For Secret Santa at work, they asked us to write three things about ourselves on a piece of paper, to give the person who ends up picking our name a clue for how to spend their 20 bucks.
I wrote: 1. Chicago sports fan; 2. Love scented candles; 3. No booze.
Yeah, I’m not sure the last one was really necessary. I could’ve just said I drink coffee, or something. At the same time, I’ve seen plenty of bottles change hands in office gift exchanges over the years, and I’m not ready to even hold one in my hands to re-gift it at this point.
Over the past five months, not drinking alcohol has become the biggest thing about me there is. It’s the headline of my bio. The plot of my story. It’s even listed in my Twitter profile, right there alongside my pledged allegiance to the Cubs and Bears.
Thank goodness for the sports thing, by the way, or I’d have literally nothing to talk about with people outside of recovery meetings. As it is, I have to stop myself from blurting out, “I’m [X number of] days sober!” every time someone asks “How are you?”
But the Bears playing — and winning! — on national TV two Thursdays in a row at least helps me tamp down the social awkwardness for a second or two and relate to “normies” on a meaningless-small-talk level. People here in Philly actually kind of cared about my Bears this past week when they played, then beat, the Cowboys.
Honestly, I enjoyed taking a break from the recovery audiobooks and podcasts that fill my headphones and car speakers all day, every day, to listen to my favorite radio hosts on Chicago’s 670 The Score discuss Mitch Trubisky’s apparent breakthrough (🤞🏼) and the upcoming NFC North showdown with the hated Packers (they’re our Cowboys, in case you’re obliviously provincial…)
The Bears are pretty bad, but they are mine. In the midst of my life’s biggest identity crisis, as I try to figure out who the hell I am without alcohol, it’s nice to be absolutely sure of a few things.
While coming of age as a scented-candle-loving alcoholic in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, over the past 18 tumultuous years, my identity as a Chicago sports fan has always helped me feel rooted and centered — if never completely at home.
My home, as you’ve probably guessed, is in Chicago. My family all still lives there, within 50 miles north of the city, and my husband and I have booked a trip to visit them for Christmas. It’ll be the first time I see my family since I quit drinking in early July.
So much will be the same there as it’s been since I was a kid, from the special Chicago sports tree adorned with red, white and blue lights (Cubs colors) and Walter Payton, Ryne Sandberg and Willie The Wildcat ornaments, to the Smooth Jazz Christmas CD my dad has played since I think CDs were first introduced and the old home movies he converted to DVD and always plays for a laugh. (I just love the one from Christmas 1983 when I go around opening all the other kids’ presents for them. 🙄)
Some of the people will be different. My little nephew is walking now — almost talking! — and my 10- and 8-year-old nieces are, I hear, getting really tall. Everyone else is older; you know how that goes…
And I, of course, will be sober. I won’t be rushing off to Binny’s Beverage Depot on Dempster Street the second we arrive from the airport, then hiding a handle of tequila up in my childhood bedroom to sneak up every 15 minutes and fortify my giant Cubs souvenir cup of seltzer water, because I don’t want anyone to see how much I’m drinking. I won’t devour half the Christmas cookies and start shooting off my mouth.
Well, if I do, it won’t be because I’m drunk.
These are obviously all good things, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried. My family are all “normies.” They don’t even really drink, so it’s not like they’ll be shoving booze in my face and tempting or torturing me. But I’ll still have to be around them for five days.
What I mean is, I’ll still have to interact with people, in a celebratory situation, and I won’t have that thing I always reached for to help me feel up to the challenge. I’ll be happy, but I won’t have alcohol to take me higher. I’ll be frustrated, but I won’t have alcohol to lighten me up. I’ll be restless, and I won’t have that tequila concoction as an escape hatch.
I’ll have to just sit there and be myself.
And who is that?
Who does my family expect that to be?
What if they’re expecting more, and they’re disappointed?
“So, Jen, what’s been going on with you lately?”
“Well, I bought a really nice scented candle the other day…”
Thank goodness for those home movies, right? And lord knows there are limitless complaints to be made about the year in Chicago sports; we could spend the entire visit bemoaning Northwestern football alone. The Bears will be on local TV the Sunday after Christmas, and win or lose, I will get to watch (and bitch) with my dad. Maybe the Cubs will make a hot stove move (that doesn’t involve trading Kris Bryant). There’s also a football somewhere in a closet that’s probably a little flat but will still do for some light, careless fun in the yard. My nieces like to dance, too, and unlike the last time I visited, their little cousin can now join in!
Anything to get my mind off of alcoholism for a little while.
Honestly, as I sit here thinking about it now, I’ve never looked forward to a Christmas more than I look forward to this one. I’ve been working so hard at recovery over the past five months, been so focused on fixing what’s broken in my life and establishing my new identity as a sober person. I could use a break from all this heavy, serious stuff.
I already do have an identity, after all, and its defining characteristic is not that I no longer drink alcohol. It is that I am a daughter, sister, niece, aunt and wife. I am part of a family. There’s nowhere else I’d rather spend my first sober Christmas than rooted, centered and surrounded by love, completely at home.