Patricia used to approach the holidays with an overwhelming sense of dread, because she never knew what her alcoholic brother might do to ruin them. As Thanksgiving floral arrangements gave way to sparkling Christmas ornaments and the drone of holiday music, her stomach would clench more each day and her mood would grow darker.
“Some years were just awful,” she recalls. “So often my brother would show up drunk and make a scene at family gatherings. He’d scare his kids, embarrass his wife, and break my mother’s heart over and over again. One year he got arrested a week before Christmas for driving under the influence and for disorderly conduct. I remember that we called the judge to ask if they could keep him in jail until after the holidays. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when they did just that. We could finally relax and enjoy ourselves, knowing he was safe but unable to spoil things for everyone.”
Thankfully, those painful memories are distant ones now, because Patricia’s brother—after 25 years as a practicing alcoholic—stopped drinking 20 years ago. “But it took me several years after he went into treatment to trust him and his recovery,” she says. “For a long time, I still prepared myself for the worst, half expecting another midnight phone call saying he had been an accident.”
The holiday scene Patricia describes today, however, is right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. “My brother is a grandfather now, and he is like an excited little boy, eagerly watching his grandkids open the gifts he laboriously and lovingly picked out for each of them. I’m so grateful that my parents got to experience his sobriety and witness the profound changes he made in his life before they died.”
Patricia says her own involvement in the Twelve Step program of Al-Anon has helped her understand that addiction is truly a disease that affects the entire family. She says recovery has allowed her to unearth the meaning of the holiday season and reclaim them as the joyous and contemplative occasions they were meant to be.
In autumn, the early settlers of our country gathered and evaluated their harvest, preparing themselves for the challenging winter months ahead as they gave thanks for the bounty their hard work brought them. “This is how I view Twelve Step recovery and Thanksgiving now,” Patricia says. “I welcome it as a time to take stock of past experiences and meditate on the lessons I’ve learned—seeing those lessons as my ‘harvest,’ my protection for any future difficulties. Then I find ways to express my gratitude for all I’ve been given.”
Two years after her brother began recovery, for example, Patricia gave him a little music box for Thanksgiving that played “We’ve Only Just Begun,” thanking him for rekindling the flame of family that was almost extinguished in the winds of his alcoholism.
Patricia describes herself as a spiritual person who sees Christmas as another opportunity for deep reflection. “To me, Christmas is about love, acceptance and expectancy—a symbol of birth and hope,” she says. “I try to carry through with the ‘attitude of gratitude’ that I learned about in Twelve Step recovery, and use Christmas as a time to help others.”
Some years she and her husband and daughter play “secret Santa” and buy gifts for a family in need. Sometimes they serve meals at a homeless shelter or take an elderly friend out for a holiday lunch. She also likes to write letters of appreciation at Christmas to the special people in her life, letting them know what gifts they are to her.
“Recovery has been transformative for me, for my brother, and for my whole family,” she says. “Twenty years ago, I hated the holidays and feared what my brother would do. But then he sobered up and I got my big brother back. Along the way, I discovered the Twelve Steps. I guess miracles really do happen. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?”
Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. It is provided by Hazelden web site at www.hazelden.org.