This post was originally published on December 31, 2015.
In AA, the holiday season is often referred to as the Bermuda Triangle (once you go in, you may never come out) and the Triple Crown, because if you can make it through early sobriety during those emotionally charged times, you really do deserve some sort of prize. Which is why I love Alkathons.
Alkathons, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, are extended meetings that take place on three of the biggest drinking days/nights of the year and typically last 24-hours. Apparently AA groups started having them sometime during the 60s to help out people in early sobriety struggling with the holidays and to give homeless alcoholics a holiday meal. At the one that I usually go to (in a town bordering Boston), there’s free food and drink—we’re talking about an all-night full turkey dinner on Thanksgiving and Christmas alongside the steady stream of alcoholics and addicts telling their stories from the podium.
I got sober on September 10th, 2003 and for me, Alkathons were an absolute Godsend, because I was completely out of my fucking mind during that period. It was the first time in decades I had been sober during the holidays and my emotions were all over the place; with no booze or pills to stabilize me (momentarily, anyway) I was a mess.
While I had been a heavy daily drinker for a long time before I got sober, the stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day was always especially brutal. I’d ramp up my drinking and cocaine use starting the day before Thanksgiving (which has been dubbed “Blackout Wednesday” by bartenders and cops) and stagger to the finish line a day or two after the ball in Times Square dropped. And it’s not just me, apparently. One study showed that an average of 728 people were injured or killed in drunk driving crashes each day during the holiday season.
So when the day before Thanksgiving rolled around during my first year of sobriety, I was about six weeks clean and I really did not know what to do with myself. I was usually at the bar by noon on that day, so instead I went to a noon meeting and then hit my regular Wednesday meeting (appropriately enough in a psych ward/detox). But when I got out, I felt like I had to be doing something, but that something could no longer involve the customary booze and drugs. So I went to the Alkathon, and it was awesome. It was less of an AA meeting and more like a giant party, filled with tons of people from the various meetings that I went to in Boston and the surrounding towns. I didn’t know many people well, but there was just this really strong feeling of togetherness that made me forget about my barroom buddies.
The men’s group that I belonged to had the 3-4 am speaker slot on the schedule, so I went home and took a nap before heading back to there. I wasn’t really sleeping very well during those days anyway, so it was better than staring at the clock and the ceiling. When I arrived, there were a number of homeless drunk guys (which was a great reminder of why I shouldn’t romance the holiday boozing), but there were also a lot of people like me—folks in early sobriety that weren’t sleeping too well either. The next day was Thanksgiving, and I went to the Alkathon before dinner, and that helped me get through the day.
On Christmas Eve, I had to go to my in-laws for dinner, and that was a trap. They didn’t like me very much and I never liked them either, so without the booze, it was a grossly uncomfortable. I had rarely ever been around them sober (which is part of the reason they disliked me so much) and my body was screaming for a drink as soon as I arrived. Luckily my seven-year old nephews were there to keep me distracted, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking that I could sneak a couple of glasses of wine and nobody would know because they were all drinking themselves. But I also knew that I’d be meeting my home group at the Alkathon at midnight, so that may have been what kept me from going through with the plan.
My in-laws weren’t really even drinkers (except my sister-in-law’s husband, who drank himself to death a few years later), but my family was loaded with alkies and addicts. And if you’ve got any alcoholism or addiction in your family, you know that the holidays aren’t usually anything like a Hallmark Channel movie. By the time I got sober, most of the madness in my family had stopped, but I can remember a scene from when I was drinking and getting high that’s a prime example of why Alkathons are so valuable if you’re trying to stay sober.
My younger brother, who had been a coke dealer and heroin addict who had gotten sober way before I did, was about a year-and-a-half clean one Christmas when my other brother (who later died from a booze and cocaine overdose) and I were in full psycho Christmas party mode. We’d gunned down a quart of Schnapps, some beers and a gram of blow between us on Christmas morning. The house was more like Nightmare on Elm Street than It’s a Wonderful Life and so my younger brother understandably had to get away from us and the other party animals.
He told me he had to get to an Alkathon to be with his group, and while he was putting on his jacket, I gave him a finger-wagging lecture—slurring and with coke running out of my nostrils—about how he should be with his family and not with “those people.” And although the memory makes me wince, I’m sure there are a lot of people who have similar versions of that same story—situations where drunken idiots lecture those who are trying to stay clean and sober about what is right.
The truth is that what I get at Alkathons is usually a lot closer to what the holidays are supposed to be about (at least according to those aforementioned Hallmark Channel movies) than it ever was when my siblings and I were down in the basement snorting lines and doing shots. There’s a sense of real closeness and belonging at Alkathons that I don’t feel in too many other places, even at most of my regular meetings.
While New Year’s Alkathons don’t offer as much as the Christmas ones in the way of warm holiday spirit (I’ve always thought of the holiday as more of St. Patrick’s Day for the non-Irish), it’s still a good alternative to all the booze-centric activities.
Most of the people will be sober, and it sure beats the hell out of doing it on your own.