Uncrazy Holidays

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Uncrazy Holidays

By Kristen Rybandt 12/22/14

I’d decided to wean off an antidepressant just in time for a holiday meltdown and, in typical fashion, was going about it very quietly. This was a kamikaze move, though sure, I had my reasons.

Image: 
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About a month before my first sober Christmas, I sat through a recovery meeting fighting back tears over nothing in particular. I’d decided to wean off an antidepressant just in time for a holiday meltdown and, in typical fashion, was going about it very quietly. When the meeting ended, a woman I’d never met before (or since) walked over, her round cheeks rosy and her eyes jolly in my memory. “Here,” she said. “You look like you could use this.” She handed me a copy of a recovery magazine with a trippy tangle of lights on the cover and something about uncrazy holidays. She was gone before I could thank her or even ask her name, but I felt a knot loosen a little inside.  

Baby’s First Christmas

In retrospect, the decision to stop taking an antidepressant a month before my first sober holiday was a kamikaze move, though sure, I had my reasons. Side effects included increased appetite, decreased sex drive. These are clinical terms for what amounted to me gaining a lot of weight, and then how could I feel desirable? I see now how nicely numbing the drug had been, and what a godsend it had been for the first five months of my sobriety. While tapering off, I visited my doctor and she regarded me like a lame dog she wasn’t ready to put down yet. 

“We don’t want to see you crash and burn,” she said kindly and wrote a script for something else I took for awhile that wasn’t anywhere near as numbing, though I left her office with at least a placebo version of hope. 

Thanksgiving was lovely that year. For the first time in all the years we’ve hosted, I was able to focus enough to get everything on the serving table on time. I felt relaxed and chatty and reminisced with my mom about how together my grandparents always seemed at holidays, how easy they made it look. I didn’t feel tempted to drink and was even able to divvy up leftovers at the end, a dreaded task made easier because I wasn’t drunk this time. 

The next mini-meltdown came a couple of weeks later when I’d taken on the overwhelming task of going through tubs of my kids’ clothing. In misdirected frustration, I picked a fight with my husband and threatened to dump all the clothes out the window. I pictured myself going out on the lawn with a rake and hamper and all the laundry I would have to do. This was part terrifying and part hilarious and I thought more than once that maybe sober wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Still, I muscled through and I didn’t drink. 

The biggest meltdown of all came on Christmas Eve. I’d finished shopping earlier that week but saved all the wrapping for that afternoon. Wrapping and drinking used to be an event I looked forward to all year, a little pleasure with the pain. I hadn’t counted on how much a trigger it would be newly sober until I shut myself in the bedroom with bags of unwrapped gifts, some paper and tape, and not nearly enough mental reserves. All I could think about was my husband sipping a holiday beer right that moment downstairs. I pictured him with his feet up, glass in hand, a yule log crackling on TV. What started as a kind of smoldering self-pity quickly grew to full blown despair. I burst into tears and did something I’d never really done before. I prayed. I didn’t call anyone - not my sponsor or a sober friend or even my husband downstairs. I didn’t drink, but I was really close. The experience rattled me.

Days later, I told my sponsor about the gift-wrap meltdown and she seemed almost relieved for me. I’d had very little reason to call on her before and I think she didn’t know how to help. She told me six months sober is a hard time for some. I’m sure I should have known this, but I had no idea. She told me six months sober was when she finally woke up.

Christmas Day was thankfully a repeat of Thanksgiving. At 5am, I felt alert and terrific when the kids woke us up. I didn’t have to worry about getting through the morning and long car ride to visit family without a drink. The travel and visit was draining, and I couldn’t wait to retreat to our hotel room that night, but it wasn’t so I could drink in peace. We swam in the indoor pool and I drifted off to sleep that night grateful for my new life, precarious though it felt at times. 

White Knuckle Control

The next year, I was determined to do things differently. I actually lived in fear of the holidays for the second half of fall without doing anything proactive, like shopping early. I did eat a lot of cookies, but I exercised too. I did start wrapping earlier, a novel idea for a procrastinator. There were no meltdowns during my second sober season, and I did not seriously consider drinking.

Emotionally, my second sober holiday was more complicated. I felt inadequate and less-than at family gatherings and, in general, and knew nothing had changed to make me feel this way. I didn’t understand this was all a pretty normal side effect of stuffing things down for two decades and then letting it all out. I agonized about the way I felt and stuffed that down with too many cookies, which only made me feel worse until I decided to go sugar-free in January. It was all about control. 

Baby Steps to Progress

Oh, I did the sugar quit too. And now my life is perfect! Just kidding. By the following holiday season, I was coming off a wicked Halloween candy hangover, chasing handfuls of milk duds and swedish fish with tall glasses of frothy green juice I made with a juicer I got for my 40th birthday. I settled back into mostly last minute wrapping, but I bought almost everything online so there was much less overall stress. Last year I was two and a half years sober, feeling more than a little blessed and also more settled in my own skin. But this isn’t where we leave off. We all still have this year to get through. 

Flexibility is Key

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about enjoying the holidays sober, it’s that traditions are key and so is letting go of them and mixing it up. I think this season I might bust out the baking sheets and favorite cookie recipes and make a day of it. The kitchen will fill with a powdery haze of flour and an aroma of warm chocolate. The kids will grow tired of fighting over who gets to lick the bowl. Or maybe that won’t happen at all, and this will be the year I glue together the tiny paper village I had to have last year, but never got around to doing. I’m still reminding myself to be patient and flexible, that life is so much more enjoyable this way.

In the early days sober, I thought flexibility meant saying no to holiday events that would revolve around drinking and doing a bunch of other things instead. I had to learn for myself just how miserable a person could feel trying to do too much. As the sober years progressed, I have learned to simplify and even delegate. I have learned to let go of illusions of perfection, which no one judges as harshly as I do anyway. I remember each holiday season as a kind of collage of events and moments within. It’s a shame my first sober holiday is mostly a collage of meltdowns, but at least it wasn’t boring.

I looked to see if I saved that magazine with the swirling mess of lights on the cover, but I did not. I wanted to see what the articles inside recommended because I don’t think I ever read it. The most important thing that kind stranger gave me was compassion and hope that things could be better than they were then. When you have no idea how much better you’ll feel in a year or two or ten, even faint hope is the best gift of all. 

Kristen Rybandt lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania with her family and blogs about recovery and beyond at byebyebeer.com.

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