During this pandemic year, I have spent a lot of time praying for the children of alcoholics and addicts, trapped by one disease that demands we all stay at home — and cornered by another that can turn a loving parent into a frightening abuser at the drop of an ice cube, the squeak of a Chardonnay cork.
I love and miss my mother, gone for almost 15 years, but I cannot imagine having to live through a lockdown with her while she was drinking; the holidays were bad enough.
For all the joy and beauty they may bring, the holidays are always stressful, even in a non-pandemic year. Joy and beauty take a lot of work and are often snarled up, like all those Christmas lights, with a quest to make everything “perfect” — the decorations, the gifts, the endless baked goods thrown down like a gauntlet by every overachieving food section every year. Is it any wonder so many Christmas traditions are drenched in alcohol — what is eggnog if not a yearly attempt to prove that a person can drink anything if there’s enough booze in it?
When I was growing up, Christmas was a stomach-churning time of gleeful anticipation and fatalistic dread. My mother, a lovely, funny, generous woman when she wasn’t soaked in gin, was a high school business education teacher and a very good one. Her job made her, for many years, an expertly controlled alcoholic: She knew exactly when she needed to stop drinking in order to function the next day.
During winter break, however, she didn’t have to stop for two solid weeks.
Still, we were a Christmas family, devoted to many festive rituals, each of which could be perfectly delightful or absolutely awful, depending on my mother’s stage of inebriation. Growing up in a time when there was no public conversation about alcoholism, it took my brother and me years to realize that there was a direct correlation between, say, my mother screaming that I was the laziest, most irresponsible and worst kid ever — because there was not enough starch in the tablecloths I had just spent two hours ironing — and the amount of gin and Diet Rite she had recently consumed. (My mother drank gin because she was, God bless her, an alcoholic who didn’t like the taste of alcohol — you really have to admire the dedication.)
But even as those drinks became more numerous, there was the Advent wreath and calendar, the cookie baking and secret present wrapping, and every year, our Maryland house was decorated within an inch of its life, inside and out. My father, who loved Christmas more than any human I have ever met, always said he wanted enough lights so Santa could see where to land even if it was snowing; our tree was inevitably a thing of over-tinseled glory.
Like good children of addiction, we gazed at it every year and hoped that this Christmas would be different, and every year it was the same, except a little worse.
My father had tried numerous times to get my mother help with her drinking, but, as everyone who has ever loved an alcoholic knows, that rarely works. A person can get sober only when he or she becomes willing to get sober. Still, I can’t help believing that his deep faith in Christmas and all it stands for played a large part in my mother’s decision to finally quit drinking.
In fact, it was an actual Christmas miracle, although it very much did not seem so at the time.
At the time, it felt like the Worst Christmas Ever.
I was a junior in college, my brother a freshman, and we were home for the annual roller-coaster ride of the holidays. On this particular Christmas Day, events had unfolded as they often did — early morning present opening (hats off to Mom, who must have felt like crap at 6 a.m. but got up anyway), then a big extended-family gathering and meal during the afternoon. Things inevitably … devolved and after our guests left, my brother and I retreated to our rooms and out of the line of fire. I remember lying in bed and thinking that in two years I would be out of college and living somewhere far, far away; so far that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to come home for Christmas. Which might break my father’s heart — but, I thought, he’d live.
I was deeply asleep when Dad had his heart attack.
It was not a big one — he remained conscious — but hearing him tell my mother repeatedly to call an ambulance in a voice broken and strained filled me with fear.
Then, after my brother called 911 and things seemed as bad as they could get, the power blew.
Perhaps it was the overload of us all turning on our lamps on at once or maybe it was the strain of all those crazy Christmas lights, but suddenly our house was in total darkness.
I mean total darkness. We lived in rural Maryland in a house on a corner that was set back and surrounded by trees. There were no streetlights, few neighbors; even during broad daylight, people armed with only an address often had difficulty finding us. On this night there wasn’t even a moon. So my brother and I scrambled for flashlights and ran out into the bitter cold in our pajamas to flag down the ambulance.
I have already told you my mom got sober, and in case you were wondering, my father lived for many years after his heart attack — so it would be easy for me to couch this moment in the black humor that many adult children of alcoholics often use to describe the outstanding moments of a dysfunctional life. I mean, it is pretty hilarious in a way — “and then the lights went out” is a pretty good punchline for any “it could be worse” kind of story. But some stories defy even black humor; 30 years later, my brother and I almost never talk about this night because, at the time, we were just two kids shivering in the snow, desperately signaling for help.
The ambulance came and Dad survived, but the days that followed were a blur of anxiety. In the ICU, Dad was told he would need a quintuple bypass. Mom was drinking hard and refusing to speak, so we stayed away from the house as much as we could, visiting our father and hanging out with our aunt, who was the only person who had ever told us that the real problem in our house was not that we were lazy and ungrateful but that our mother was an alcoholic — and it was not our fault.
I remember telling her it would probably be best if I skipped the next semester of college to stay home and take care of my father. My mother certainly was not up to the task, and my aunt, a widow with four young children, already had way too much on her plate.
My aunt suggested gently that leaving school might not be the best plan. Then she called one of her friends, a recovering alcoholic who promptly took me to a meeting of family members coping with alcoholism. I sat through it in silence, hunched miserably in my coat, thinking only of how awful it would be to return full-time to a house I had waited so long to flee.
Afterward, I spoke with a woman who looked remarkably like my mother. I told her what was happening and what I planned to do. She shook her head and took my hands in hers.
“This is not your problem,” she said. “This is her problem, and their marriage. It is not your job to fix them. It is your job to get on with your life.”
I’m sure she said other things, but that is what I remember. I don’t know why I believed her, but I did, instantly and absolutely, and it was as if I could breathe for the first time in days.
My father eventually came home from the hospital. He would not have let me stay home from school even if I had tried. He told my mother that if she didn’t stop drinking, he would never survive the surgery, which was set for the end of January. He said this not as a threat or an ultimatum but as a simple fact. And my mother heard him. She took her last drink on Dec. 31 and lived sober until her death almost 25 years later.
Out of chaos, a Christmas miracle.
My brother and I did not learn of their conversation until much later, but the mother we loved returned that first week in January. We went back to school and held our breath while she saw my father through his surgery and the long recovery. My parents continued to love Christmas, and my brother and I still decorate our homes within an inch of their lives, inside and out.
We do not speak of that Christmas, though, and when I told him I would be writing about it, I could feel him wince even through his texts. “Really?” he wrote. “It’s so dark.”
But it is a darkness many people know too well, and at least our story offers some hope, which is why I am telling it; we could all use a little hope right now, particularly alcoholic and addictive families.
If you are a child or young adult trapped in an alcoholic house, you are not alone — and it is not your fault and it is not your job to fix it. It is your job to survive, to get on with your life as best you can, and there are people who will help you do that.
And if you are a parent wondering why your kids tense up or flee to their rooms when you take that third drink, why everyone is making a big deal over nothing and no one seems to understand that alcohol is the only thing that gets you through the day, especially in this terrible year, you are not alone either. Even in the midst of the very real anxiety caused by this pandemic, even if you are one of millions who have lost a loved one or a job, life can still be better than it is. All you need to do is not take a drink today, and there are people who will help you with that.
My mother worked hard to get and stay sober because getting and staying sober is hard work; I know because eventually I had to do that same work myself. The miracle is not the ability to do hard work, but the moment when we become willing take it on.
For our family, that was the moment when the the worst Christmas ever became the best one of all.
If you or someone you know needs help with alcoholism or addiction, here are some resources:
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, (800) 662-HELP (4357)
- Family First Intervention, (888) 291-8514
- Alcoholics Anonymous (consult their website for local chapter)
Mary McNamara is a culture columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times.