This post was originally published on December 2, 2015.
I got sober 10 days after New Year’s, which means I’d made a half-hearted resolution to stop drinking and then spent the next 10 days drinking everything in sight. I kept my foot on the drinking accelerator through the holidays and crashed through just about every trust, relationship and commitment I had. When you’re at the end of your drinking career, I think you gather a certain amount of terminal velocity. It’s like you’re a satellite crashing back down to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere. I didn’t have an end date in mind—I just knew an end was coming. The holidays made sure of that. I’d bottomed out so many times between Halloween and New Year’s that there wasn’t much left of me.
For me, the holiday season wasn’t so much a trigger as it was a call to action. I was expected to drink, dammit. This was what I was good at. (Or so I thought.) For years, I used to rationalize that I couldn’t stop drinking because I had to get through the holidays. After all, my friends would expect me to be the pace car and I couldn’t possibly let them down. So, before the holidays, I’d have to get in some practice laps. Alcohol was the binding element between my friends and I—the hobo barrel fire around which we all warmed our hands. The wine and mixed drinks would be flowing at holiday tables, kitchen islands and neighborhood bars. People would be showing up at my doorstep cradling six-packs of holiday brew in the crooks of their arms. Drinking and the holidays go together like newspapers and rainy Sunday mornings.
At a certain point, I stopped seeing the holidays as actual events; they rushed past me in a drunken, frenetic blur—a swath of time that I needed to survive rather than enjoy. As a result, I’d just have to write off the last eight weeks of the year.
It’s hard to imagine, but I actually believed there were expectations for me to drink during the holidays. I had a role, if not a serious responsibility, to drink from October 31st straight through to New Year’s. I doubled down on this responsibility, too. I might not follow through with shelling out $20 to get my nephew a belated birthday gift, but I could calculate a generous 50% holiday tip to my bartenders with alarming speed. I’m not even that good at math. Holiday drinking was the kite-string while I was tossed around in the wind. Never once did I question if I was causing all the bad weather.
Looking back, the thing I enjoyed most about holiday drinking was that all of my excesses went largely ignored. I could put everything all out in the open. I could drink what I normally drank on any given Tuesday night and no one would judge it. It was kind of like being a renowned serial killer masquerading as himself on Halloween. I could be me and no one gave a shit. It was allowed, if not invited.
By the time I was arcing toward sobriety, the Russian liquor store guys knew me so well that they’d just silently hold up a pint of Smirnoff, to which I’d just nod and slide a $10 bill across the counter. I can’t think of a more soulless transaction between humans. And yet I truly believed that this was the fuel that got me through the holidays. And for what? Why did I need to throttle my brain between impulse power and Warp 9? It’s not like family time was particularly stressful. Hell, my in-laws don’t even drink. Wine, to them, is for cooking. But when you’ve trained yourself to think that this is the time of year that you buy wine in cases, not bottles, and your behaviors are suddenly sanctioned, the holidays sort of swallow themselves. I could always point to the holidays as a collective excuse to drink, not a joyful time to see loved ones. There was no celebration or jubilation. The tragic reality was that I was there for the drinks, not to spend time with people I cared about.
The holidays are intense—everything’s aglow, moods are heightened, and senses are on constant overload. Perhaps that’s why the holidays speak to us alcoholics: everything’s bright and shiny and wondrous and superficial. In some ways, this is exactly how I felt when I was drinking: I was nothing more than a decoration. I was always on, pretending to be alive when, on the inside, I was empty. I felt compelled to drink in order to match the spirit of the season. Maybe, to misquote Thom Yorke, the holidays are sirens singing alcoholics to shipwreck.
Today, I’m able to face the holiday season as it is and for what it is, with no delusions or expectations. I look at old Christmas-morning photos with my kids and can’t bear the sight: a glassy-eyed version of me staring back, bleary and exhausted from the night before, forcing a smile for the camera. I’m sorry for that person, checked out for no reason other than thinking he had to drink. I am, however, grateful that I’ve had the experience of sleepwalking through the season. It’s a blessing to know the difference between standing there on Christmas morning and being there on Christmas morning. It’s a gift I’ll never trade.