, thinking how terrible it would be to go back all day to a house I'd waited so long to escape.
Then I spoke to a woman who looked remarkably like my mother. I told her what was going on and what I was up to. She shook her head and took my hands in hers.
"That's not your problem," she said. “This is their problem and their marriage. It is not your job to fix them. It is your job to get on with your life. "
I'm sure she said other things, but I remember that. I don't know why I believed her, but I did it instantly and absolutely, and it was like I could breathe for the first time in days.
My father finally came home from the hospital. He wouldn't have left me behind from school even if I tried. He told my mother that if she didn't stop drinking, he would never survive the surgery, which was scheduled for late January. He did not say this as a threat or an ultimatum, but as a simple fact. And my mother heard him. She took her last drink on December 31st and lived sober until her death nearly 25 years later.
A Christmas miracle out of the chaos.
My brother and I didn't find out about their conversation until much later, but the mother we loved returned that first week of January. We went back to school and held our breath as she saw my father through his surgery and long recovery. My parents continued to love Christmas, and my brother and I still decorate our homes within an inch of their lives, inside and out.
We're not talking about Christmas, however, and when I told him I was going to write about it, I could feel himself winced at his lyrics. "Really?" he wrote. "It is so dark."
But it's a darkness that many people know too well, and at least our story offers hope, which is why I'm telling it. We all could use a little hope right now, especially alcoholic and addictive families.
If you're a kid or young adult trapped in an alcoholic home, you are not alone - and it is not your fault and it is not your job to fix it. It is your job to survive, get on with your life as best you can, and there are people out there to help you with that.
And if you as a parent wonder why your kids are tense or flee to their rooms when you have the third drink, why everyone makes a big deal about nothing and no one seems to understand that alcohol is the only thing getting you through that Problem brings day, especially in this terrible year, you are not alone either. Even amid the very real fear caused by this pandemic, life can still be better than it is, even if you are one of the millions who have lost a loved one or a job. All you have to do is get nothing to drink today and there are people out there to help you with that.
My mom worked hard to get and stay sober because it's hard work to get sober and stay sober. I know because I ended up having to do the same job myself. The miracle is not the ability to do hard work, but the moment we are ready to accept it.
For our family, it was when the worst Christmas ever became the best of all.
If you or someone you know needs help with alcoholism or addiction, here are some resources:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, (800) 662-HELP (4357)
Family First Intervention, (888) 291-8514
Alcoholics Anonymous, (323) 936-4343 (Los Angeles headquarters; for other areas, see website)
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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