sober questioning

Alone and Sober on Thanksgiving

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

For mostly financial and some logistical reasons, I will be spending my first post-divorce Thanksgiving alone. I’ve summoned some cautious optimism about it: I can eat, nap, and watch football completely on my schedule. No one will take the last slice of pie that I was eyeing for breakfast. I won’t have to pretend to remember the names of far-flung extended family or compliment the parsnip casserole. No one will be drinking around me!

But try typing “Thanksgiving dinner for one” into Google without experiencing a discordant twang of pathos. Can’t be done. It somehow didn’t make me feel better that the search has lots of results.

The bounty we are supposed to celebrate on Thanksgiving isn’t just on the table, but also around it — relatives spilling out into the den, children banished to their own culinary fiefdom. I’ve never been completely comfortable in a home overstuffed with family but I’ve also never had as many empty chairs as I will on Thursday.

So as much as I like my solitude, I’m struggling to keep it from tipping over into loneliness and despair. In a season that forces us to contemplate what we are grateful for, I am finding it hard to avoid thinking of what I wish I had: more family, more friends, more Democrats in the House, and more people getting boosted. How do I give thanks when the only thing there’s plenty of is what I don’t want?

I have a cheat code for just that sort of problem: I’m an alcoholic who isn’t dead. Given all the risks I exposed myself to while drinking, my continued existence on this earth is a miracle. Whatever else is happening, I should be grateful for that.

Unfortunately, the cheat code doesn’t always work.

Last holiday season was dark for me. My heart hurt always; it physically ached, like it was being crushed in a vice, a sensation I hadn’t felt since the throes of adolescent romance. I spontaneously started crying during a conference call. I broke down in coffee shops, at the post office, and while getting Botox (at checkout, I discovered the aesthetician had given me a sympathy discount). I didn’t eat; I didn’t sleep. My options for pharmaceutical help were limited. Calls with my therapist and my psychiatrist tended to wrap with “Just let me know if you start feeling any worse.”

I tried to apply the cheat code and came up with a blank screen. Okay, I’m alive, great. It sucks. 

It was all I could do just to put one foot in front of the other. So I started to get ready for bed in the late afternoon because, even if I couldn’t sleep, getting into my pajamas meant I’d made it through the day. Even if all I did for the rest of that 24 hours was continue my rewatch of the entire Avengers franchise, that was one 24 hours down and some unknown number to go.

Every once in a while, I’d actually ask myself, So, what about a drink? You could probably get your hands on some Xanax if you tried. Maybe that would help? And then I’d answer, not with enthusiasm, what I know in my bones to be true: Most certainly not. It would only make things worse

Then there was the time when I was getting ready for bed — probably around 4 p.m. on a Thursday — and once again asked myself that question and gave myself that answer … then had a breakthrough: Right! Of course. Things could get worse! In this brief moment of enlightenment, I suddenly saw evidence of a change in my state of being. Things could get worse, which meant I might feel worse, which meant I was not actually stuck in a loop of the same pain day after day. And really, if things could change for the worse, then couldn’t things also get … better? I could not imagine what “better” would be or how it might come to pass. But it was out there somewhere.

So however hopeless I was feeling from moment to moment during that exceptionally dismal holiday season, deep inside me was a dim coal of belief that my hopelessness would at some point end.

All I had to do was not drench that ember in alcohol or salt it with drugs. More than one person advised me to make a gratitude list; this is a standard palliative in sobriety circles. I tried, but, well, writing down that I was grateful to have a roof over my head was true but not exactly inspiring. You could call what got me through habit or inertia, or maybe muscle memory: I kept doing the things that had been a part of my recovery this entire time. I went to meetings; I talked to other sober people; I didn’t decide to never use again — I just decided not to that day.

While I did not actively feel grateful to be alive, my mechanical trudge through the darkness counted as a confirmation that someday I might be thankful for my life and a whole lot more.

This may not be bulletproof logic, but it worked. I could not have put together a good list of things to give thanks for if my life depended upon it, but fortunately it didn’t: All I needed was to believe I’d be able to make that list eventually.

This Thanksgiving has turned out to be that “eventually.” I feel the occasional gust of loneliness but have remained upright. I don’t have to look very hard for things to be grateful for: I still am fortunate to have that roof over my head and that food on the table — I hope to never take those things for granted — but my heart has also become more sensitive to smaller forms of grace. In one case, literally: I have a 6-month-old kitten, Molly Ivins; she’s 20 pounds of chaos in an eight-pound case. I am grateful for her and the fact that my dog has decided she’s part of our herd. I’m grateful for my best neighbor friend, keeper of my mail and extra key, and she rescued and introduced me to my kitten. If I’m looking for unexpected ways things can get better, what more than Molly Ivins do I need?

I’m grateful for last winter, as well, for all that heartbreak and loss. I don’t have a lot more stability in my life than I did then, but I do have the knowledge that I can survive rough waters. Sometimes that involves putting on my pajamas at 4 p.m.

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Alone and Sober on Thanksgiving