Thanksgivings Drunk and Sober

By Carlos Herrera 11/27/14

I’ve been surly, stoned and sober on the our nation’s holiday of gratitude. And for me, sober definitely seems to work out better.

White meat, hold the wine Photo via

In 2007, on the day before Thanksgiving, when I was not even a year sober, I was waiting to go see my family for the first time since I’d been sticking drugs up my nose and alcohol down my throat. I was at LAX and that year, 62 million people traveled through its runways. At the time, there were Marines guarding the terminals with drug-sniffing dogs barking at tourists.

I don't like the term "going back home" since I'm a firm believer that wherever you pay rent is your home. Mine was the city of West Hollywood at the time and there I was in the middle of the LAX. Stone cold sober. Going back to the Central Time Zone to see my father. My mother. My brother and two sisters. Chain-smoking cigarettes outside Terminal 1 before boarding my flight while taxis whizzed by.

Here's how Thanksgiving used to go: my mom would cook dinner and my dad would keep changing the music in the background because he couldn’t decide what Moby song to play. The soothing sounds of four-star hotel elevator music apparently calms down workaholic surgeons even in their homes. This was the mid-2000's. Bush was President, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had just met, Katrina was a household name and I wanted to get stoned, drunk, loaded and out of my mind. I wanted to smoke pot in my Explorer and chug vodka while driving to a movie alone. I was afraid of what my family thought of me even though I was really just a constant variable in their lives. I did my own thing and they did theirs.

Co-dependency is rough, especially when the strings attached are DNA strands. 

I liked to make fun of my little brother and deflect what I thought were strict judgments coming from my dad. But I wasn't so much the lone wolf in my family as I was the attention seeking, man-baby, ultra dramatic drunk. Everyone else got along. Everyone else had great things to say at the table about school, relationships and sports. I had this to offer: fucking nothing. And feeling like just because we had the same blood didn’t mean they should be constantly wondering about me. 

Thanksgiving, a Tuesday, the day your best friend dies or your daughter's wedding are all important days but to my alcoholism, they were just 24-hour time periods which presented many opportunities to get loaded. I've actually done cocaine in the back of a church while I saw a high school friend of mine's casket up front. I sat in the back with Ray Bans on and sat next to his super hot former girlfriend named after a fucking Disney princess. My alcoholism doesn't know what a holiday is. It doesn't know what a funeral is or what a Tuesday is. It knows that when I'm awake it has one mission—to fill up my body with Schedule II narcotics and alcohol. And if I'm sober without any sort of program, solution, yoga class or scented candles, my alcoholism is prepped with replacements for drugs, like women, obsessive exercise and the secret menu at In-n-Out Burger.

Anyway, back to that Thanksgiving I remember from the mid-2000's. My mom—a smart ass but a total sweetheart—made great food and my dad was running late. I was watching TV, stoned out of my mind. My dad showed up in scrubs with someone's blood by his shoes and we ate. I was hardly present. I thought nobody cared and that I was harming nobody.  

I used to get $20 from my mom here, another $20 from my dad there. I would go buy booze, drugs and VHS tapes from the $4.99 bin at Blockbuster. That night, I drove by the grocery store where my dad made me get a job bagging groceries after I was caught driving drunk in high school. I was tormenting myself by wondering why I couldn't just be present and enjoy the company of my family. Was doing designer drugs and lethally mixing them with alcohol to a downtown backdrop and cloudy sky really worth it? I wasn’t on Miami Vice, give me a fucking break! My head was spinning.

Fast-forward to a few years later, when I was fucking sober and in the airport listening to my iPod—the same music my dad would play at Thanksgiving. I've kind of taken every quality of his and made it my own. I got on the miserable plane where you can't smoke so I put a horseshoe size of Skoal tobacco into the bottom of my lip and landed in the humidity of Houston. It was the day before Thanksgiving. I called my sponsor in a panic and he told me that millions of people travel to see their parents for the holidays every year, even people who are actively in recovery. The idea of being a part of something bigger than myself, like AA or holiday travelers as a whole, settled me and I sat in the same seat I always took at our dinner table. Like Judas, to my dad's immediate left, across from my mom. I was present. Not because I was forcing myself to but because I was a human with a clear brain. Without cocaine, marijuana, alcohol or pills clouding my brain, I'm wherever my feet are. 

At that moment I was in the home I had grew up in. The high school years were the early days of my alcoholism so being at the table where I sat after lots of "firsts" in my life—first drunk meal with my family, first time partying with friends, first time learning how to roll a joint—made sense since there I was, in the process of eating my first sober meal with my family since I was a teenager. I usually don't like to make myself part of a family. I like to think of myself as an independent person, which is ironic because I'm such a co-dependent fucking baby. Smile at me or tell me I'm funny? I'm literally in love with you. Co-dependency is rough, especially when the strings attached are DNA strands. 

My first sober meal with my family went smoothly. I smiled and was light-hearted with my parents. I didn't make a big deal about my dad being late in surgeon's scrubs, not showered or ready to eat. I just made a joke about him putting dying people in front of me on a holiday. Since I was clear-headed, sober and present, I was an attractive human that night. Instead of lying or skipping the truth, I told my family about my new job as an assistant after they asked me about it. No motives beyond just being there and being a good son. 

This doesn’t mean that being sober and around my family has been a completely smooth ride. My first Christmas sober, I landed in Houston around midnight and left that same night around 5 AM because my dad and I got in a stupid argument about God knows what. Probably about whether or not Alpha Dog was actually a good movie or not. I spent that night at the airport, on the phone with my sponsor, half-asleep, waiting for my big jetliner back home so I could leave my previous one. But that was a different time called a couple of a years ago. Even though I'm almost six years sober now, in many ways it feels like I’m still in early sobriety when it comes to my family. It's scary wanting the same attention and approval that I wanted early on but at least today I don't have to obsessively call my sponsor if my dad is five minutes late or if my sister is annoying the shit out of me by talking about some boyfriend who I don't like because of his taste in facial hair. I'm a grown man now and I've learned to act "good" around the people that saw me from shaggy blonde haired baby to the exact opposite in the hair department.

The last few Thanksgivings I’ve spent with sober people in Los Angeles. Just the way it worked out. Babies, sweaters, tennis on the TV instead of college football and actors acting while talking about acting. Great. I'm more of a Christmas guy anyway. On Thanksgiving last year, I got a headache and went home early after bombing with two jokes. I spent the rest of the night doing comedy for five people (all comics) in the smallest room at The Comedy Store not called a bathroom. Because of AA, relationships with good people and sobriety, it wasn't the end of the world. It was the beginning of another holiday season, a slight change in weather on a strip of land known for not having any. LA becomes a ghost town during the holidays and that's okay with me because I've got nowhere else to go. Home is where your feet are and mine are planted firmly here—sober, grateful, full and, yeah sure, happy.

Carlos Herrera is a Los Angeles-based stand-up comedian and writer. A former entertainment assistant from the the age of 19, he has performed at The Hollywood Improv and The Comedy Store, amongst others. He just wrapped a docu-comedy pilot for MTV and can be seen late night (in the back) at comedy clubs in Hollywood. He has written about seduction and pink clouds, among other topics, for The Fix.

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