Every year, Christmas feels a little less jolly to me than the last. I’m 100% not sure when or where that change started to happen – I’m thinking the initial decline began in 2014, the year my life blew up.
2013 was the first and last Christmas I’d ever have as married woman. My ex and I decorated our tiny Denver apartment with a cheap fake tree, lots of blinking lights and Costco ornaments; we baked lefse together,wrote a year-end holiday letter, and used the money from our big grown-up jobs to buy lovely presents for all the people we loved, near and far.
I don’t remember much about Christmas 2014. I was probably drunk, or well on my way there. It was only a few months following my separation, and I was already burnt out on holiday cheer from working overtime in online retail marketing. I was tired of the year and wanted it to be over. Again, I don’t really remember what happened that year.
Christmas 2015 was overshadowed by my decision to re-home my two kitties, which tore my heart apart. They went to their new home on December 26th that year. I drank a lot then, too.
2016 was my first sober Christmas, and I spent it surrounded by my beer-brewing dad, my heavy-drinking step-mother, my light-drinking (now ex) boyfriend, and my secret-cigarette-smoking brother & sister-in-law. I think most people in my life were still adjusting to my sobriety, as was I, and while navigating the holidays without booze wasn’t necessarily hard for me, it was annoying to say the least. I felt a sense of disconnection and distance from my family that was more pronounced than it had ever been.
On Saturday we had dinner with my maternal step-side of the family, and enjoyed watching my two young nieces stumble over themselves to rip their presents open in happiness. On Sunday, I drove to my brother’s new house, which he and his wife closed on only 2 weeks prior. There was no tree, no decorations – completely understandable, but didn’t help with the lack of cheer I was feeling. I spent the evening assisting with meal prep, and after dinner, took a nap on the couch as my dad helped my brother install a new garbage disposal, and my step-mom helped my sister-in-law caulk the upstairs tub. Today, Christmas day, I had a leisurely breakfast with my dad, brother, step mom & sis-in-law, then made the trip back to mom’s place to spend the evening. We had a simple dinner of ham, sweet potatoes, and broccoli.
Despite the time I’ve been able to spend with family, this holiday season in particular feels heavy to me. A lot of things – some good, but more not so good – have transpired over the last few months, and it makes it hard to feel cozy & cheerful.
In October, I learned through some “accidental” Facebook photos & updates that my father is very likely having an affair. Just a week ago, his “affair partner” tried to add me as a friend on Facebook. I’ve not responded. He and my step-mom are poised to retire in only a few years, and my heart is torn between wanting to protect both of them – him from the potential consequences of his stupidity and shitty behavior, and her from the pain and chaos that is caused by learning that your loved one is perhaps not who they seem to be. This knowledge, and my feelings of paralysis around whether I should say anything or not, tainted much of my Christmas Eve celebration with them.
On Christmas Eve, when my dad, step-mom and brother went out to run some errands, I sat and talked a bit with my sis-in-law, Danielle. She started talking about how she has been worrying more about my brother’s drinking. “He just always has to have his beers at night,” she said to me as I nodded, “and there have been a couple nights when he has gotten really drunk and said he wants to stop drinking, but then he just picks it right back up again the next day.”
Shortly before Thanksgiving, after only a few weeks of dating, Nate’s mom had a major heart attack. She has slowly started to recover, and from the pictures he’s sent me, she seems to be returning to her happy self, but the week leading up to his departure for home over Thanksgiving break was pretty emotional. I tried my best to comfort him without attempting to “fix” him or necessarily make him feel better. I feel like that drew us together in an odd way – a little semblance of light shining through a dark time. He’s back at home again for Christmas and there’s been more than one occasion where I’ve had the fleeting thought of wishing he were here with me, instead.
On top of all that, a good friend of mine, Ray, lost her mother just a few days after Thanksgiving this year. It was sudden and hardly expected, following a surprise diagnosis of acute pancreatitis, a dead spleen, heart attack, and fluid-filled lungs. When I learned of her death, I fell to my knees and cried. I texted my friend to tell her that I was there for her, if she needed. I then tried to run off the weird sensations of pain and sadness I felt for my friend and wondered why I felt guilty for grieving when I barely knew her mother.
Last weekend, I took a trip to Denver that I’d had planned for months in advance, where I was able to attend the memorial celebration for this Ray’s mom while I was there. I carpooled with another friend of mine, Kay, whose father died only a year ago, and who was having some major anxiety about attending the memorial so soon after her own major loss. I told her I would understand if she wanted to back out, but she insisted that she wanted to be there. You see, I was almost hoping she’d want to back out, as I had my own reason to be nervous about attending: my ex-husband, who has remained friends with Ray over the years, was going to be there. With his wife. And his 2 year old child.
When Kay and I arrived, we agreed on a secret signal to use if we needed to leave early. We hugged tight and walked inside and of course, my ex-husband was standing right there, drinking wine with his son running around his feet. I felt my heart in my throat. We pretended not to see each other for some time until eventually, he caught me on my way to grab water from the kitchen, extended his hand and said, “Hey, Em. How are you? I would feel like an asshole if I didn’t at least say hello.” We shook hands, I said I was fine, thank you, how are you? Fine, fine. Sorry to see you under such sad circumstances – yeah, I’m sure we all feel the same. Okay, alright, see you later, goodbye.
I spent the rest of the afternoon sipping water and trying not to notice how cute his kid was when he played kickball with others in the downstairs living room. Eventually, the ex left with wife and child in tow, and I haven’t heard a word from him since.
Getting through all of this with my sobriety and sanity intact feels like the best kind of gift to me. Even though the holidays don’t feel so cheery anymore, and even with all the shit that keeps flying around me, I feel like I’ve been given the never-ending gift of clearheadedness and joyful recovery. I don’t know if my sobriety has kept me on more stable emotional footing, or if my stable emotional footing has kept me sober, but it doesn’t really matter at this point – they’re working in lockstep, anyway. I am 535 days sober and even when it feels like everybody around me is at some level of blasted, I am grateful for this present I gave myself nearly a year and a half ago. I guess that’s deserving of a little bit of holiday cheer, no?