Memorial Day Means Something Now That I'm Sober
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Memorial Day Means Something Now That I’m Sober

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Memorial Day Means Something Now That I'm SoberWhen I was drinking, the holidays were a reprieve—shadowy, slippery times when no one ever blinked as I had two (or seven) extra drinks. Things like that got overlooked. It was like everyone who mattered was distracted or looking the other way. I blended in because no one was paying attention. I even convinced myself that maybe they understood. I had a hall pass to be as alcoholic as I wanted (and needed) to be. They were less a time to celebrate than they were calls to action. In fact, holidays are still colored by specific drinks to me: Halloween means ales as amber as the dead leaves scuttling down the street, Thanksgiving meant lush red glasses of wine, and Christmas was—well, sky’s the limit. It was a rainbow of green, red and yellow bottle glass. I’d just open up the liquor cabinet and go from there.

For some reason, though, summer’s bookends—Memorial Day and Labor Day—were the ones that really got to me as an alcoholic. New Year’s Eve? Child’s play. Summer’s kickoff was where the real drinking was supposed to happen. Drinking was encouraged, like water was for marathon runners. And it’s no mystery why: Memorial Day is an awakening as much as Labor Day is a putting-to-bed of warm weather and backyard barbecues. Memorial Day truly got me fired up. Even now, thinking about it quickens the pulse a little bit. It’s a holiday weekend that’s full of promise—the entire summer yawned ahead of everyone, marked with graduation parties, picnics and backyard barbecues. As Americans, Memorial Day is embroidered on us in images: checkered tablecloths, serving trays stacked with hot dogs, grilling tongs. And beer. Lots and lots of beer.

I threw myself into Memorial Day like no other three-day weekend. July Fourth was for suckers. I made sure we had a cookout, friends over to the house, a fire in the backyard and a cooler stocked with beer. Eventually, a whiskey bottle would start getting tucked into the ice. What’s clear to me now is that I was stocking the weekend with people, like actors, and not friends. Other people became excuses for me to drink. And the people around me drank. I made sure of that. I always managed to pull other drinkers in like I was a black hole collapsing with my own gravity. They had no chance of escape. I didn’t bend light or time—I just bent what the term “friendship” meant.

This collection of vintage liquor ads does a great job demonstrating how Memorial Day got mixed up with drinking. They’re startling in how sincere, pure and Norman Rockwellian they are. It’s almost hard to fathom, but drinking ads have been around since just post-World War II. Apparently, a trade group known as the United States Brewers Foundation made a huge marketing push in the 1940s and 1950s to bolster America’s attitudes toward beer. Alcohol companies soon followed. The best is the whiskey ad with a dapper gentleman grilling one giant steak in a three-piece suit, with two similarly dressed friends sitting behind him drinking. I have to assume his friends weren’t getting a steak. Open up any cooking magazine in May and you’ll see just as many recipes for cocktails as you will for potato salad.

Memorial Day festivities are usually a far cry from what the day is actually about. There are always a scattering of Facebook posts from friends trying to remind others what Memorial Day means in all the same ways people try to remind me the true meaning of Christmas. For anyone out there who’s forgotten what we’re supposed to be doing on Memorial Day, it’s about remembering the veterans in the US armed forces who died while serving. In sobriety, I’m clear-headed about what most holidays mean (St. Patrick’s Day: the jury’s still out on you). But Memorial Day has gotten diluted and that’s pretty damn sad when I stop to think about it. I’m a recovering alcoholic who used a holiday that’s about remembering fallen veterans to remember nothing at all. I was celebrating excess and getting lost in myself rather than any memory or sense of national pride.

In sobriety, I’m cautious of holiday gatherings altogether. They’re easy triggers and excuses. Then again, I’m not invited to a whole hell of a lot of them anymore—I’m out there in the world as a recovering alcoholic, so inviting me is like hiring a birthday clown for a kid who’s terrified of them. People are leery of time bombs like me. Still, most people who aren’t alcoholics have no idea what the combination of certain colors, smells, sights and people does to me. Every once in a while, everything lines up like a goddamn Rubik’s Cube in my brain and threatens to pull me back toward a world I’ve tried very hard to escape. Holidays are dangerous like that. I can steel myself for a week-long vacation and everything that comes along with, say, a trip to the beach. I can see all of those threats coming a mile away. For me, visiting someone’s backyard barbecue is where the real danger lies. The urges can sneak in sideways somewhere like that.

When it comes right down to it, I never once considered how other people might be spending their Memorial Days: visiting cemeteries to place wreaths and American flags at graves. Instead, I was staring down a full day’s worth of drinking and trying to do the math on whether I’d need to make a beer run later in the afternoon. That was the extent of my weekend. I try not to be ashamed of my alcoholic past, but Memorial Day makes a case that maybe I should be. I dedicated a whole weekend to ignoring responsibilities and anything (or anyone) that mattered. Now, as a sober person, I’m actually able to remember what I’m supposed to be remembering.

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About Author

Paul Fuhr is an addiction recovery writer whose work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Live Oak Review, The Sobriety Collective and InRecovery Magazine, among others. He is the author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck.” He's also the creator and co-host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and recovery. Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and their cats, Dr. No and Goldeneye.