I stirred up some holiday spirit the other day by popping a beloved Christmas classic into my DVD player.
You know, the one where it finally dawns on a guy that his parents were burglars, and his childhood tradition of visiting neighbors’ houses to gleefully unwrap Cabbage Patch Kids, talking robots and other hot 80s toys was actually a criminal enterprise? And another guy realizes that the string of Santas who showed up at his door on Christmas morning, bearing such useful (and intoxicating) gifts as a jar of rubber cement, were really Johns looking for a “date” with his mom? 🤣
What? You prefer Hallmark movies or Claymation cartoons? Well, the Gang’s hyjinx in “A Very Sunny Christmas” is no more off-color than, say, Cousin Eddie, and no more sadistically violent than Kevin McAllister, or Hans Gruber. At least, not too much more.
Plus, I feel like we all can relate to Mac and Charlie a little bit. Viewed from a grown-up perspective, there’s a dark side to the Christmas magic we clung to when we were kids.
Or maybe that’s just me. 🤷🏼♀️
I mean, don’t get me wrong. In my younger years, I was absolutely your typical Christmas-crazy tyke — maybe a little atypical, considering I believed in Santa Claus all the way through middle school. I adored all the annual family rituals, from decorating multiple trees to the strains of Mannheim Steamroller or John Denver and The Muppets, to eating chicken and dumplings at my great aunt’s house after the church pageant on Christmas Eve, to waking up before dawn the next morning and following the trail of felt stars my mom laid from our bedroom doors down to the manger scene in the living room…and pretty much ignoring said manger scene because LOOK! SANTA’S PLATE OF COOKIES JUST HAS CRUMBS LEFT ON IT, AND HERE IS AN AMERICAN GIRL DOLL-SIZED PACKAGE BY THE FIREPLACE, WRAPPED IN MYSTERIOUS PAPER I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE! 👀🎁🎉
Shout out to my mom and dad, whose cleverness and creativity was always a source of great joy for the three Wielgus kids. That special Santa wrapping paper alone tacked an extra few years onto my innocence.
It was because I loved Christmastime so much, I think, that I felt so consumed with sadness when it was over. I still look back on those Christmas nights in my pre-teen years and think, that was my first brush with depression. Those were the seeds of alcoholism. Therein lies my struggle to experience joy in sobriety.
Confronting your mortality on Christmas night at the age of 8…this is not something I recommend if you can avoid it. Put off your existential crises as long as possible, kids!
I distinctly remember sitting in my room after the sun had set and every present had been opened and all the plates — not just Santa’s — were dusted with cookie crumbs and discarded by the kitchen sink. My aunts and grandparents had gone home, the house was quiet — except, probably, for the 56th playing of “A Christmas Story” on the downstairs TV — and I looked around at the piles of new clothes, books, toys and the double-cassette tape deck that was my prized possession for at least a decade, and I felt an aching emptiness I didn’t know how to name. Everything I had looked forward to in the past year was over, and all I could think was, “What now?”
It was a deep melancholy that never really went away as I got older. It was a gaping abyss always lurking beneath the surface of everything I did, no matter how exciting that thing seemed at the time. I was cursed with the awful, ever-present knowledge that all of “this” ends, that no matter how much we care about or invest in an activity, event, person, pursuit…the outcome will always be the same.
My first Christmas night crash wasn’t a cinematic psychotic break on par with the Griswolds kidnapping Clark’s boss or Charlie eating the face of the mall Santa, but I would classify it as a red flag. When you start sounding like Livia Soprano in the third grade…😬
After decades of excessive, destructive self-medication, I slowed down enough to really understand what was going on in my head all those Christmases ago. Coming face to face with the heart-wrenching impermanence of all things made it so difficult for me to come to terms with the passage of time — or, the process of growing up.
Maybe the actual curse is not the knowledge that “the good times don’t last”/“we’re all gonna die.” We learn that the first time we build a snowman that melts — or watch any Disney movie, for that matter. The curse lies in our interpretation of our knowledge, and mine was similar to Anthony Junior’s in the above “Sopranos” clip:
So, what’s the point?
What’s the purpose?
What does any of this mean?
If everything is nothing, why do we get all worked up about Christmas, or New Year’s, or grades in school, or games in sports, or American Girl dolls and their endless array of accessories, or trying to press record on your boom box at the precise second your song starts playing on the radio so you don’t get a word of the deejay’s chatter on your mix tape?
It’s possible I got more “worked up” than most about all the above. To contemplate that none of it really mattered felt like too much to bear. Enter alcohol. Make way for addiction.
Ultimately, that’s what drinking was for me: a salve for my looming sense of dread. An escape from the emptiness I felt whenever I thought about the inevitable end — the end of the holiday, the end of the weekend, the end of a happy moment that you desperately want to hang onto forever (like Christmastime!)…or, worst of all, the end of life. I drank in an attempt to both preserve the joy I felt in a given moment and avoid the harsh truth: I could not stay there, no matter how hard I tried, and I had no choice but to go back out in the world and join the great human struggle once again.
Apologies to Lutheranism, the religion of my youth and the stage on which many treasured Christmas memories were set, but I sometimes wish I’d been exposed to Buddhism at an early age. Learning to eschew attachment and make peace with impermanence would’ve been a useful life skill. It would’ve been helpful to understand: Just because the “great human struggle” inevitably ends in death, I don’t have to view life as an exercise in futility.
I have no clue how to transform my brain into one that does not white-knuckle cling to things or happenings or feelings, but I’m certain that quitting drinking was the essential first step. The idea that a toxic depressant is the cure for a black hole in the soul seems completely ludicrous, doesn’t it? I’m so grateful I snapped out of that insanity before it greedily devoured me…like so many sugar cookies on a special Santa plate.
Did I hear groans? I’m almost done, I swear!!
Today, I think about our upcoming visit with my family in Chicago (we’re driving…cross your fingers no blizzards!!), and I at once feel childlike anticipation in my chest and an uncomfortable knot in my gut. We will be there, basking in rare moments of togetherness with aunts, parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, nieces and nephews, and then we will be gone — back to school and work and bills and all the anxieties of adult reality that never end as long as you’re alive.
This will be my third Christmas in recovery, and after 29 months of continuous sobriety, my mind still floats back to alcohol. I still ask myself how I will get through this emotionally volatile time without a crutch. How can I survive without that beautiful, magical potion that so many humans — honestly, it seems like most other humans— use to shield them from the truth? Moreover, how can I expect to truly experience the joy of the season when it’s my natural instinct to dwell on the negative? 🤔
I’m not a whole lot closer to answering life’s big questions than I was at 8 years old, torn between my Samantha Parkington doll and the grim specter of death. But at least I’m on my way.
Sobriety did not “fix” me, but it did wipe away decades of fog and help me to see clearly. This is both a wonderful blessing and a terrible curse. It’s a balancing act. It’s part of the “natural scheme of things,” and the trick is to stop trying to hold on for dear life and just allow life to take its course.
It seems to me that “holiday spirit” is no different than the spirit of an ordinary Wednesday at (*checks clock*) 5:58 AM. Moments of pure joy and light are no different from moments of darkness and existential dread…or moments of plain old “meh.” Every moment passes, then goes around and comes again, and the ability to really notice each moment come and go is, I think, a really great gift.
Impermanence touches everything in human existence — even addiction! If you open yourself to the possibility of change, you open yourself to miracles. They just might not look like the kind you see in Christmas movies.