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What the holidays are like for a recovering alcoholic like me

Melissa Mendes

’Twas the night before Christmas, and I really, really wanted a freakin’ drink.

During Christmas dinners past, between courses, you could always find me ducking into my room to hide. I felt incredibly uncomfortable at the table, but I never drank in front of my family — my parents knew I had a problem. I usually held tight and counted the minutes before I could escape and meet up with my friends for a drink (or four). As loving as my family is, they have their moments — and the holidays seem to bring a lot more of them. Admittedly, most families are like this, which is why none of my friends punch the air and grin as they declare, “Yeah, I’m going home for Thanksgiving!” It’s usually more of a dejected sigh of resignation. Understandably, many of us either drink to get through it or get through it to drink.

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A few years ago, though, the holidays became different for me. At 22 years old, in November 2011, I decided to get sober for good. The timing wasn’t necessarily intentional. In fact, the timing was horrible; a more-than-challenging feat during that matrix of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and everyone’s favorite amateur hour — New Year’s Eve. The holidays are the time of year when the child in all of us feels the most temptation to overindulge in, well, just about everything.

Throughout college, I was a social drinker who couldn’t stop once I started. I held down an internship and a part-time job as a reporter while maintaining a 3.8 GPA throughout all four years of school. High-functioning, smart, and responsible, I loved that drinking let me throw caution to the wind — it was like a reward. It allowed me to go against my better judgment and act “wild and young,” to be really spontaneous. However, if I tried to stop after one or two drinks, I was either a) unsuccessful or b) left with that empty disappointment that lingers when all of the presents have been opened on Christmas morning and it’s only 10 am. Now what?

The sickening realization that I didn’t drink like “normal” people dawned on me slowly, but I didn’t know how to stop without destroying my social life. As a city girl raised on fabulous, bubbly Sunday brunches and packed, Patron-fueled parties, making the decision to stop for good was terrifying.

So I didn’t make the decision. Instead, I did all sorts of things to try to control my drinking. I’ll stop for a month. I’ll just have one. I’ll just have two. Well, I’ll eat a lot, so maybe I can have three. I’ll switch from hard liquor to wine. I’ll only drink at dinner. These worked temporarily, but I always fell right back off the wagon.

I woke up shaking and throwing up more mornings than I can remember. After two, three, then four times in the emergency room for alcohol poisoning, it was clear that it had gone beyond the scope of a harmless social habit. I began to get violent with my boyfriend when I drank, wake up in places I didn’t recognize, and keep my mother up at night worrying where I was (my phone was usually dead or lost). Long story short, I spent Thanksgiving of 2010 hooked up to an IV, hospitalized for alcohol poisoning once again, and it still took me another year to reach out for help.

Why I finally got help

It’s no coincidence, of course, that sometime between November and early January, a new slew of 20-somethings always find their way into substance abuse recovery programs. Many of us were just social drinkers who knew when to say “when,” but couldn’t. The consequences gradually became greater, especially after the “we’re in college” excuse disappeared. In the midst of excuses to overdo it and shattered expectations of the perfect family Christmas, something happened to make us realize that our drinking wasn’t like other people’s, that we were powerless over the compulsion to drink to excess, and that it was starting to make our lives really unmanageable.

There wasn’t any one “moment” for me. It wasn’t the overwhelming number of days spent crying and throwing up, holding my head in the agony of a migraine, that forced me to say enough is enough. It wasn’t my then-boyfriend’s question, “How long are you going to keep doing this to yourself?” It wasn’t the panic attack I had when I realized that in a drunken stupor, I’d left my BlackBerry in a puddle overnight, or the ones I had when I woke up next to a complete stranger.

It was the gradual realization that I had a disease, one that made excessive drinking look like a choice. No sane person endures so much physical and emotional anguish and continues to drink — that’s why it’s called a disease. What caused me to throw in the towel was the week in late October 2011 when I managed to get drunk night after night, each one worse than the last, after promising myself — pleading with myself — that I wouldn’t.

On the mid-November day that I first walked into a 12-step recovery meeting, I was shocked to see that so many young girls were in the same boat as I was. I thought sobriety was for prudes who did nothing interesting with their lives and had no idea what real problems were, but these were stylish women pursuing amazing careers and attending prestigious universities. I was invited to a booze-free party after the meeting; I was just one day sober when I agreed.

The people at this party could have easily been gathered together inside the hottest club West Chelsea has to offer. Not only did they look cool as hell, but they were the happiest crowd of people I’d seen in a long, long time, and the most cheerful I’d ever seen sans alcohol. All of them were in the program — some had five years, some five months, others had decades.

I stood awkwardly in the doorway clutching a red plastic cup full of seltzer and watching dozens of people laughing, chatting, dancing, and singing, doing everything they normally would have if there had been vodka in the punch. They looked like they were comfortable with themselves. The laughter was real. The friendship was genuine — you could feel the warmth and the love radiating out of them — and they all had this ease about them that, even at my drunkest, I couldn’t quite cultivate. Best of all, none of them looked like they were dying to escape.

“I felt so awkward I wanted to die,” one attendee later told me, laughing. “I didn’t realize how socially anxious I was until I didn’t have a drink in my hand.” I could relate.

That’s how a lot of us feel, but didn’t realize it, because 20-something binge drinking is so normal in our culture.

How SantaCon made me glad to be sober

Case in point: SantaCon, a Christmas disaster that can only be described as a calamity on 34th Street — and every other street in New York City. (Sadly, it’s now also a nationwide epidemic.) College kids (and children of all ages) dress up as Santa or scantily clad Mrs. Claus and take to their city’s bars and restaurants, later spilling out onto the streets, where they continue drinking.

The original idea for SantaCon started off as a very merry concept: People would dress up and parade through the streets spreading goodwill and good cheer, singing Christmas carols, and giving out gifts to strangers. Unfortunately, it has been completely overhauled into an event in which adults act like out-of-control kids and hundreds of thousands of people confuse Christmas “spirit” with “spirits.”

I had about 30 days of sobriety under my belt when the SantaCon “parade” took to the streets in 2011. The “SantaConers” start as early as 10 am, and that year, by lunchtime, my Lower Manhattan neighborhood smelled like one big brewery. Last time I checked, walking down the street and drinking from clear plastic cups full of beer was illegal, but it seems to be tolerated on SantaCon day.

By 1 pm, people were urinating in public, passing out in the street, keeling over on the sidewalk, screaming profanities, and throwing up on subways and in parks. My elderly neighbors were pushed and knocked over, and children were shoved aside. Many SantaConers needed to be taken care of, pulled away from a fistfight or carried home, passed out from all the excitement like small children after a wedding.

As people dodged profanity-screaming elves and belligerent reindeer running amuck, I heard one little boy ask his father, “Daddy, why are Santa and the reindeer acting like that?” Another little girl hid underneath her mother’s coat, and others literally ran away crying, repeatedly looking back over their shoulders in terror as the crowds gained momentum.

As the Christmas-themed pub crawl of college-aged clowns clamored through my neighborhood, all I could think was, “Holy shit, I’m glad that’s not me.” Not that it would have been me — I was more the type to drink in lounges and wine bars than partake in out-on-the-street reveling. I wouldn’t have been caught dead at a pub crawl. Still, as someone who understands the need to take a mini Christmas vacation from reality, I saw something familiar as I looked into the glazed eyes of one slutty Mrs. Claus: the need to get obliterated, and what a mess it looks like when you do.

For a long time, I was the one wearing a costume — and I wore it all the time. I liked my tiny, boozy escape from reality, a carefree feeling I’d chase and chase as it slipped right through my hands. I couldn’t get enough when I drank: more, more, more. I kept chasing that warm feeling I got when I hit that perfect level between tipsy and drunk — but I just couldn’t stop there. As a result, I ended up sick, ashamed, absent, or blacked out more times than I can recall.

Seeing how disgusting SantaCon was affirmed my commitment to never drink again. However, I had to admit that the tamer members of the bunch looked like they were having a great time, and that triggered something I had struggled with my whole life: fear of missing out.

Such a feeling was an evil Grinch that presented itself whenever something was going on without my involvement. The Grinch pointed a big hairy finger directly at my fear of what other people thought of me, whether I looked popular, cool, or pretty enough. I had so little confidence in myself that I put all of the value on the external. Watching them parade by, erupting in laughter, I heard my aunt’s enabling voice in the back of my head:

“You’re young; you’re supposed to go out and have fun,” she would say. “When I was your age, I had a thousand friends and we went out every weekend. This is your time.”

My aunt was a party girl at my age — think Studio 54 — who knew all of the right people and was out every night. She’s still a party girl now. She lives on the Upper East Side with my uncle, and I would see her and speak to her often. So I regularly found myself on the defensive, bracing for questions about what I’d been doing and whom I was dating. I was especially careful not to divulge compromising information that would welcome more unsolicited opinions.

But of course, then there was the big Kahuna. The most challenging night of the season for me was not SantaCon but Christmas dinner with my relatives — every single one of them.

My first sober Christmas was challenging — but my new friends helped me through it

Throughout the day, my mind replayed old tapes of Christmases past, churning up anxiety and forming negative expectations that created a nice big bubble of dread in the pit of my stomach. The criticism, the judgment, the well-intentioned yet unsolicited advice salted the wounds of my own insecurities, and last year was no different.

“Are you going to any parties?” my aunt asked as she spooned her baked ziti onto my plate. (She knows I don’t eat pasta.)

“Yes,” I said, my voice cracking with hesitation. “There’s a party at this girl’s house.”

“What kind of party? Is it on the Lower East Side? Where are the cool people going these days?”

In hindsight, I see that telling her it was a sober party was a mistake. I know that now.

“What are you going to do, have no life anymore?” she cried in response. “Those people are lame. Go do something fun. Live it up!”

Fortunately, I had been given one of my gifts early: nearly 20 new numbers in my phone, all belonging to friends and other women in my support network who would listen, laugh, and help me feel true relief. Calling in their support was more comforting than any amount of Baileys. After my aunt’s comment, I furiously texted Allie, who reassured me, “Soon, you and I are going to be able to go anywhere and do anything we want, living lives fuller than we ever could have imagined.”

“This is a very short period of time,” Allie said, “that we are using to get ready for the best years of our lives.”

Throughout the night, I surreptitiously and periodically backed away into my room, but this time not alone; I reached out to girls who knew how to turn off the valve that began steaming inside me when my uncle raised his voice. When that happened, my friend Claire and I ran through a list of what I was grateful for.

“It’s easy to see what’s wrong and get annoyed, but it takes practice to start learning how to see the good in people and in each situation,” she said.

Perhaps even more useful — for many of us — is the advice that Phoebe, another friend from my recovery group, gave me: “Hum a little tune and pretend that you’re watching and listening to someone else’s family.”

Learning to be patient and to accept my family as they are, instead of how I wish they would be, took time. They’re human, I realized eventually — fallible and flawed, just like me, just like all of us. When I stopped expecting them to be anything else, I started seeing the best in them, which wasn’t hard once I had the right lenses on.

Eventually, I was able to stay present, no longer jumping out of my skin or champing at the bit to escape their clutches and flee the situation. Despite temptation, I continued making my own transition to adulthood, gripping reality tightly even when I wanted to let go through hot toddies and spiked cider.

My first sober New Year’s Eve, my favorite midnight kiss didn’t take place on a vodka-soaked dance floor as champagne rained down from above. I was sprawled on my bed, sober, getting smooches from my then-boyfriend’s dog, Nayla. I was finally growing up, facing my choices, and moving through the stress of uncomfortable family dinners and social situations without picking up a drink.

I can’t say I miss the taste of alcohol, because I always shot it back like medicine, hating the flavor of booze but loving the effect. I’ll admit there are days I wish I could drink up a bit of that warm, fuzzy feeling of relaxation to take the edge off, but the trade-off is more than worth it.

I’ve found what Allie said to hold true: I can go anywhere and have a good time, and I never feel like I’m being shortchanged just because I’m not drinking. Now my nights are filled with authentic laughter and fun, sometimes at a “normal” party, sometimes at a sober one, sometimes at a dinner party full of drinkers. Regardless, I know for sure that I’m definitely not missing out on anything.

As for the holidays this year, I am incredibly grateful for a family that, despite their kinks, loves each other unconditionally.

For the record, I’m far from a prohibitionist. If you can hold your liquor, by all means, go ahead. I toast you with my rum-free eggnog! Peace of mind, I now know, is what I’d been looking for all along — I just never thought I could achieve it, ever, let alone without a bottle of wine to create the false, quickly fading feeling for me. The realization that I finally know what real peace and happiness feel like — well, that’s a very merry feeling.

Helaina Hovitz is a born and raised New Yorker who has written for the New York Times, Teen Vogue, and, among other publications. She is currently writing her first book and has the unshakable notion that she can help save the world.

Melissa Mendes is the author of the Xeric Awardwinning graphic novel Freddy Stories. Her current comic series Lou is being published by Oily Comics. She lives and works in western Massachusetts.

This essay originally appeared on in 2012.

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