This post was originally published on December 25, 2015.
By the time the holiday season rolled around in 2009, I had been off the sauce for about two months. I’d just suffered what my friends would later dub an “epic bottom.” It left me penniless, job-less, car-less, phone-less, and, save for a bunk bed at a run-down LA county rehab, homeless.
Thank god for my bipolar diagnosis and the administrative staff at the California State Disability insurance office. They cut me a check, so I was at least able to afford a cheapo sober living where I could sleep in a twin bed and not have power-tripping counselors telling me over and over what a selfish brat I was for having a drinking problem.
The cheapest and sanest place I could find was called New Horizons in Glendale, California (about seven miles northeast from downtown Los Angeles), and it wasn’t all that bad. Prior to New Horizons I stayed at a yet-to-be-named halfway house in Van Nuys that was coed and crawling with black widows. In that place, I was solicited for prostitution, and my bunk-mate stashed travel-sized bottles of vodka inside her dresser drawer…and no one cared. There wasn’t an actual manager, only an owner, and he didn’t give two shits if we drank or used. All he cared about was getting his check on time. (This is called sober living slumlord, and there are hundreds of them.)
By the time I checked into New Horizons, I had virtually no friends. At least, they weren’t in the mood to hang out with me until I had established some semblance of stability. I’d spent two weeks in a psych unit, lived in the unnamed halfway house for one month, then two weeks at the rehab from hell, then I finally found my way to New Horizons.
There were just two of us in the women’s apartment, a clean and cozy enough place that housed six. When I arrived, Jackie reached out to me and invited me to a movie and for coffee at Starbucks. I was low on money and still traumatized from the other sober living, and I hadn’t “gone out” for fun like a normal person in over three months, so it was a very welcomed gesture—especially since she offered to treat me.
Apart from an obsessive fixation with all things Michael Jackson, Jackie was pretty normal, or at least as normal as a recently sobered-up alcoholic can be. She was also super sharp, hilarious, and engaging. We hit it off immediately, both of us aimless and unemployed, both of us forging our AA meeting cards in different colored pens and with varied handwriting and then tossing them around in our dirty purses to make them look worn, as though we actually attended many meetings.
(It’s not that we didn’t go to meetings, but we didn’t go to seven a week like New Horizons required. Even the few weeks when I went to five or six I typically left the card at home by accident, so I had no choice but to forge it.)
For whatever reason, Jackie wanted to do Christmas big.
Ever since I’ve been able to claim “Independent” on my taxes, I stopped getting into Christmas. I’ve never gotten a Christmas tree when living alone—it’s too big a pain in the ass. The needles fall all over the place, you’ve got to screw that plastic stand into the trunk, and then, worst of all, you actually have to water the thing to keep it from dying. (To this day, I’ve never kept a potted plant alive.)
I’ve never strung up holiday garland or little multicolored twinkle lights. When I lived in a super cool 120-year-old Victorian house as a grad student by USC, I refused to decorate with all my housemates. They’d get together and trim the tree, bake cookies, and stick candy canes in the lawn outside while I sat on the wraparound porch hungover, smoking by myself in a fog.
And then I’d eat their cookies.
It’s not that I don’t like Christmas or the holidays, it’s just that I’ve typically got more important things on my mind, like earning a living or, before I was sober, getting the next shot of Vodka. I will say that when the holidays involved a free pass to get trashed, I was all over it. That was when I truly treasured the Christmas spirit.
But in 2009 I changed my tune, at first just to make Jackie happy. We drove to the Home Depot and bought this big noble fir, stuffing it as best we could into my trunk and driving all the way down San Fernando boulevard in the rain with it popping out of my car’s ass, barely tied up.
Somehow we dragged that thing into the house and, after about an hour, got it upright on the stand.
Then we raided the nearby 99-cent store for decorations and smothered the tiny house in all sorts of Christmas crap. We slapped a big apple-red velvet bow on the front door, twinkle lights all over the apartment and tinsel and ornaments on the tree. We hung stockings on the mantle, which we stuffed with cheap candy canes and tasteless chocolate snowmen, all as Jackie played the Jackson Five Christmas album.
Then, Jackie took a video with her tiny digital camera (this was before everyone had a smart phone). In it, I stood by the tree and wished everyone a Merry Christmas. Unfortunately, the fresh scars from where I’d gashed up my wrists in a suicide attempt showed up on the video.
“Put your wrists around your back!” Jackie whispered, giggling.
“Merry Christmas everyone, from New Horizons!” I yelled into the camera chuckling like a loon. Or maybe I was just happy for the first time in three months, like a giddy kid at Christmas.
I was supremely depressed in early sobriety—not only because of the psych unit, the halfway house and the rehab—but because I’d run my life into the ground, blown holes through my resume, burnt tons of professional bridges and lost all my friends. Celebrating a cheap Christmas at that sober living sort of saved me.
It wasn’t some extraordinarily magical experience, and I was hesitant at first to waste my time and the little money I had on all those frivolities like a tree and tinsel and stocking stuffers. But it gave me something to do when I had nothing to do except lay on my bed and sleep. As wacky as Jackie sometimes was with her nonstop watching of the “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” videos, she took me in as a friend. We had some good laughs there in the beginning when all I had done since getting sober was cry or stare at the wall in an indifferent haze, convinced life would never get any better.
The simple act of decorating for Christmas—getting up and doing something constructive and somewhat creative—pulled me out of my head and my depression. It’s possible it even helped keep this Grinch sober.