Holidays haven’t been the happiest times for me. I’ve wanted them to be. I’ve wanted them to be what they weren’t. I’ve wanted them to be like what I’ve seen advertised. I’ve wanted to feel the way others have felt. I’ve wanted the warm fuzzies and this year, I got them.
As a child, holidays were always my favorite time of year. I would hide under the Christmas tree when the all the lights were out and I would stare at the shimmering blues and yellows and reds and whites of the many lights strung around the tree. I would imagine I lived in a world where they did, a world that was warm and tender and wonderful, in other words a world that was nothing like the world in which I lived. My world was beating and abuse. The holiday world I imagined was loving and tender. I would lie under that tree wishing for eternity and when the holidays were over, when it was January 2nd, my imagined world was replaced by a real world and that real world was dark and lonely and filled with fear and dread. The soft green needles of Christmas were replaced by the dry and brittle needles of a new year and that tree, that temporary haven of mine, was tossed into the trash. If any of you experienced something similar, let me say this, with all candor and sincerity…I understand.
Another ritual I wished would go away were visits to relatives. While some families cherished their times together, I shuddered at the thought. It was another place where I didn’t fit. Where I didn’t get what others got and as a result, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to feel more alone with people than I felt without them and large gatherings almost always had that effect on me. Alienation, loneliness, isolation…ugh. I’d rather stay at home and check out or disconnect or withdrawal. And when I would, when I would ignore invites, when they were over, my mom would come home with stories from the events of the day and I would feel I had missed out. It was a catastrophe either way. I couldn’t win.
In most cases, I wound up going to family functions regardless. Sometimes I stuck on a smile, often times I just frowned. I certainly didn’t offer to help out or participate or be a part of. I sat on my island of isolation the foundation of which wasn’t entirely of my own making. In part, my lack of efforts to include myself in the mix contributed, but there was another ingredient that I had far less to do with that did damage also, selfishness. Untreated. If you know it, you know loneliness like few others do. If you don’t, you probably wouldn’t want to wish you did. It’s not fun to be surrounded by loved ones or familiar ones and feel vacant and empty inside. Strangely, I would feel more alone in crowded rooms then I would feel when I was alone.
Under these conditions, it’s not difficult to imagine me doing what I said I did before I drank, avoided festivities. [The drinking era doesn’t count because while I could stomach being around others, they couldn’t stomach being around me. I don’t blame them. When I drank, I thought I was clever and comedic. Others thought I was an ass. Sadly, treating my alcoholism with alcohol gives me relief from you but it doesn’t give you relief from me. While I feel better, you feel worse. What I’d prefer to focus on and compare are the times of untreated alcoholism before I drank and what’s been happening recently, a period of treated alcoholism where I don’t drink.]
Fast forward to recently. In 2008 when my mom died, I got a call and an invite from a cousin I hadn’t talked to in some time. Joanne was a cousin from a side of the family I hadn’t had much contact with as a child probably because of two reasons, distance and age. My aunt and uncle on this side of family didn’t live close (as close as my father may have wanted) and all their kids were grown when I was still young. I’m the baby of the family, not only my immediate family, but of my entire generation. To put things in perspective, Joanne’s daughter is a month older than I am.
The call I received was an invite to Thanksgiving. I went. I was met with smiles from somewhat unfamiliar faces and I awkwardly learned all the names I should have already known. My cousins were forgiving and accommodating. In short, they were kind. Less than a month later, I received another call and another invite, this time to Christmas. Reluctantly but with mild optimism I went. The fear of being alone on my first Christmas without my mother was greater than the fear of being greeted by only mildly familiar faces. Again, my cousins were gracious and welcoming. I wasn’t used to it. I cried in private, partly because I missed my mom and partly because I’m easily overtaken when people demonstrate a sincere interest in me.
The following year, I got at least three more invitations for all the major holidays. I attended those as well. Since then, whenever there’s a celebration, I’m invited and I go. I don’t go out of obligation or duty, although I would because I’ve learned what I “feel” like doing has very little to do with what I will do. I’m old enough to know its a good idea to do the right thing even if I don’t feel like doing it. Sadly, I’m young enough to sometimes ignore my own best sense. Nevertheless, in these cases I don’t. I don’t ignore my best sense. Instead, I go. I attend. I participate and for the first time in my life, I feel “a part of” at these gatherings and family events. And I think I’ve figured out why. I think the reason is two fold; one, I am treating my selfishness. I’ve been sober nearly 15 years. By going to meetings (the more I go to the more I like others and the more others like me) and practicing principles which are foreign to me, principles like “go and give” I’m able to contribute to not only others by accepting their invite but to myself. I give to others what I’d like to receive and as a result I’m blessed with a feeling of belonging.
This dovetails into the second reason; when I used to go to family functions my thought was always “Where’s mine?” What can I get out of this? Why aren’t others asking about me? Why aren’t I the center of attention? And when can I leave?” I was miserable and lonely. No surprise. If you’ve read a Christmas Carol you know what’s coming. When I attend functions and festivities these day, I try to do differently. I try to say things like “Here’s yours. Can I get you anything else? What’s the latest with you? Congratulations on your most recent milestone! You’d look better in something that wasn’t grey (old habits and criticisms die hard). You must be proud” and the like. I try to demonstrate in them as sincere an interest as they demonstrate in me. I give others interest and attention and in so doing I make some startling discoveries. The warm fuzzies I got fleetingly while surrounded by lights when I was curled up beneath a Christmas tree have returned. (These same warm fuzzies I get when I hear the Vince Guaraldi trio Peanuts soundtrack. I didn’t mention that earlier for fear of embarrassment but it’s true). And I found these warm fuzzies in the most unlikely of places, places which, for years, I tried to not set foot in. I’ve found warm fuzzies in large rooms filled with family. And how do I get them? I get them the way I get most things in life…by giving.
And where did I learn this? It started in my world of loneliness beneath a brightly lit tree.