Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 12: Christmas
During the final IOP sessions before Christmas break, our counselor advised us the festive season was a particularly difficult time for alcoholics. Nobody in the room needed reminding. It’s impossible for anyone, let alone an alcoholic, to navigate the festivities without exposure to adverts portraying the pleasure of drinking or friends enjoying the real thing. I understood the counselor’s point to a certain extent.
Sure, it was around me, but when exactly was it not? As I discovered, people, places and things are a potential barrier to recovery for an alcoholic mind, but Christmas or no Christmas, a liquor store is only a few blocks away. All Santa’s ho, ho, ho’ing was not going to make a difference when that greedy little monster knocked on my mental door.
I also realized if I was home in the UK, the scenario could be different. I’m sure my new resolve would be tested after an hour or so of family pleasantries, followed by the inquisition into why I had not yet settled down with a woman. Thinking about it made me thankful for staying in my adopted country for Christmas because I knew in such situations that a can of Strongbow cider would look better by the minute.
Thus far, I have found that when facing the mental challenges in staying sober, the best way to move forward is to look back. I recalled early Christmas days—the innocence of advent calendars without a chocolate filling, the orange at the bottom of a stocking, the walk to Christmas mass, Top of the Pops on UK TV and being so excited with my presents that dinner couldn’t be over fast enough to play with them.
A sleigh journey onwards of ten years saw the walkie-talkie replaced by whisky, and warm nights indoors playing snakes and ladders substituted for street corners swigging cheap liquor in the freezing cold.
During my drinking career, this time of year developed a repetitive look, feel, touch and taste. It rapidly became an excuse to plough liters of alcohol into my stomach with little or no concern for the consequences. After all, it was the festive season.
Most Christmases during my twenties and early thirties were spent with former partners, following a pattern of visiting family over a number of days. The routine began to destroy any semblance of joy I felt for the season, but I was comforted in the knowledge that a bottle was handy to take the edge off.
Who was I kidding? The drinking on Christmas Day got earlier by the year as I glimpsed the sheer boredom and monotony lurking around the corner. Before, it was 1:00p.m.or 2:00p.m. for the first beer. Now it was 10.00 a.m. and a sly swig of Strongbow while my girlfriend showered.
The single years that followed saw my Christmas seasons spent mixing with good friends and devoting time to volunteering activities. My shifts at the London shelter for homeless were some of the most heart wrenching but uplifting work experiences I have been part of. However, the booze remained in my shadow and emerged to engulf me, leaving any semblance of sobriety behind.
It speaks to my then powerless state over alcohol that during those volunteer sessions, I was not able to see myself—lost as a servant to my addiction—in more disheveled versions. This year I welcomed the gift of hindsight.
I arrived in New Orleans for my third consecutive festive period having enjoyed the flight. No pre-departure restroom stops, well, not of the panic variety. For the duration of the plane journey, I remained in a calm relaxed state, no pangs or anxiety attacks, just progress.
“Please sign here, print here and initial here, Mister Tait,” the hotel staff member advised me, handing over the necessary paperwork.
I signed the first section and started to print the next, when my mind drifted off.
First, write on a blank paper for practice. Fuck, that looks like a five-year-old’s scroll. Do it again. That’s even worse. Okay, write as if someone has just asked you and you’ve not even thought about it. It’s just your name after all. Just casually printing a name...no pressure...no pressure at all…easy does it. Shit, I can write better with my left hand. I’ve got three envelopes to get this right. It’s only a name and address. Hold your hand steady. First up. How does that look? Fucking awful. What are you getting upset for? Just have a drink. Okay, let’s hope for the best and see how it turns out after a few more glasses.
That evening I met Nance and we went for a drive. She remarked that I appeared different from five weeks ago at the Saints game, and as detailed earlier, after the initial ego bump, her words crystallized. I had very slowly started to get it together, gently gripping the concept of recovery.
When we ate later that evening, I found it difficult to comprehend we’d known each other only five weeks. Nance became a consistent figure in my sobriety and someone I drew on for inspiration and advice. After meeting for the first time, we talked every few days, sharing our struggles and experiences with addiction. As much as sharing in IOP was valuable, opening up and developing a bond with someone of a like mind blew that away.
To talk with this honesty previously required a couple of bottles of wine. Even then it was the booze in charge of the talking, and the words would have been disingenuous and slurred in delivery, only to be forgotten by morning. I realized that during my alcohol drowning, I’d neglected, then forgotten, the wonderful connections we create and nurture with our fellow humans.
Christmas Day brought a double celebration: Christ’s birthday and six weeks of sobriety. I woke up in my hotel room, head fuzz-free from no alcohol, no bloodshot eyes and an excitement I can’t recall feeling since opening my Action Man present when I was seven. I looked over the Mississippi to Algiers, down the road to the Crown and Anchor. This time it held no fears. It would always be there. I like the place, and I could visit it if I wanted. My alcoholism, like the Crown and Anchor, was still there too. It would always be there. But I didn’t want a visit from that particular ghost of Christmas past.
Being a Facebook friend, or is that fiend, I checked my page and those of others shortly after showering to read stories of drunken debauchery, sore heads, lost memories and missing wallets from Christmas Eve drinking. I miss my friends, but as an alcoholic, I don’t miss those morning-after feelings and mental blanks. What did I do last night? How on earth did I get home?
I left those dramas to the usual suspects back home, and by the sounds of it, they were preparing themselves for more, and good luck to them. I don’t have the ‘off switch,’ which they flick to extinguish sprees after a couple of days. It was always all or nothing.
Walking the streets to a 7:15a.m, twelve-step meeting, I felt a cold breeze against my face which contrasted my inner glow at being up so early to listen and share thoughts with fellow-minded individuals. I can barely remember finding my way to one of the few empty seats for all the happy faces and friendly welcomes which met me in the small, second floor room.
As the ceiling extractor fan hummed above me, working overtime due to the large numbers in attendance, I was struck by the wonderful vibe of positivity. This was an emotion-filled, honest, alternative Christmas morning. One where no gifts were unwrapped but where sharing was still aplenty. It set me up for a day of appreciating Christmas again for the very simple basics of connecting with others.
Pondering that connectivity, I headed to the homeless shelter on Canal to help prepare, set up and co-ordinate Christmas lunch for four hundred people. Volunteering put the lazy, sit on my ass, drink myself stupid, December 25ths of yesteryear firmly in the shade. Once off shift, I didn’t retreat behind closed doors to swallow glass after glass on route to oblivion. I ate dinner at my hotel, called some friends, went for a walk, then compiled the notes you are currently reading. My day had been a happy and full one. I was thankful to God. The only time booze entered my mind was thinking if I had any pangs throughout the day. Not bad going.
A couple of days later, it was the Saints at the Superdome, this time with Terry and without a few Bloody Marys to kick start the day. It was great being at the game with my buddy from back home. We met up with Lori and Nance before the game at the same establishment where we met before the 49ers game five weeks ago. It was lovely to see Lori who observed that I had a very different air about me. Did I really look fresh out of rehab last time? That obvious? I’ll never know, but I’ll take Nance and Lori’s word for it. Swatting my ego, I was happy to be here.
Returning to that bar was a pleasure. I just read that back to myself - returning to that bar was a pleasure. It was the first bar I visited after detox where Nance and I had our early chat about addiction. Sitting with Terry to my left and Nance and Lori to my right was Christmas extended, and we hadn’t yet entered the Superdome. I sipped on Sprite all day and felt no repeats of the passing pangs during my last visit to the game.
Don’t get ahead of yourself.
An alcoholic mind is an alcoholic mind, and one night later while watching Nance singing at a bar in Algiers, the pangs returned. It was New Year’s Eve and a couple of friends were unable to make it across the river, so I went alone. At first it was easy. As the night wore on, the place grew busy with large groups arriving to start their celebrations. Drinking Sprite, I felt as though I stood out like a sore thumb. I would not normally go to a bar on my own later at night, sober or drunk, let alone on New Year’s Eve. Wait a second, I would if I was drunk. But I wanted to show Nance some support, and the woman could sing.
Still it was there.
Dude, the place is packed. You’re yourself, you loner. It’s New Years. Patti’s sick, Sam too, and Terry’s partying. Get a wine. Blend in.
A few people passed by holding their drinks at shoulder height to avoid spilling them as it began to get sardine-can packed. A man holding two small glasses of liquor struggled to get past me for people lining up to be served. The smell of his scotch lit up my nostrils.
Glenmorangie. Definitely. Hmm. Hope he has some water in there. Always nicer with water.
Very calmly, I excused and pardoned my way out of the bar and entered the night air. Deep breaths. I wasn’t a big scotch drinker, but I once went through a phase. Its smell had aroused a sensation in my brain akin to recognizing the perfume worn by the one who had got away in my life. I’d like to add, she didn’t wear Glenmorangie.
I walked around the block. It was a wise move. Extracting myself from the situation relieved the jabbing in my mind. I returned and ordered a Sprite. Reset. Before I knew it, the fireworks lit up the sky at Algiers Point to celebrate the New Year, and I was hugging Nance.
On the morning of my flight home, I took a walk along the Mississippi. In my now recent time honored tradition, I began to replay the events of the trip over in my head. I was aware that it would not accomplish anything, but still it was an enjoyable habit. Processing in detox and IOP was rubbing off on me. The usual suspects, Terry, Lori and Nance, popped in my mental montage of events with familiar backdrops, plenty of laughs, and hearty discussions for good measure. Some, too, were conspicuous by their absence. Hotel trash cans stacked with empty liquor bottles, floors strewn with discarded clothes and personal belongings, strangers in beds, lost memories, mornings of guilt, booze-filled breakfasts and cuts and bruises from falls.
I left my hotel room feeling that after the last six weeks, I had taken a vacation, a real break, and enjoyed it. It was difficult to recall feeling so refreshed from any other vacation in my life.
Regular sleeping patterns became one of the most enjoyable aspects of my six weeks of sobriety. My mind and body rejected the appeals for alcohol during periods of slumber. I could happily identify with the Christmas morning meeting attendee who, drawing parallels with her nocturnal habits and a popular Christmas hymn remarked, “I’m now happy to sleep in heavenly peace.”
These days, so am I.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.