Hell for the Holidays
By Dr. Howard Samuels, Author of Alive Again: Recovering from Alcoholism and Drug Addiction
There’s an old adage that says that Religion is for people who are afraid of going to “Hell”, but Spirituality is for people who’ve already “Been There”. Having survived a crippling drug addiction (I remain, to this day, a recovering drug addict with over 29 years clean and sober), I’m going to have to stand up and side with the rest of the population when I tell you — with conviction — that Hell isn’t all fire and brimstone.
For a long time, hell was a holiday with my family.
I didn’t always get along with others
Granted, I’m trying to be funny here, but I need for you to believe me when I say that I didn’t always get along with my loved ones. And a lot of that is due to my own behavior and lack of emotional sobriety in recovery. Before I took charge of my life and turned it around, I had alienated everyone who cared about me. And then I got clean and my family responded the way earthquake victims often do; they kind of slowly approached me waiting for the aftershocks.
My life had become a series of aftershocks. Through my constant drug-and-alcohol relapses, I had literally trained them not to trust me, and I’d inadvertently taught them to fear me. Which is sad because all I had ever wanted was for them to leave me alone. So, you can imagine my dread after I’d decided to fly home for my first Holiday Dinner after spending a year in rehab.
Your expectations guide your experience
It was a nightmare. I mean, this had nothing to do with any of Them — they were still the people who wanted to Love and Support me — this was all to do with Me, and what was going on inside my Own Head. I had told myself, repeatedly, that going home was a mistake. I was incredibly broke, and was arriving with nary a Christmas gift in hand. I’d made a commitment to myself to use this visit to come clean with them about all of the awful things I’d put them through so, I wasn’t expecting any sympathy, either. I’d been a right bastard to these people, and I deserved their anger; I’d deserved their rage, no matter how well hidden beneath their smiles it was.
I told myself that my Mom was going to be the ring leader; that she was going to devote a lot of time and energy into pushing my buttons (because, after all, she’d installed them) and I’d gone into the fray absolutely expecting the worst. But then I remembered that I wasn’t a screwed up little kid anymore; I was a grown man. And that there was nothing on the planet short of a court order that could make me do anything I didn’t want to do; I was there of my own accord.
I decided to grow up
At some point in time, I had become an adult who’d made a conscious commitment to grow all the way up and stop blaming others for my lot in life. And those buttons I was so worried about my Mother pushing? I was okay with her pushing them. Because I was changing. I noticed it right away. I had been the family screw-up for so long, they no longer recognized me when I became a self-actualized, responsible adult. They had to push my buttons because my reactions reassured them that they were dealing with the same guy they’d been so used to interacting with down through the years. The “new” me was so alien to them that they needed me to have a reaction so that something inside them could whisper, “Oh, there you are!”
I realized I had to teach them how to relate to me in an entirely different way. And I had to do this without giving them ultimatums. I had to let them know that, whether they accepted who I was becoming or not, I wasn’t going to give up on them. I’d become one of those blow-up clowns; no matter how hard they hit me and knocked me down, I just came right back up loving them.
But it took time for them to “get it”. It took a while for them to realize that they could trust me not to go back to my old ways, and it took time for me to really understand that these people no longer had the power to control me or hurt me or decide who I was going to be anymore.
But, it happened
Like the redirected branches of a thriving vine, my family and I twisted and grew together, becoming a whole new lattice-work of possibilities. They lauded over me when I went to graduate school and, after a few trials and tribulations, earned my doctorate in Clinical Psychology. My mother became a grandmother again and again as my siblings and I married and multiplied and, ultimately, when she passed away during the winter of 2010, was able to look me in the eye and see that the boy she’d worried so much about had grown and become a man that both she and my father would have been proud of.
Family = Hell…only if you want it to be Hell
I’ve discovered in the many years since, after hosting a multitude of holiday gatherings, that a dinner spent with your family is Hell only if you let it be; and that we carry within ourselves a capacity for change and love and growth that is sometimes revelatory yet always astonishing. And, I’ve also discovered through my practice and my business (I own and operate a rehab) that I enjoy watching other people confront their demons and reveal them for what they really are: sign posts for where we’ve been while we walk with pride toward where we’re going.
Our families, more often than not, aren’t the monsters we make them out to be, and home is rarely just the place away from which all roads lead. They are, instead, funhouse-mirror representations of who we really are, because it was direct and constant contact with these people that made us who we are. And, like it or not — want it or not — they will always be the people who know us best.
It’s just our job to remind them from time to time that, although a tiger can’t change its stripes, the rest of us are actually People.
And People change all the time.