Back when I was using heroin, robbing banks and going to jail on a regular basis, I kept to myself, avoiding family and what few friends I had left. Of course the rest of the world went about their business as usual and no matter what I did to ignore them, I was still forced to deal with reality every now and then. But nothing was as bad as having to deal with the Christmas holidays: the schmaltzy decorations, the endless commercial bombardment for materialistic crap, the incredibly bad winter weather that froze my ass off and the false holiday cheer from folks that hated my guts. All that was hideous enough to just want to hide out until New Years was over. But what I really dreaded was having to go to my family’s for Christmas Eve dinner.
Most holidays I could get away with saying I was busy or sometimes I would just not show up. Who really celebrates shit like the 4th of July and Easter? But, for some reason, my mom always considered Christmas Eve sacred and staying home in a warm opiated euphoria was just not permitted. So, I’d bundle up and take two buses over to her house, first stopping at my dealer’s to make sure I had enough drugs in case I got dope sick and had to shoot up in my mom’s bathroom. Well, to be honest, I would always shoot up in her bathroom at Christmas. It was the only way I could make it through the evening.
Now it would have been a much less dreadful dinner had it just been my mom and myself. But it wasn’t. There was my stepfather, a tough guy with hair-trigger anger who would drink too much and boss everyone around. My stepbrother, a meth addict with serious mental health issues, my other stepbrother, a recovering alcoholic, and his wife—neither of whom wanted to be there either. Then there was my little sister, her boyfriend and some stray friend of my mom’s that had nowhere else to go—and oddly enough the three of them wanted to be there. In fact they were the only people besides my mom that actually enjoyed the event.
Having to buy drugs on the way always made me late, like an hour or so, and the rest of the family would use that time to drink a bunch of alcohol. I never really knew what I was walking into when I got there. It could be a celebration, or it could be a huge argument about god knows what. Trying to go unnoticed I would slip into the living room like I’d been there all night. “Nice of you to show up!” my stepfather would yell. This would of course rankle my nerves, I’d consider doing more drugs just to calm down, but knew I had to pace myself, so I’d make a drink and join in with the liquor consuming festivities. My mother would fuss over me and my sister would say hi, and then the bombardment of questions would fly. “Where have you been?” “Are you working?” “What are you doing with your life?” A ton of inquires I had no answers for and resented being asked.
One particularly awful Christmas, my stepbrother was actually living in my parents’ spare bedroom. He’d lost his job, apartment and girlfriend (I know, a speed-freak losing shit, go figure right?), so he moved in to get his life back together. Unfortunately he hadn’t stopped doing meth and was out of his mind. My folk’s flat was on the third floor and his room was in the back of the building, He didn’t want to have to deal with his father every time he came and went, so he erected a 30-foot extension ladder up to his bedroom window. Imagine what the neighbors thought when a deranged man slid by their bedroom window on a ladder at 3am. My family just sort of ignored this, only I couldn’t.
“How’s that backdoor working for ya, bro?”
My stepbrother, mumbling incoherently, ignored me and went about his usual weirdness, which was this strange obsessive tapping of everything he passed. It looked like he was deciphering an odd combination that only he knew; first touching a lamp, then the table, a chair, then sitting down, only to jump up and do it all again in reverse. I just stared, wondering if anyone else thought his behavior a bit weird. When my mom announced that dinner was served we all stumbled into the dining room, but my stepbrother had rearranged the chairs facing outward from the table, and he was walking around tapping stuff in a tweeker frenzy.
“Knock it off!” yelled my stepfather. And that was all that was said. No, “what the hell is the matter with you?” No, “are you on drugs?” Just “knock it off” as if this was semi-acceptable behavior.
Once the holiday meal was on the table everyone began ladling food onto their plates. Some small talk erupted and if you had just joined us you may have thought we were a normal family. That is until the discussion strayed into dangerous territory, which was basically anything besides the weather. Then my stepfather would scream some sexist/racist slur and tell everyone to “shut the fuck up!” and that would put an end to that. It was safer to drink more booze and stare at your plate of food than to actually say anything.
About this time, I’d excuse myself and go to the bathroom, cook up a shot of dope and attempt to get it inside of me before someone came knocking needing to use the facilities. This was never easy and nerve wracking as the hall bathroom had those louvered doors that never quite closed correctly—but that never stopped me. Decidedly well medicated I’d return to the table and pretend to eat. It was only then that I was able to ignore all the drama. Sitting next to my other stepbrother and his wife, the only family members not drinking, I’d slur my words trying to converse with them. I can only imagine what they thought.
When dinner was over, everyone would go into the living room again, to sit around the tree and open presents. However, due to my stepfather’s dictatorship only one person could open a present at a time, making it an excruciatingly long drawn out ordeal. Half way through I needed a cigarette. It was cold out on the back stairs, and I was hurriedly smoking when my stepbrother came out. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked.
“Hey fuck you!” He screamed, and then we were fighting each other. I punched him in the stomach, he tried to hit me and I kicked him down a flight of stairs. Unfortunately this made a ton of noise and the whole family was at the backdoor to find out what all the commotion was about. My stepbrother, nursing a bruised face, mumbled that he’d slipped. I tossed my cigarette and went back inside.
Now that the meal was eaten and the gift giving over, all pretense of civility was abandoned. My stepbrother screamed he didn’t get the gifts he deserved, my stepfather yelled at him demanding he apologize, my little sister continued her conversation with the non-family member as if nothing odd was happening and my other stepbrother and his wife quietly explained they should be leaving, yet never got up to go.
“Merry Christmas,” said my mom. Slipping me an envelope with cash in it. I quickly glanced at the clock, it’s still early, if I left now I could use this money to score more dope on the way home. Grabbing my coat I said my goodbyes.
“Leaving fashionably early, I see,” said my stepfather.
“Whatever,” I responded.
Out in front of their building I felt sick and threw up in the street. I didn’t usually mix heroin with alcohol and I sure as hell didn’t need to eat that food on top of it. But really, it was just the tension of being there and I was happy to have survived another holiday.
Years later my stepfather will die of cancer in that same house, surrounded by copious amounts of narcotics that don’t begin to touch his pain. My stepbrother, his schizophrenia fully aggravated from years of methamphetamine abuse, will have moved to the great white north to live in a trailer in the middle of nowhere and hide from society. My mother, after an extremely painful knee operation, will have become a Vicodin addict. My little sister and her boyfriend will have gotten married and bought a condo in the suburbs. My other stepbrother and his wife, still clean and sober, will have a son and be happy.
Myself? I will have continued the downward cycle of the junkie drug addict, doing time in prison. I got out on parole, entered recovery and slowly pieced my life back together. It is hard to even fathom that this was how we all spent Christmas Eve. But seriously, I am so grateful I no longer live like that or continue that tradition. My Christmases are much more sedate. There’s no drama, no fighting, and no sadness, guilt, or regrets. I wish it could have been like that back then.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.