Merry holiday season, friends. It’s here.
Growing up, I had mixed feelings about the holidays – and by “the holidays,” I mean six weeks of so-called merriment-filled events including Thanksgiving Day, Christmas-related events at school, my birthday, my sister’s birthday, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
In the early years, I looked forward to leaving cookies for Santa and a ridiculously tall pile of carrots for the reindeer. I looked forward to the TV specials. I looked forward to the extra friendliness of people around town. I looked forward to putting money into the Salvation Army red kettles. I looked forward to presents under the tree.
But as the effects of my mother’s alcoholism worsened or I became more aware of them, the holidays brought me an extraordinary amount of anxiety. My mother controlled everything related to our celebration of those holidays – where we went, when we went, how long we stayed, the list goes on. I know now that every decision she made was tied directly or indirectly to her drinking – from hangovers to withdrawals to damaged personal relationships. Getting to school Christmas concerts on time was a feat I barely accomplished; I remember running into the classroom nearly out of breath, seconds before the teachers ushered us into the gym for the start of the show. Christmas Eve was generally awful. In my early years, I’d sneak out of my room, too excited to sleep and too hopeful about catching a glimpse of Santa. My mom was always drunk and furious at my dad over something, or stumbling around while she wrapped presents, complaining about something. I remember being worried that she’d be mean to Santa or that Santa wouldn’t come because she was still there in the living room at a late hour. Her behavior was confusing but it became the holiday norm. My father reacted in one of two ways (or both) over the course of the evening: He’d shout back at her or lock himself in the basement with Christmas music drowning out her yelling.
On Christmas Day, we’d head off to my father’s family celebration. I remember feeling nervous the entire time because I knew my mom felt uncomfortable. She spoke often during her drunken rants that she felt on edge around my father’s family. Today, I know these feelings were rooted in her insecurities and strains on the relationships due to her alcoholism. Our visits there were cut short so that we could also attend my mother’s family’s celebration. There, I felt more relaxed but we often hurried home before everyone else because Mom wanted to start her nightly routine.
After my sister was born, my mother’s alcoholism worsened dramatically. By my college years, I’d shifted into the responsible adult role, salvaging as much good about the holidays as I could for my sister, who was just a child. I was focused on making the experience for her better than my own. But Christmas Eve was a disaster, year after year. Mom’s drunken rages on that holy night were particularly upsetting to me. I think it was because I knew that night was **supposed to be** peaceful, warm and serene. Naturally, on that night, I felt we were extra screwed up compared to everyone else. After tucking in my sister for the night, I helped my dad assemble toys and wrap presents. Though he tried to hide it, I saw the exhaustion, frustration and anger on his face. The memories are vivid.
“Thanks for ruining another Christmas!” he’d shout up the basement stairs to my mother who would often stand at the top of the staircase, yelling about trivial matters or completely irrational stuff that made zero sense.
Christmas morning went something like this: Mom would take forever getting out of bed, too sick and hung over to function at the early hour. When she finally got out of bed, she’d lie back on the couch, looking half dead until about her fourth or fifth cup of coffee. I wanted so badly to fix her. I wondered about the Christmas memories from childhood that stung for her – surely, significantly more painful than the memories that my sister and I hold with us. I would have given up every present received throughout my life if my mother would not take another drink again. I still feel this way today – and it still hurts knowing I’ll never be able to fix her.
As my mother plummeted into her darkest point, I was still in college but shifted fast into the role of the household’s responsible adult. My mother’s relationship with my dad’s family had eroded – another casualty of her alcoholism. Mom stopped attending their events, though they welcomed her. She also pushed away her own family, skipping holiday events or just stopping in for a short time.
Ever the co-dependent, my dad began skipping the events, too. After all, she couldn’t spend the holiday alone…So the family of four became simply a sister duo representing the family at school functions and the family get-togethers. The holidays, including our birthdays, became anxiety-filled obligations and disappointments more than happy celebrations of any kind. With my little sister in tow, I went to every holiday-related thing there was to attend because I felt I had to, for my sister’s sake and for the sake of the family. If our parents didn’t go, we had to go – otherwise, our extended families’ feelings would be hurt and the grandmas would be disappointed. So, we went.
Following our father’s passing, and my sister moving in with me, the holiday celebrations have changed. While that familiar anxiety lingers around, we’ve let go of the control it had over us. Boundaries are set. I don’t allow Mom’s plans to dictate our plans. As much as I can, I don’t allow her behavior to affect my emotions. I don’t attend everything there is to attend. I host small family get togethers. My sister and I are making new traditions such as a post-Mass, Christmas Eve dinner at McDonald’s. This sounds terribly sad but it’s not. In fact, the best Christmas memories are tied to these nontraditional dinners. It’s quite liberating and fun to go out and do what we want to do.
For three decades, I was trapped in the madness of my parents’ home for the holidays. Of course, the memories will stay with me forever. The anxiety will show up. But now the holidays are mine to shape how I want to celebrate them. As a very aware ACOA, I make a conscious effort to take good care of myself. I’m really enjoying creating these new traditions. The cycle of addiction in my family stops with my sister and me.
If you’re still experiencing the holidays amid madness as the child of an alcoholic (or adult child of an alcoholic), know that the future is yours. While the old memories may remain, the cycle ends with you. There will be new memories to create in the next chapter.
Take good care of yourself.