My First Sober Thanksgiving
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My First Sober Thanksgiving


This post was originally published on November 27, 2014.

In 2006, I was volunteering at Serendipity, a full-time residence for women who’d been formerly incarcerated. I made a weekly pilgrimage to the Bed-Stuy facility, located on a desolate Brooklyn block. For two hours, I’d lead a small group through writing prompts, about our favorite foods, the things we weren’t aloud to tell, secrets we hadn’t kept. To encourage vulnerability, I would write and share my work, too.

At first, I was aware, perhaps too keenly, of just how different we were, demographically speaking. Most of the women at Serendipity were black, Latina and from low-income backgrounds. They attended daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings and could recite the Serenity Prayer on cue. One member, Milena, had two kids by the age of 20. No matter what the writing prompt, she’d always write letters to her children. Mommy loves you so much. She can’t wait to come home. 

In contrast, I am white and the daughter of a physician. At 30, the year I began volunteering at Serendipity, I was childless; in lieu of infants, I carried degrees from two of the most expensive schools in the country. I had a director-level job at a national health non-profit. But there was one thing my writing colleagues didn’t know: I’d just become sober myself.

My drinking, especially in that last year, had started to interfere with my sense of wellbeing. Not that I drank often. I liked to remember every inch of conversations. But I’d noticed on some occasions—especially when I could feel acutely other people’s anxiety—that one beer could easily turn into six. If I started out with a single glass of champagne, I may have just ended up polishing off the whole bottle (and then doing God knows what). When it came to alcohol consumption, my appetite knew no bounds.

Though my substance abuse issues hadn’t landed me jail or court-mandated treatment, they rattled me. On occasion, I’d have to ask someone else (usually an annoyed boyfriend) to tell me exactly how I’d gotten into my bed the night before. After drinking, I’d feel hollow, like I’d been body-snatched. I mourned the lost nights, until one anti-climactic Memorial Day, when I woke up in my own bed, safe and alone, with a fuzzy head. I thought, I am too old for this. I stopped quietly, started going to yoga and volunteering at Serendipity.

My 89-year-old grandmother remarked, “It’s so nice you’re helping those poor people.” But I did not wear the do-gooder mantle well. Deep down, I knew, in my especially tender hearted state, that I needed the writers as much as (if not more than) they needed me. After one prompt, in which I’d poured my guts out, one of the women patted me on the back and said, “Aw. It’s going to be okay,” because compassion is a two-way street. Every week, after emotionally cathartic sessions, I’d walk out exhilarated.

Though it would have been disingenuous to say that my motivations were completely selfless, I was, in fact, sacrificing three hours a week. I was also offering support. Once, a woman broke down in tears, reading a remembrance of a yellow dress her father had bought her. I could feel others’ discomfort with her intense sadness, so I said only, “Sometimes, it just feels good to let it out. Go for it.” For the next few minutes, we sat in comfortable silence. I started to cry, too.

Other times, we laughed, too. Milena usually wrote letters to her children, regardless of the writing prompt. Only once—when I had offered a guided visualization pre-exercise—did she broach a different topic. When it was her turn to share, she started reading a heartfelt letter to her boyfriend, which surprised me. “You always loved me,” she wrote. “Even when I yelled. Even when I wouldn’t talk to you. Even…after I stabbed you.” After that last line, I paused. Everyone paused. Um, how to respond? After a long silence, one of the other group members started cracking up: “Milena, you’re crazy!” The rest of us, Milena included, joined in.

Slowly, I tried to change the way I thought about my experience at Serendipity. Taking credit for volunteering did not have to be an egocentric endeavor. If I didn’t acknowledge the “give” side of this equation, how could I ever accept their immense gratitude, which the women offered in spades?

That Thanksgiving, I decided not to travel home, as I always had, to have dinner in Massachusetts with my family. Knowing that Serendipity would be having a special dinner, I invited myself to their celebration. When I told my parents of this plan, they sounded worried. Across the telephone wire, I could see the thought bubble above my mother’s head, Won’t that be depressing?

But six months sober, I’d quit smoking and felt more clear-headed than ever. I was obsessively writing my first book, a lifelong dream that I attributed, in part, to these women. Volunteering had become my private declaration: I want to live, in the fullest most authentic way possible. And now I was actually doing it. Where else would I want to be on Thanksgiving?

When I walked into the dining room that day, I saw a long table had been set up in the middle. On the far end of the room I saw a buffet table lined with trays of food: macaroni and cheese, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, collard greens and the juiciest turkey I’d ever laid eyes on. Just then, I noticed that behind the main dining room table, there was a small circular table, with one chair and one place setting. A white balloon was tied to the back of the chair, a bud vase with a single rose sat atop the lace tablecloth. “That’s for you,” the on-duty staff person said. “You’re our guest of honor.”

A huge smile spread instantly across my face. I remembered a gorgeous passage that one member, Doreen, had written a month earlier. She described sitting out on the back patio, looking up at a clear, moonlit sky. She missed her teenage daughter, but somehow, in that moment, she could feel the fullness of her own breath, a sign that maybe she’d finally accepted her situation just as it was: botched, but real. Taking a page from Doreen, I said, “Thank you.”

With that, I piled up my plate and took my chair. I had a steady string of visitors, who came to chat one by one. For the first time in a long time, I could feel my own breath traveling freely.

As dessert came out, Christine, a young woman from the writing group, got up with a few other women and sang a very rousing rendition of “Proud Mary.” Christine wore a Tina Turner wig, which stayed on, even as she pivoted around the makeshift stage.

Then, someone else suggested we all stand and say what we were grateful for. Christine thanked God for her son and for the chance to live another day. Another woman said she felt so happy to be starting her life over.

I hadn’t talked to anyone about what my sobriety meant to me. If it came up, I’d make light of it, citing the time in college when someone pressured me to take a shot of sake and two hours later I was belting out “Little Red Corvette” and throwing the microphone across the room, saying, “I just wanna dance, y’all!” That anecdote seemed to put people at ease—which was really the root of my drinking problem, an inability to detach from others’ discomfort.

On a whim, I stood up in front of the room and said, “I am so grateful for all of you.” Uncomfortable speaking to groups, I felt shaky. But as I looked out, I saw a sea of happy faces, listening eyes. I added, “I’m also incredibly grateful for my sobriety.”

The words sounded strange to my own ears, as if someone else had spoken them. But instead of the old body-snatcher feeling, I soon recognized those words as my own.

I didn’t know then that I’d spend the next Thanksgiving there, too. I didn’t know that, in fact, someday I would be comfortable talking about my sobriety—or that I would increasingly become struck, as if by the stunning beauty of a sunset on Big Sur, with a profound reverence for my life and all the characters in it, including Milena, Doreen and Christine in it. I didn’t know that three years later, I’d be celebrating the publication of my book with a friend, over hot fudge sundaes, when Doreen would approach me and say, “Are you Suzie?” When I would give her a hug, she’d say, “You look different, but I’d recognize that laugh anywhere.” To me, that time had been so raw, so tender—in reminding me of my laughter, she would so graciously give me back a piece of myself; even in my shell-shocked state, I’d still been me.

After my declaration, most of the women were now moving freely about the room, but I made a beeline to my table-for-one. How often would a chance like this come along? The line between giving and receiving happily blurred, this was an honor I’d earned. I was sure of it.

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About Author

Suzanne Guillette's work has appeared in Tin House, Self, O Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, The Rumpus,and Time Out New York, in addition to other publications. Her memoir, Much to Your Chagrin, was published by Simon & Schuster in 2009.