The First Thanksgiving
Large crowds, parties, and family gatherings that involve extended socializing are hard for me. I was 36 before I accepted I was an introvert. I’d always felt that was a negative characteristic. I didn’t want to be an introvert. But the truth was, denial was more painful than dealing with it. I couldn’t understand why I dreaded social events, why small talk was so awkward and how I couldn’t get comfortable interacting with Carl’s co-workers, other parents at kids sporting events, and even my in-laws.
I have one sister and while we grew up celebrating Easter and Christmas with my aunts, uncles and cousins, we all lived in the same city so the few times we got together each year were only for a few hours at a time. It was bearable, and for the most part, it was just the four of us. We didn’t ever entertain in our home, we never had houseguests and never traveled to stay overnight with other families or friends.
When Carl and I started dating, I was introduced to how the rest of the world does holidays! He comes from a large family with four sisters and a brother and they’re very close, celebrating every holiday and birthday. They love to be together, and do so frequently for extended periods of time. It was so overwhelming for me in the beginning.
But the real eye-opener, the real introduction to family gatherings came at Thanksgiving. For over 40 years, they’d been annually converging on Salt Fork State Park from the Tuesday - Saturday of Thanksgiving week. They reserve a cul-de-sac of cabins for four days of eating, game playing, hiking, and lots and lots of talking.
After we got married, alternated holidays between staying home and traveling with small kids for a few years, I agreed to commit to his family’s Thanksgiving tradition every year if we could always stay home for Christmas. And while my appreciation for the purpose of the holiday, and the way the family sincerely exemplifies gratitude, I just couldn’t ever fully acclimate to the experience. It always felt like so much work, packing everything needed for my level of comfort in a state park accommodation, food and cooking equipment/utensils needed for a traditional Thanksgiving meal and all of the other meals that week, winter gear for the whole family, swimsuits and towels for swimming at the lodge and indoor activities for the kids. Include the added pressure of engaging and interacting with 40+ people throughout 4 days, and the resentments grew year after year.
It didn’t take long for me to respond to those resentments. To numb the stress that came with the week long anticipation of the event, and to treat my social anxiety throughout the four days, I drank… a lot. By Thanksgiving 2014, I’d needed Carl to unpack the wine, opener and glasses as soon as we unlocked the cabin door. I’d just driven over three hours without alcohol and now needed a rush of warm relief to unpack and begin interacting. I remember my body physically humming in anticipation of what was to come. That feeling you get when you’ve had too much coffee, or not enough food. KEYED UP. I was drinking all the time by now, but this particular annual event was like the mecca of my alcoholic pilgrimage. Four days of interacting, engaging and socializing in closed quarters outside of my familiar environments was a prescription for a medicated haze. Eat-drink. Spend time alone to recuperate-drink. Socialize-drink. Spend time alone to recover-drink.
That following July, I got sober. My first Thanksgiving enduring this tradition was November of 2015. I’d come prepared. I’d gone to four meetings the week leading up to the trip. I’d touched base with my sponsor and was reading my book regularly. And while I was smart enough to know I wasn’t immune from the temptation to drink, I knew I’d done everything I could to prepare, outside of not going at all. We arrived on Wednesday night and I wasn’t humming while we unpacked. I wasn’t keyed up. While I wasn’t all of a sudden an extrovert ready to party, I was okay, comfortable.
Thanksgiving morning, I woke up feeling good. I felt strong. I was doing the deal, following the recommendations of my friends with more sobriety. I was being a good student, a good listener. I knew my limits and I’d set boundaries. I felt ready.
And then, I was thrown a curve-ball. Much like a child who needs routine, schedule and set expectations, my sobriety was delicate, fragile and prone to tantrums. And just like a child who can change their demeanor, their attitude in an instant, I FREAKED OUT when my mother in law decided the weather was nice enough to move the traditional meal for 40+ people...outside...to picnic tables. Fun, huh? It’s a beautiful park, set on a lake, surrounded by trees of autumn leaves. Picturesque. Who wouldn’t want to eat a Thanksgiving meal among loved ones in such a venue?
An alcoholic early in recovery who is experiencing life for the first time in all its rawness, that’s who. An alcoholic coming to terms with all of her character defects while seeing...and feeling...and learning things about herself for the first time. An alcoholic who’s been accustomed to control and who’s numbed any lack of, with wine...or vodka and tonic...or even cheap beer.
I hadn’t had a drink in over 4 months, I’d started the day feeling untouchable, but within minutes of saying grace, I was in the fetal position in our dark cabin. I was humming...like a mechanical toy left unsupervised on the table that buzzes right off the edge, crashing below.
I didn’t break. I didn’t drink. But I was miserable. My anxiety was at an all-time high. I was angry at having to eat such an important meal outside. I was angry that the kids’ Thanksgiving skit went so long the food got cold. I was angry that everyone else could drink with dinner, that they could drink to not care about where we ate or how it tasted. I was full of anger, resentment and self-pity. That Thanksgiving, I cried myself to sleep after I called my sponsor. Carl brought me food on a paper plate that I ate in bed, in my pajamas. But that experience opened my eyes to one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in my sobriety. My sponsor, listening to me sob as I tried to understand how I fell apart in spite of everything I’d done to prepare, simplified my entire recovery in just a few words.
“It’s not surprising that you got caught off guard.
“You’re feeling feelings for the first time, that you’ve never felt before. They were always there, but you avoided them.”
You’ve been medicating that discomfort for years. Today, you couldn’t. You had to feel it, but you got through it. And each time you do, it gets a little easier.”
Pain is a necessary human function communicating there’s a problem. It literally is defined as a suffering or discomfort caused by illness or injury. If we are in a constant state of ignoring that pain, that important “alert,” by numbing, we’re essentially ignoring a problem that will continue to grow worse because of lack of treatment, or attention.
My in-laws never were, and still aren’t the problem. Neither is the holiday, my husband’s desire to go, or anything else associated with the experience. The problem was my own denial of being an introvert. I’d put so much pressure on myself to be like everyone else, to enjoy things I couldn’t, and to feel how everyone else looked, that I felt I was under a microscope anytime I was in a socially uncomfortable situation. Rather than simply accepting this reality about me and learning to cope with it, I numbed my insecurities and discomfort with alcohol. I never dealt with the root of my issue.
This past week, I celebrated my fourth Thanksgiving* sober, and while it still isn’t the easiest event all year, it was nothing like that first year. There were no meltdowns. My mouth didn’t water, I didn’t feel sorry for myself when everyone else was drinking. And I never felt like I needed it to endure any discomfort. Sure, more time has passed since I’ve had alcohol in my system, but I’ve also learned how to give myself grace, that God created me as a quiet, private introvert for a reason. I’ve learned how to interact in small doses, and how to focus on just one or two people rather than trying to work the crowd. I know when to say no, and never to feel pressured.I know how to be alone with myself, when to get out of my own head, and that feeling feelings, no matter how uncomfortable, is a good thing. It’s healthy, and a whole lot easier.
*Feature photo is of most of the family, some didn’t make it this year.