If I had to pick a favorite part of my Christmas this year, it’d probably be my visit to prison this morning.
Since we’re not allowed to wear more than one piece of outerwear, my mom and I leave our rain gear in the car. Because of global warming or perhaps my litany of sins finally catching up with me, it’s been unseasonably warm, resulting in a drizzly, grey Christmas that no one has been dreaming of (and if you have, stop.) It takes about a half hour to go through the process of checking in, walking through a metal detector, being searched with arms spread out wide. When the female guard asks me to open my mouth then lift my tongue, I’m instantly transported back to meds check in rehab.
I’ve had a few memorable Christmases in my time: Christmas while being 17 and in my first treatment center, Christmas two months before I got clean where I was detoxing on my late grandmother’s couch, Christmas two (or three?) years ago where we had an impromptu intervention with a family member (which unsurprisingly dampened everyone’s holiday spirit.) There’s something especially poignant about spending major holidays in an institution. I’ll never forget how strange and ultimately miserable my Christmas in rehab was and my mother assures me that year was the worst holiday she’d ever had. But this year has been my best Christmas since I’ve gotten sober.
A family with six or seven children shuffles in noisily behind us. In fact, throughout the visiting room, there are all ages, infants to the elderly visiting their loved ones. We sit at a table with my step-brother and talk about an array of topics over cans of soda from the vending machine, gossiping about old family friends, discussing transphobia and Islamphobia, and the vacations we’ll take when his sentence is up.
Occasionally, I forget where we are until the looming figure of a guard in a dark uniform paces behind my chair. At one point, a count is called and the rooms grows quiet immediately. All the inmates stand, one rushing to return to his table from the back of the room. My brother stands, calm and automatically crossing his wrists behind his back in an unconscious gesture. This hits me particularly hard. I remember the learned mannerisms that my rehab stay had instilled in me, that became as thoughtless and involuntary as breathing- and that was only a five month stay. We pick up the conversation as soon as he gives the guard his number, name, and dorm. Whether it’s from festive mercy or simple forgetfulness, we get nearly an extra half hour of visiting time. I sleep on the ride home.
I think this has been my favorite Christmas in several years because all four of my parents have started new traditions. Rather than dragging ourselves to a midnight mass at a random church simply for the holiday ceremony of it all, my step-mother and I spent Christmas eve in our pajamas discussing an area of current struggle in my life while waiting for my father to return from work. And while my brother has already served more than a few years, our Christmas morning typically hasn’t begun with a pat-down from an understandably surly correctional officer. And this tradition of speaking openly, acknowledging how imperfect and flawed and still wonderful our family is- it’s definitely my favorite tradition we’ve started in recent years.
In both the spirit of positivity and pride, it’s easy to only see what people choose to outwardly show especially in the age of social media and especially on major holidays of any kind. While I’m certainly a fan of trying (and I stress trying) to emulate gratitude and pragmatic positive thinking, there’s something to be said for what’s going on behind the scenes of everyone’s smiling Instagram post, my own included.
2015 has kicked the asses of so many of my friends. While the end of 2014 to spring of 2015 was my personal struggle bus period, I have seen loved ones and even acquaintances affected by depression, relapse, divorces, broken hearts, crippling uncertainty, deaths, absent family members, and an increasingly more depressing list of other hardships. And for some (including my family) everything becomes exponentially worse when you throw on some tinsel and pressure to be! Just! Fine! And! Merry! And! Jolly!
My point is that no one’s holiday is perfect. And letting myself and my loved ones be imperfect is the greatest gift I can give to others and myself (yes, even better than the adorably tiny Kate Spade wallet I bought myself last night.) Instead of going into insta fixing mode, I’m trying to let people be who they are in this moment and not the memory or expectation of who they “should” be. And that’s really hard for me. I’m convinced that everyone in my life would be so very much happier if they would only bend to my will. But sometimes you have to let the people you love struggle and (more importantly) trust that there are lessons far bigger than anything you’re capable of saying.
Right now, I’m listening to Sufjan Steven’s eccentric and sometimes goofy Christmas album Silver & Gold, the harmonies punctuated by cars driving by on wet, dark streets. There’s still no snow. There are still people absent from today that I won’t see, making choices I want to change. My step-brother is still in prison and our family pictures this year are a little emptier. I still have several gifts to package up and send out to my other siblings when I return home. But right now, I’m looking at this mug my mom gave me.
It says: “Real love is never ownership, only stewardship of this moment’s experience – Hazelden Foundation.” My mom tells me it was from my late grandmother’s remaining possessions. When I was six months clean, she passed away with nearly four decades of sobriety and recovery. Known for buying presents years and years in advance, it’s touching to see a recovery reference meant for me before she likely knew I was going to get and stay clean. I think she just had the hope that maybe the next Christmas would be different. And until then, she could only love me for who I was at that time.
I may or may not have written that last paragraph in tears. But, on a less heavy note, my mom needs help setting up the new portable speakers I gave her. My step-dad will need to be woken up from his nap when dinner is ready. I’ll need to unlock the front doors to let my oldest friend in to join us. And we’ll need to remember that no matter what feels lacking or messy this Christmas shouldn’t take away from the loved ones we have here. As for all rest, all we can do is hope. Hope and watch The Family Stone again during dessert.
Be kind. Live authentically. Practice gratitude. Hustle daily. Work hard. Stay humble.
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