The Hidden Pain of Being a Selfish Alcoholic at Christmas
Christmas Eve was one of the biggest days of the year, not just personally or spiritually, but for our business. For 15 years, my wife and I were bread bakers and owned a neighborhood whole grain bakery. Holidays that brought families together around the dinner table where huge for us. Christmas Eve meant long production hours, stressful decisions about how much of each product to bake, and hundreds of additional customer interactions. Many people think of relaxation and family when they think of Christmas Eve. For those of us in retail or hospitality, Christmas Eve means balls-to-the-wall work. While everybody else was listening to Andy Williams sing about, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” I was working my ass off.
About a decade ago, on one particularly stressful Christmas Eve, I was working late to close out the Christmas season at the bakery while my wife took our four small children to church with my parents who were visiting for the holiday. The bakery was closed and the door was locked. I turned out all the lights and turned up the volume on the Christmas music. I drank eggnog as I worked in the dark. I blended it about 50-50 with the whiskey I kept in my desk drawer, like Lou Grant, for just such occasions.
I felt euphoric. The warmth of the whiskey mixed with the tunes and the business success of the holiday season to have me floating through my chores as I prepared the bakery for a few days idle. I had worked so hard, and I deserved to jam out to Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I deserved to miss church and avoid other people for an hour or so. I also deserved the booze.
When I returned home, I was drunk. As a high-functioning alcoholic with years of experience, I went about the routine of hiding my inebriation. I spoke slowly and deliberately to avoid tripping over my own words. I poured a drink making a big deal about announcing it as my first drink of the evening. I was careful not to be too jovial or festive as I blended back into my family’s night-before-Christmas activities.
I drank myself into oblivion right in front of them, and I’d gotten away with it too, just like I’d done hundreds of times before.
As soon as we got the kids to bed, I passed out on the couch. I awoke in the middle of the night, disoriented and dehydrated. I found my way quietly to bed attempting not to wake my wife. The next thing I remember was four little people jumping on us early in the morning.
What happened while I was passed out? My wife and parents put together a bike, filled stockings, and consumed some milk, cookies, and carrots. It was a long night for the three of them as they worked around my snoring carcass. I drank myself into oblivion right in front of them, and I’d gotten away with it too, just like I’d done hundreds of times before.
In the morning, my wife was agitated and short with me. She wasn’t mad. She knew how hard I had worked. But she was distant and disappointed because she knew I drank far more alcohol than I let on. My parents understood my long arduous hours, and were willing to write-off my evening nap to exhaustion. It was Christmas Day. Everyone, myself included, was very interested in avoiding conflict of any kind.
I got away with it. Yes! Another time where only I knew the details of my shameful drinking. My wife knew I was hiding something, and my parents probably had an inkling, but my workload gave me plausible deniability. There would be no Christmas Day intervention for another year!
But here’s what this incident means to me looking back, now with significant sobriety under my belt: I completely hosed my beloved wife that Christmas Eve. Being a parent means sacrifice and effort. There is a lot to do the night before Christmas, and I completely shirked my responsibility. It’s not like my wife is a single parent, and she expected the load to fall completely on her. She was counting on me to get some serious Santa work done, right until I abandoned her at 9 p.m. I didn’t leave to go to a bar. I didn’t retreat to the basement to drink alone. But what’s the difference? I passed off my passing out like it was physical exhaustion from a string of hard days of work. What a crock. What a letdown. What a useless excuse for a father.
In many ways, snoring on that couch was worse than running off to a bar. If I had been in a pub, I would have been drunk and useless. But at least I would have been honest about it. Passed out on the couch, I was drunk, useless, and deceitful.
Alcoholism is such a selfish disease. When we awake from a night of reckless drinking, we immediately focus on the impression we left on others. Our first concern is our reputation. That Christmas Eve, I had a reasonable excuse for snoozing. I wasn’t completely embarrassed. My reputation hadn’t taken yet another hit. In my self-centered mind, everything was fine.
Think of the pain you are unwittingly inflicting on the ones you love.
But shame and embarrassment are never the whole story. I had completely disappointed and burdened my wife. My parents were at least a little curious or concerned. I had inflicted damage on the people I love.
It is universally accepted that you shouldn’t have a family if you aren’t willing and able to care for one. I didn’t think that admonishment applied to me at all. I was there. I worked hard. But when I drank too much and retreated to my euphoric netherworld, I might as well have been dead. Being a father is about a lot more than making money and being faithful. It is about being there.
I wasn’t there that Christmas Eve to fill the stockings or put the cranks and kickstand on the bike or to share the cookies in proud satisfaction when the work was done. I wasn’t there. And being there is all that really matters on nights like Christmas Eve.
My absence that night was part of a massive collection of holiday resentment my wife and I have dealt with on our road to recovering our marriage from my alcoholism. In our latest episode of the Untoxicated Podcast, we discuss the transition of our holiday seasons, from active alcoholism through early recovery, and now in our third year of sobriety. It is a long road from snoring on the couch to the progress we’ve slowly made.
If you’re drinking, and you think you are functioning pretty well, you might be measuring your performance against the wrong metric. The shame and embarrassment you bring or avoid is only part of the issue. Think of the pain you are unwittingly inflicting on the ones you love. Having a believable excuse for your behavior doesn’t change the burden you cause others. It is not enough for them to understand. It is more important for them to have your full, unaltered presence.
This piece was originally published at Sober and Unashamed.
Editor’s note: If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, please reach out to the following resources.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health National Helpline: Call 1–800–662-HELP (4357)
- Find an Alcoholics Anonymous or Al-Anon meeting near you