This Christmas Eve, a lonely newcomer learned that choosing joy was the way to go
It was 1984 and Christmas was approaching. I hadn’t had a visit nor heard from a single friend or relative since I had moved into this recovery house more than three months earlier. No one called to say they missed me or wished I was there. I experienced moments of self-pity, but would not allow myself too much time in that debilitating darkness. I chose to live with the truth that I was the person who left a trail of damage behind me. Loneliness and shame hung heavy on my shoulders that December.
Blessed with the gift of desperation, I continued to take the simple actions I had learned in AA. I kept trudging through my daily recovery routine as if my life depended on it. It did. I maintained daily meeting attendance. Over a few months in AA, I took on a couple of small commitments that kept me in the fold. These commitments were at meetings that were all within walking distance of my home as I had no car. I learned early in recovery that keeping commitments is a crucial part of staying sober. I later discovered that keeping commitments was an essential part of developing good character.
One of the responsibilities I had volunteered for was to serve as an alternate secretary for a new AA meeting. My turn to chair the meeting happened to land on Christmas Eve. When that night came, the sky drizzled rain off and on. With my Big Book in hand, I pulled a kitchen trash bag over my old woolen sweater and walked to the meeting place about two miles away. I tramped through the wet streets past homes decorated with lights, ornaments and all the reminders of family and the joy of the season.
The walk gave me time to think about my ghosts of Christmas past. My father had died on Christmas Eve, not too many years before. My drinking and drug abuse ruined many other holidays before and after his death. The holidays were an excuse for days of drinking without guilt or restraint. The days ended up dreadful and lonely as I reinforced my December misery each year.
I arrived at our meeting place early. The room was dark, empty and cold. I opened the doors and turned on the lights and organized chairs for a small group. It was a new meeting and had not yet developed a group of regulars. I made a small pot of coffee and sat alone in the room, waiting for the heater to kick in.
I watched the clock as the meeting time came and went. With no place to be, I sat and looked at the meeting format and the slogans on the walls. I just continued to sit.
After a while, a man came into the room. He appeared to be 60-something, with graying hair and a gray mustache. He was neatly dressed in a reindeer sweater and slacks. He was an alcoholic. He had just come from a Christmas party, he told me.
Together, we began the meeting with the usual rituals. We read the opening pages. We agreed on gratitude as the topic, and we shared our experience, strength and hope with each other. It was nice. We ended the meeting with the Serenity Prayer and a hug. We wished each other a merry Christmas. After we were done, he gave me a ride back to the recovery home.
When I went inside, I saw most of the residents sitting sullenly, eating pie donated by sober former residents. I ate a slice of pie, said my prayers and crawled into bed. The next morning, I woke up sober. I did not die from loneliness and the world did not come to an end.
That holiday experience changed me. I learned early in recovery that I needed to change everything if I was to remain sober—and everything included my attitude. So I worked on changing my attitude about the holidays. Like them or not, the holidays came every year. I’m not going to make them go away. Did I want to experience misery, sorrow, grief and loneliness every December? Give me the serenity to change the things I can, I thought.
In the years that followed, I chose to put my “magnifying glass” on the joy so many others experience during the holiday season. I could be part of it if I chose, or I could choose not to. I have made that choice every year since 1984.
The memory of my first sober Christmas Eve stays with me today, and I still visit that recovery home nearly every holiday season. Thirty-six sober Christmas Eves later, I share this memory for someone I will likely never meet.
This year I’m spending Christmas Eve with my brother and his daughter and her daughter and my sober wife. They have never seen me drunk. Days before coming into AA, I stole money from my brother that he needed to provide for his infant daughter. That was my bottom.
Tonight, they are feeding me, and we are all celebrating and loving each other the way I imagined families did the night I kept my commitment to be at that meeting. It’s my choice: merry Christmas or not. It’s up to me.