Holidays aren’t always happy times. When TD got into recovery a little over 24 years ago, he started to notice an emotional pattern. “Why do I get so angry at Christmas?” he asked. “I realized the surface stuff. That I had crumby Christmases growing up. But it goes deeper than that.” It took a lot of personal work and insight before TD understood his anger completely.
On New Year’s Eve when TD was six years old, he got drunk for the first time. He was at a party with his mom and stepdad at a neighbor’s house. It was a time when children were allowed a small glass of wine or sherry to celebrate the holidays. Kids being kids, they managed to sneak refills all night while the adults focused on their own drinking.
TD’s parents left the party without him and eventually the neighbors sent him home. He recalls stumbling to his house and getting into bed. “I got the bed spins. You know, constantly getting up to throw up. So I slept on the bathroom floor.”
Two other children had also been drinking. The next time TD saw them, the trio built up the experience until it was larger than life. “We only talked about how cool we were. How much fun we had. How awesome that was. In my mind, I was desperate to go and do it again,” he says. “Talk about the mental attitude of being an alcoholic.”
A Family Disease
It was frame of mind that TD knew well. His mother and stepdad were big partiers and their drinking shaped his childhood. “I always felt like I was an inconvenience to their partying lifestyle,” TD said. “They just wanted to look after themselves.” TD’s parents often shuffled him off to his grandparents so they could drink. They would offer him money to go away and entertain himself.
This form of neglect left TD alone a lot. It also gave him ample opportunity to stay out late with older kids and skip school. It led to what TD characterizes as a number of addictive behaviors – excessive shopping and spending, sugar and junk food binging, heavy smoking, and a steady escalation of drinking and drug use.
Ending the Cycle
By the time TD was 25 years old, he hit bottom and entered residential addiction treatment at 1835 House. Something he discovered while writing out his Step One came as a shock. “It wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had been high for 10 years.”
It was the beginning of a recovery process that would include much more than just stopping substance use. “I had no life skills. I’d only ever been an addict. I’d never been taught how to be a qualified member of society and a good human being.”
Over the course of three months TD diligently worked the 12 Steps, attended meetings, met with counsellors, and learned from the 1835 community. It wasn’t easy, but it did yield results. TD learned that his problem with anger was bigger than just being angry all the time. “Growing up as a man I was taught you don’t show your emotions. You don’t cry. You be tough,” he said. “I started to recognize that any negative emotions I had in my life, I only had one way to express them – anger. So if I am disappointed, I’m angry. If I’m hurt, I’m angry.” Getting better meant learning to recognize and process a full scope of emotions.
Angry at Christmas
Emotional growth lead to a deeper understanding about why TD became angry at Christmas and during the holidays. It stemmed back to a spontaneous trip his parents took to Vegas. So spontaneous that TD’s mom woke him in the middle of the night to say she was leaving money for him. The next day when TD ran through the empty house trying to find someone, it was the money on the table that jogged his memory.
TD recalls a junk food free-for-all at Macs and Dairy Queen. There were long stretches of being alone. Monday at school, he bought Slurpee’s for his friends, or people he wanted to be his friends. “By Wednesday afternoon the adults in my life, teachers, came to realize what was going on.” That a seven year old boy had been left to fend for himself for a week.
Teachers made arrangements for a neighbor and TD’s grandparents to look after him until his parents returned. “My parents came home from Vegas with presents.” That’s when TD started to view gifts as compensation. “We don’t really like you. We don’t really want you around. You’re a big inconvenience for us. The only way we can say we love you is here’s a bunch of stuff. Here’s a bunch of gifts.”
Building Better Christmases
Once TD made that connection, it was easy to see how being angry at Christmas was really triggered emotions. The life skills and knowledge he gained through working a recovery program over a quarter of a century helped him make different decisions around Christmas, now that he had a choice.
TD started to create more meaningful holiday traditions with his own family. This year, there won’t be a lot of gifts under the tree. What there will be is quality time. “I am very excited about this Christmas, I really am,” says TD. “We just moved to a new house so I am very excited to decorate, and spend time with my kids.”
Gifts of Recovery
The ability to be a good father and pass along life skills to his daughters is one of the most important gifts TD has to give. “I worked so hard to improve myself. To make myself a better person and to try and give of myself,” TD says.
He remembers a time in active addiction when he looked at his firstborn and feared, “She’ll be next.” So much has changed since then. “When I look at my little girls, ‘she’ll be next’, means she’ll be responsible. She will be neat and clean, and caring, and loving. That’s the greatest benefit of my recovery.”