How Her Sobriety Changed the Family Christmas

After years of drinking, this mom of 3 learned to live in recovery and approach Christmas in a new way.

Posted in , Dec 9, 2019

Suzanne, Molly Nora and Emmet spending time in their kitchen.

When you’re a recovering alcoholic single mom with no job, no money, no house of your own and only partial custody of your kids, the beloved Christmas song has it all wrong. Christmas isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

I was an active alcoholic for more than 15 years. I’d started drinking in high school. At first, alcohol transformed me from an average, overlooked youngest-of-five into someone daring, funny and popular. For about a decade I kept my drinking under control enough to graduate college, get married, have kids and make a living, but eventually the alcohol took over.

By the end I was drinking vodka around the clock. I had gotten two DUIs, detoxed in the hospital multiple times and burned through a marriage. I couldn’t even hold down a job. I did all of this as a mom to three wonderful kids. I was crippled by guilt. But ruled by my disease, I drank anyway. My shame was most painful at Christmas.

My ex-husband, Brian, had primary custody of the kids because of my drinking. Every other year I’d have them for Christmas Eve or morning, then Brian and I would make sure everyone made it to church and grandparents’ houses. I managed to mess up even this. I’d be late, forget stuff, pass out, try to hide what was glaringly obvious. Every year my vow to stay sober would crumble.

I’d compensate with gifts. I’d max out credit cards, cajole friends and relatives into “loaning” me money and buy the kids stuff they didn’t need. Some years I’d start stressing about the holidays in February. Everything would depend on that one moment, when the kids tore through the big pile of gifts. Their excitement would mean they loved me. That I was a good mom after all.

I thought all of that would change when I finally got sober five years ago. I expected sobriety to make all my Christmas problems vanish. But it was more complicated than that. The last Christmas before I got sober was the worst one of all. Two months before the holiday, I was in detox again. The facility told me a bed had become available at a well-respected local rehab program, which required a six-month commitment. It would mean missing the kids’ birthdays. And Christmas.

“Should I do it?” I asked everyone.

“If you don’t, you’ll be back in the hospital, in jail or dead,” my brother-in-law said. He was one of the few members of my family unafraid to tell me the truth.

Everyone else tiptoed around my drinking. “Try quitting on your own,” they said. “You need to be there for the kids.” Which was of course what I wanted to hear. I’d sober up—well, manage my drinking—through the holidays, then think about rehab. It was my year to host Christmas morning. How could I let the kids down?

Once again I maxed out credit cards and pestered everyone for money. I bought a tree for the apartment (mostly paid for by my parents) and piled up the presents. I was already drinking before Brian showed up with the kids on Christmas morning. Molly, the oldest, was 10. Nora was six. Emmet was three.

Nora and Emmet were too young to know about my disease. But Molly knew more than enough. She’d seen me passed out. Suffered through my chronic unreliability. I tried to pretend otherwise, but deep down I knew she was wounded every time I drank. Still, gifts were gifts. Molly joined her brother and sister tearing through presents. I was relieved to see Brian pull up outside to take us all to church and my parents’ house.

The rest of the day was a blur. By the time Brian took the kids home and I returned to the apartment I was somewhere between drunk and hungover.

I opened the door and stepped inside. Wrapping paper, ribbons and boxes were scattered around the living room. For a moment I thought someone had broken in. Then I remembered. The kids had opened presents that morning and we hadn’t cleaned up. Christmas morning with the kids had been my excuse to avoid rehab—and now I had only the vaguest memory of any of it. Two months later, I was in the rehab I’d rejected in the fall.

The following Christmas, I had 10 months of sobriety under my belt. I was determined to make up for every holiday I’d ruined. One problem: The holidays are a minefield for a recovering alcoholic.

“Be careful,” Alcoholics Anonymous veterans warned at meetings, telling stories of throwing away years of sobriety in a careless moment at a Christmas party.

I was a nervous wreck. Plus, I was still broke and I’d moved in with my parents after getting out of rehab. I’d decided I wouldn’t manipulate people into giving me money this time, so instead I opened a bunch of new credit card accounts and ran them up buying enough gifts to show the kids what a good mom I was now that I was sober.

They sort of liked the gifts. Molly spent Christmas Eve eyeing me warily. I could tell she was searching for signs that I was drinking. The holiday ended with me feeling deeply let down—and equally deep in debt.

“You can’t buy your kids’ trust,” my AA sponsor told me. “Give it time. If you stay sober, it will happen.”

I wanted to believe that. But it was hard to be patient in the day-to-day of parenting. Molly remained wary of me. Sometimes she’d bring up memories of the old days, and I’d have to fight the urge to argue, “I’m sober now! Please forget all that.” Ignoring my sponsor, I kept turning to money.

Kids upset? Spring for a trip to the trampoline park. Tired and stressed? “Let’s go out to dinner!” Christmas coming? Max out those credit cards again. Then it came time for me to work through AA’s ninth step: making amends. The hardest of all was Molly. How could I begin?

“Just be honest,” my sponsor said.

“I’m so sorry for everything I did,” I told Molly, echoing words my sponsor had suggested. “I’m trying my best to stay sober and be a good mom to you and Nora and Emmet. I want to earn your trust.”

A single conversation can’t repair years of damage. But after opening up to Molly, I noticed her opening up a little to me too. She got a good grade on a test and I was the first person she called. She’d still bring up incidents from when I was drinking, but she’d add, “I’m glad you don’t do that anymore, Mom.”

That Christmas I was less stressed because I was more confident in my sobriety. I still bought too many gifts. But it began to dawn on me that even more fun than the gifts was the time we spent together—cooking, decorating and baking cookies for Santa. Each year the holiday got a little better. Bit by bit the kids—and everyone else in my family—trusted me more. Brian and I settled into a good Christmas rhythm. The kids and I established our own traditions.

Last year I rented a house on my own with money saved from my job as an admissions office manager at a private school. The kids helped me move in on a hot August day. As Christmas approached, I got excited about celebrating in our new home.

Over the previous year, mindful of paying rent, I’d tried saying no more often—as in, not rushing out to buy whatever the kids had asked for because I was afraid they wouldn’t love me otherwise. The kids were actually happier. Somehow, more structure equaled less stress. I decided to try approaching Christmas the same way.

Instead of armloads of presents, I bought each kid one gift they really wanted plus a few fun things. I got a skateboard for Emmet, a little camera for Nora and a cell phone for Molly, who was now 15.

The kids and I bought a tree at a tree farm and put up ornaments. We decorated the house and hung stockings from the banister going upstairs from the living room. I took the kids to see Santa at the mall—they were kind of old for that, but they loved it anyway. We baked cookies on Christmas Eve.

There were noticeably fewer gifts under the tree. But the kids were so thrilled with their big gifts, they didn’t seem to notice. I, however, noticed everything. The crisp weather. The glow of lights from our tree. The quiet house when everyone had gone to bed. The excited chatter of opening gifts contrasted with the delicious laziness of staying in pajamas all morning long. I noticed it because I was sober. No crushing credit card bills loomed. No guilt shadowed my heart. It was a day of love and pure celebration.

This is why people like Christmas so much! I thought. It was a revelation. So do I agree with the Christmas song now? Sort of. Don’t get me wrong. I love the holidays. But I love the rest of the year too. My sobriety is a gift that renews itself one day at a time. My kids’ love and trust continues to grow. The God we celebrate at Christmas provides a life I could only dream about when I was drinking.

It’s all wonderful. At Christmas and always.

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