Once upon a time in December (last week) I walked up to the local shops with my daughter and granddaughter. We ordered our takeaways and went outside to sit in the softness of the summer evening. All was well in the world as we idly chatted and people watched. Then I noticed an attractive woman of a certain age come through the door of a bar and head towards one of their red vinyl couches where the smokers tend to congregate. She was holding a glass of something clear and cool with a slice or two of lemon and maybe some mint plus a wee straw. Between the fingers of her other hand nestled a cigarette. I watched as she made herself comfortable on the couch, light up the cigarette, inhale then breathe out. She lifted the glass of (to my mind) intoxicating deliciousness and smiled as she took that first sip. A surge of grief went through me “for Christ’s sake I want one of those drinks I miss drinking and that cigarette looks so fucking good and why can’t I be one of those people who can drink one or two without having to drink past the fun part instead of my ‘just one more’ thing which inevitably ends up with me getting completely twatted?” I was gone from my seat on the street and in the midst of an out of the blue emotional tailspin. As it rolled over me I felt bereft for the loss of something I didn’t have in the first place. More the loss of an idea of myself. The idea of me being a sophisticated woman who could sit at ease, alone on a red vinyl couch and enjoy a cigarette and a drink or two and know I belonged. Of course I had absolutely no idea if the woman in front of me felt at ease with herself and/or knew her place in the world. I was judging a book by its cover and I wanted that to be my true story. The grief surge was over in a matter of moments and I was back – from the outside looking in no one would’ve noticed I’d gone. Such is life. I have no idea what stories people are telling themselves as they go about their day to day business. And I need to pay attention to what’s going on with mine so I can take tender care.
Emotional anniversaries such as Christmas and New Years Eve and birthdays can be tricky because they often crack open the portal to memories, conscious and/or unconscious. The body does keep the score. The sadness’s and losses and loves that are an inevitable part of life, and which I have spent a large chunk of my life avoiding, begin lining up and jostling for attention.
My memories of childhood are hazy. And times of celebration even hazier. I was an anxious child. I can’t recall ever having a birthday party even though I know I would have had a fuss made of me on the anniversary of my birth. On the designated anniversary of Christ’s birth I have more conscious memories. Not sharply in focus, more feelings , such as the terror and shame of being forced to participate in the school nativity play in front of parents and nuns and priests. The transcendant beauty of the choir singing Silent Night Holy Night, the smell of beeswax candles and incense and lilies at Midnight Mass. The glass of beer and piece of fruitcake left out for the old man in the red suit and carrots for his flying reindeer. The confusing Christmas card images of snow and holly and robin redbreasts juxtaposing with the scenes of the donkey carrying the family to sandy Bethlehem and the green and sunny days in Milton. Waking up on the day to the pillowcase filled with gifts at the end of my bed and the oranges therein. My parents standing there smiling as I unwrapped the presents.
One that does come into full technicolour focus is the year I received a gleaming red and white tricycle. It was a ‘chain trike’ and had a lovely wee white basket in front. And a shiny silver bell. It was flash. How old was I? Old enough to reach the pedals. It was love at first sight and at first cautiously then more confidently, I rode it up and down and around the concrete paths at home. Past the flower gardens, through the opening in the hedge and past the line of gooseberries where the rows of vegetables grew, past the hen house and glasshouse. Back and forth. As I got familiar with traversing the territory on three wheels, the trike became part of me. Together we could do anything, so we branched out the front gate and turned left onto the unpaved footpaths of Johnson Street. Freedom.
Then there was the Christmas when I was five. It was a time of anticipated celebration, not just about Christmas. The Queen of England and her Prince were visiting New Zealand. They were coming to Milton a couple of days after Christmas and she was going to stop and speak to us from a stage erected for the occasion and festooned with bunting, on the forecourt of a local garage in the aptly named Queen Street. The local school children, in full uniform, were to be herded in orderly lines on either side of the street to wave at her with paper Union Jacks. We had been practicing, all of us, the townspeople and dignitaries, including the Mayor and his Lady Wife. Excitement was running high, children and adults alike. First Santa was coming then we were going to see a Queen. Would she be wearing a crown and her velvet ermine trimmed cloak and holding that gold thing with the ball on the end?
I woke into that Christmas morning and my parents were unusually subdued. Something terrible had happened. They told me a train had somehow fallen into a big river in the North Island. It was filled with people who were travelling home to be with their families for the holidays and many of them had died. They didn’t know how many. There were news reports on the wireless and the adults were talking about it throughout the day. The disbelief and grief was palpable. I was terrified. If a train, that safest form of transport in my eyes, could just fall into a river, then anything could happen. That night I dreamed of brightly lit carriages full of children and women and men silently sitting in their seats as the water rose up past their faces and the train slowly sank into the river.
In 1974 I was in England with my beloved Chris and my two year old daughter, Alissa. We had left Australia the year before, travelling across Asia then into the UK. We’d been living in Windsor for several months and looking forward to going back to Darwin on Boxing Day after spending Christmas in Gloucester with his parents. Always an uneasy time for me, being with the partners parents. I knew I wasn’t ‘good enough’ for their son. I came into the sitting room on Christmas morning. The TV was on and there were images of blue skies and broken buildings, houses maybe, hard to tell. The commentator had an Australian accent. Chris was there and as he reached for me I became aware we were looking at the main street of Darwin, Smith Street. The guy on the TV was saying a Cyclone named Tracy had come through late on Christmas Eve and devastated the city. People had been killed and injured. The extent of the damage was not known. For Christs sake! Our beloved crazy Darwin. What about our friends, my wee dog, our house, my photos?? What about us, our plans? Having a heroin habit meant spontaneity was out of the question – every travel move had to be carefully orchestrated so there were enough drugs to last the journey. And the income? We had 1000 tabs of California Sunshine to take back to sell. It was all arranged. The commentator was saying people were being evacuated out of Darwin and the airport would be closed for the foreseeable future so that was that. Fuck!
And the times in the 80’s, the ones I’d rather forget, when I made a right tit of myself at family gatherings. Each Christmas I told myself I was going to do it differently this time. Take the right amount of drugs to be ‘normal,’ so they wouldnt spot I was not good enough. I would be on my best behaviour with the wider family and wait until the festivities were over, the duty done, before I got home and got hammered. But no, there I was again, nodding off at the table with a post prandial cigarette and burning a hole in the linen tablecloth. Oh the shame. And one awful year I nodded off on the parents-in-law’s lovely couch and burned a hole there. Full of self-hatred and shame and terrified of discovery, I hid the evidence with a cushion, told no-one and pretended it had never happened. It was never spoken of.
My first Christmas in recovery was a big deal. I was scared. How do you do this shit straight? What if I wasn’t able to get through the day without using? Everyone used something at this time of year right? I wanted to leave town until it was all over. I also wanted to celebrate Christmas with my daughters and partner. A family Christmas. Our first one where I wouldn’t be an embarrassment. Thankfully, I had some friends who were also new to recovery and we decided to have Christmas together. To cook and eat, to get over ourselves and have a good time with our kids. And we did it. Turkey, crackers, laughter and some tears, cherries, bad jokes, sunshine and Pavlova. Together, we negotiated our way through the ghosts of Christmas past without harming ourselves or others. Thank the baby lord Jesus.
I didn’t know about emotional anniversaries in those days. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. As Christmas approached all I knew was I would begin sliding into a black hole and the drugs stopped working. Terrifying and lonely times. I didn’t know that being aware of feelings as they arose and taking tender care of them was the wise action. I didn’t know anything about taking action. I was a reactor. I’m in long term recovery now and anniversaries bring what they bring. I’m able to respond in the present and not get engulfed in the feelings. They come they go, fleeting, like the waves and tides and seasons. I don’t need to pour alcohol on them these days. All I need do is notice. The drinking and smoking used to be fun – then not, and that was a sad realisation. Most people can enjoy the festive season drinks and so on without it being a problem. Not me. My experience tells me that one is too many for this girl and a thousand is never enough. Thank Christ I have people in my life who remind me I am enough. We are enough.
Just for this day I ask to be present to the sweet embrace of the griefs and the gratitude and the grace.
May we be well
May we be happy
May we live with ease