Christmas being in the not-so-distant past has conjured up memories of some childhood classics. After all, the holiday season is when shit really hit the fan in my family. I almost (emphasis on the word “almost”) feel guilty for having enjoyed the recent holidays devoid of guilt, drama, or police intervention.
As a kid, Christmas is supposed to be met with child-like faith and laughter, pure innocence, and overwhelming joy, yet it was never the happiest of times for my sister and me. Sure, there were exceptions, like the smiles we shared and the Santa-is-coming butterflies every December 24, but overall our memories are tainted by the booze-infused stench of a mangled Grinch vomiting all over the heart of Christmas.
If my parents weren’t arguing at the top of their lungs (about his drinking) or my father slamming doors and locking himself in the bathroom to do God knows what, my sister and I were lugged across the wintry state of Wisconsin — a mere 30 minutes to upwards of two hours away — to visit my father held up in a hospital psych ward or a halfway house. While I know those institutions do a world of good for many people, my father included on some level, they are no place for a child on the most magical day of the year.
That is where I had my first encounter with a man pulling down his pants and defecating on a perfectly good chair (don’t worry, the chair was promptly confiscated to the hallway, and from there I only assume it was taken to the trash or put through some necessary sanitation cycle). Imagine the hospital horrors of strangers talking to themselves (or the voices in their heads) and of grown men drooling down their hospital gowns, in a helpless, medicated state — and all that before a hearty, cafeteria-served Christmas meal. Then there were the halfway houses wherein men from all backgrounds — felonies, misdemeanors and substance-abuse records — congregated in smoky, worn-down rooms to celebrate the birth of Christ or the arrival of Santa or whatever they felt like honoring.
Among all those intimidating sights and sounds sat two children: a boy with neatly pressed pants, a sweater with turtleneck, and hair parted on the left; and a little girl in a shiny, new Christmas dress. We longed to be at home, around our own tree in the comfort and warmth of our living room. We wanted to be like other kids — normal kids — who got to enjoy Christmas in their pajamas and waves of wrapping paper lining the floor.
But our circumstances were different. Our father needed us. He needed us there. So we put on brave “toy soldier” faces so that my father wouldn’t feel forsaken and alone on the most magical day of the year. One year after my parents separated, he wasn’t even in the halfway house but attended a Christmas party there, only to fake being sick so he could be hospitalized and his children, after having just left, return to his side for an extended visit.
Our visitations were never very long though, as every hospital and halfway home had its rules pertaining to visitors. Gift carry-ins had to be searched, lest we try smuggling in booze or sharp objects. And, especially in the case of halfway houses, we always had to remain in the public areas, meaning no privacy allowed for us to spend with our father on Christmas. He had lost that privilege for us.
All those years with my father sitting across the table from me, I saw hurt and pain in his eyes. Christmas has a way of moving the soul, of making you regret your horrible choices if only to be at home with your family. Call it tradition. Call it whatever you want, but I swore he would give up alcohol and drugs because of the immensely weighted guilt he felt on those lonely holiday eves. I would’ve bet all my allowance money that he’d get clean, but it was only wishful thinking.
At an early age, therapists and counselors often came with the “family package,” so my sister and I were forced to sit on long couches and answer, “So tell me how that makes you feel?” To this day, I’m sure that scene has a lot to do with why I cannot talk to therapists or take them seriously; I’m scarred for life. I know benefits existed for us all to attend group therapy, but I hated it. It wasn’t fair; it was his problem, yet we were dragged through the mud with dad.
But we went, hoping being locked in a room with 1970s décor, alongside my father for an hour, would make him understand the severity of his actions and our sadness. But like the sweet talker and charmer my father was, he got therapists to love him and buy into his recovery. Soon, the charade became a game. It was mere protocol to get back on the drunken horse. Nothing ever changed.
Yes, every time he was admitted, he went through the act: group meetings, prayers, sponsors, reading spiritual books, asking for forgiveness, crying, pleading with his family, and then finally being released. In a matter of weeks, the urge to hear a beer can’s pop fizz and feeling the cold relief slide gently down his throat got the better of him. He’d try nonalcoholic beer for a time, eventually giving way to the real thing.