How My Worst Thanksgiving Actually Saved My Life

jillee's story

Every year around Thanksgiving, I am helpless to avoid the mixed feelings this holiday inevitably dredges up. For me, Thanksgiving represents so much more than a chance to give thanks and eat turkey — it is a day of reflection, sadness, gratitude, disillusionment, joy, pain, love, and more. (Like I said, mixed feelings!)

I know I’m not the only one who struggles with difficult emotions around the holidays, so I wanted to take some time to share some of my personal history with you regarding my battle with addiction. I hope that by doing so, those who have gone through, or are currently going through, a difficult time can feel a little less alone.

It’s not easy to revisit that time in my life, and it usually ends up opening a few old wounds. But if sharing my story helps comfort even one person, then it’s ultimately a small price to pay.

If my battles have taught me anything, it’s that we do not get through this life alone. Those of us who have made it through dark and difficult times can make a difference by reaching out to help those still wandering in the darkness.

To that end, allow me to tell you the story of Thanksgiving 2007, a day that I will never forget.

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Me, Dave, and the kids circa 2003.

A Slippery Slope

During the fall of 2007, I was perilously close to losing my relatively short battle with addiction —permanently. At that point, my life had been spiraling out of control for a few years, because of one tragic day when I made the decision to use alcohol to numb the emotional pain I was experiencing. (The outcome? Ineffective, much more painful, and eventually deadly dangerous.)

I was clearly in a downward spiral, so in a desperate attempt to get help for me, my brother Kevin made me an appointment with a counselor in another town for the day before Thanksgiving.

I was very nervous and somewhat resentful about the appointment, so my addict’s logic told me to stop and have a few drinks in a town about 30 minutes outside the city where the counselor’s office was. Soon enough, I was too impaired to follow the rest of the driving directions, and when my parents called to ask about the appointment, I told them I’d gotten lost on the way there.

Unsurprisingly, my parents knew exactly what that really meant, and my father, my lifelong champion, called me a “drunk” in response. That word stung like a slap to the face, so I hung up on him. I thought to myself, “A drunk? I’ll show you a drunk!”, and drove directly to the liquor store and bought two boxes of wine.

It was dark by then, and I was so angry at everything and everyone. I turned my phone off and pulled into the nearest parking lot, which happened to be in front of a hotel. Miles away from home, I sat in my car alone and drank until I blacked out.

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My Worst Thanksgiving

When I woke up on Thanksgiving morning, I found myself curled up on a couch in the lobby of the hotel where I’d parked my car. I was wrapped in an unfamiliar coat, and had absolutely no idea whose it was or how I’d gotten there.

(Now, I’m certain I had a guardian angel watching over me that night. I still can’t bear to think about what could have happened to me, nor what I could have been responsible for, in that state.)

I sheepishly approached the front desk attendant, handed him the coat, and slinked out of the hotel. I got in my car and drove home, but couldn’t bring myself to go inside my house to “face the music.” How could I, when I couldn’t even face myself?

Instead, I drove along the rural back roads for hours while drinking the remainder of the wine I’d gotten the day before. It occurred to me that it was Thanksgiving and that I was supposed to be celebrating with my family… but I pushed the thought aside.

By the time I managed to drive myself home that night (with another assist from my guardian angel), I hadn’t been in contact with Dave, my parents, or anyone else for over 24 hours. My family’s initial relief at seeing me quickly turned to (justifiable) anger, and all I could do was retreat to my room and pass out again.

jillee's story
The Ark.

The Reckoning

The next morning, I woke up to an empty house. There was a note for me on the kitchen counter in my husband’s handwriting, bearing only the name “Jeremy” and a phone number. A very small, sober part of my brain knew I needed to call that number, though I had no idea why.

Shaking, I picked up the phone, dialed the number, and Jeremy answered. He told me he was the admissions officer at a rehab facility called The Ark, and then I said the 8 hardest words for any addict to say: “I have a problem and I need help.” Jeremy asked me to come see him the next day, and on Saturday morning, my husband Dave drove me 50 miles to The Ark.

I can’t possibly share the entire story of my time in rehab in one blog post (though if you are interested in knowing the full story, you can get it in my book One Good Life.) Suffice it to say, that meeting with Jeremy ended with me reluctantly agreeing to be a “guest” in their residential treatment center for addiction.

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My parents and family at my graduation ceremony, February 20, 2008.

(Re)Birthday Celebration

I entered The Ark on December 5th, 2007, and 78 long days later — yes, I spent Christmas in rehab — I was ready to “graduate.” In a twist of fate, my graduation day fell on my birthday, so now I celebrate TWO birthdays on February 20th: my “belly button birthday” and my “re-birthday.”⁣

They have a rather elaborate graduation ceremony at The Ark. The residents take turns saying something they like or appreciate about the graduate, then they join hands and cradle the graduate on their interlocked arms, like a baby in a cradle.

I’ll never forget being rocked by all those arms under the dimmed lights. I’ll also never forget the song that was playing in the background, which my counselor had chosen especially for me: “Gentle” by Michael McLean. The lyrics still bring tears to my eyes:

We’ve been hurt by others often,
We’ve forgiven and forgotten,
We should be more gentle with ourselves.
Life can be hard but we need not be so hard on ourselves.

The message was clear. I needed to stop holding myself to impossible standards, then punishing myself when I inevitably fell short. When I was released from the cradle, I was given the biggest and best group hug of my life.

Although I had entered The Ark just shy of kicking and screaming, I was scared to death when I left. I wish I could tell you that the weeks and months that followed were easy, or that I never again stumbled and had another drink, but neither of those things are true. I returned home feeling full of uncertainty about the future, and while it took time for my family and I to find our footing again, the hard work and difficult days were more than worth it.

I’ve often said that I should either be dead or in jail, and that’s not just for shock value. I could have easily ended up in either situation, given the incredibly poor choices I made. But because of the dedicated people at The Ark, my incredibly supportive family, and my Higher Power that never left me, I was given a second chance at life.

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A New Start, “One Good Thing” At A Time

I learned a lot from my my counselors at The Ark, but the one they emphasized most was that I needed to find my passion and pursue it if I wanted to stay sober. Back then, I never dreamed that advice would lead to anything like what One Good Thing by Jillee has become!

Through a lot of hard work, I was able to turn the blog I started as a passion project into a career. And not just a career for me, but for a team of talented people that I truly love working with. But best of all, my blog led me to you, the incredible community of readers that I have the privilege to share with and learn from. :-)

If you or someone you love is currently in a place similar to where I was 15 years ago, I want you to know that you’re not alone. And although I know how hopeless it can feel to hit rock bottom, there is always hope, and I promise that there are brighter days ahead for you.

So now you know why Thanksgiving Day is more than just another holiday to me. While those demons from my past may never fade entirely, they certainly are a powerful reminder of how much I have to be grateful for.

Wishing you a safe and happy Thanksgiving,

Read This Next

Jill Nystul Photo

Jill Nystul (aka Jillee)

Jill Nystul is an accomplished writer and author who founded the blog One Good Thing by Jillee in 2011. With over 30 years of experience in homemaking, she has become a trusted resource for contemporary homemakers by offering practical solutions to everyday household challenges.I share creative homemaking and lifestyle solutions that make your life easier and more enjoyable!

About Jillee

Jill Nystul

Jill’s 30 years of homemaking experience, make her the trusted source for practical household solutions.

About Jillee


Bright Ideas

  • It takes a lot to tell the world about your addiction. If one is persuaded to get help due to your sharing then it is worth it. God bless you.

  • Oh God Bless you Jillee, you are so brave and generous to share that story with all of us. My mother passed away from acute alcoholism when I was 14, my baby sister was 4 and my mother was a few months shy of her 36th birthday. She spent the last two years of her life alternating being a falling-down drunk who was in and out of treatment. Her addiction was the result of a very tragic life growing up in poverty with an abusive father followed by a marriage that ended due domestic violence. Despite all that, I am very proud that she was eight years sober before her relapse. I am convinced it was an accident from taking cold medication. She was an incredible artist and an amazing cook and she had a wicked sense of humor. I wish she were here to see how well her kids, grandkids and great grand kids are all doing.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I stumbled my drunken way into my own miracle 37 years ago and although our stories differ, the gratitude is the same. Sobriety is the happiest game in town! I’m glad you reminded me of it this thanksgiving night …

  • Jillee thank you so much for sharing this story. I admire your honesty and vulnerability about such a tough time in your life. I have read your story every Thanksgiving on your site for several years and this year I created an account because I couldn’t go one more year without letting you know how much your story resonated with me. The first time I read your story I was so surprised! Jillee was an alcoholic? Alcoholism truly touches people from all walks of life. My spouse struggled with alcoholism and is sober now. Before he became sober was definitely the worst time for us too. To know that there are so many other people out there who have gone through the same thing takes so much of the shame and stigma away. I’m so proud of you for being so open about this and for overcoming this terrible disease.

  • Your post brought me to tears, just like your book did. I know a lot of alcoholics since my hubby is a recovering alcoholic. I’ve seen the result of what happens when people lose their battle. I’m SO glad you are ok! Wishing you a blessed holiday season.

  • Thank you for sharing! On 7/31/1991 I hit rock bottom and found myself at an AA meeting. I blamed everybody but myself for my alcoholism. I have been sober since and am so grateful for the path that led me to AA. I lived a very dark and desperate life. I still shudder when I think of what was, even after all these years! I too, grab my coffee and look to see what is new in OGT; it is absolutely a part of my morning routine! Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family!

  • I have stumbled more than a few times in my life: self-image problems, not using my talents as I should, death of my beloved wife (Pisces!), and too many other loved ones at early ages affecting me, the list goes on. Thank God I am so much better now, and your story is. . . I was going to say “inspiring,” but that’s too weak. It’s like saying ice cream is kinda tasty.

    I am a “senior citizen” aka Old Man, now and living alone, but I am quite content. I check OGT every day and have benefited from it in many ways. (I am a good cook.)

    Anyway, thanks so much. You made my year, “Jillee”!

  • Hi, all my Jillee family. Eleven months ago, below, I wrote about my son, who is a drug addict. And tonight, I am sitting here writing again. My son is now on heroin. On a daily basis. He lives to use and uses to live. And that is about it. He looks like a homeless person, and many people have just asked me, “why in the hell don’t you kick his ass out?!” Because I know he is not using to hurt me but to totally smother his pain! And at least if he is here, I KNOW, for the most part, where he is and that he is OK. I know when and IF he is sleeping, when, what, and IF he is eating. I KNOW that he is still alive. I lost my daughter in March of 2006 to cancer. She was 28. It hurt me but it killed my son. Though they were about 20 months apart, they were more like twins. And I really do not want to lose my son. I hope at some point to get Jillee’s book! I would love to but on my SSI, I don’t even have a spare $12 Maybe I can someday. Unfortunately, most of the rehabs here in Des Moines, Iowa are not so great. I wish I could look into The Arc, where Jillee went. Sounds like they have the right idea…70+ days!! My son NEEDS something like that. Well, it is 4 am, now Thanksgiving, so I wish you all a very blessed Thanksgiving day. Please pray for us. Pray for Deb & Wyatt in Iowa. Stay safe, take care, and be kind, and love one another. God bless to each of you who reads this. :-) (and thanks for letting me go on & on!!)

  • I have so much admiration for you, Jillee. Facing alcoholism and then being willing to do something about it takes courage. Reading your story, while I am so happy for you, did make me cry, as my mother was an alcoholic since she was 15 years of age, and never overcame it. “Everything was someone else’s fault.” She must have had a strong constitution as her liver was not severely damaged, but since she was a three pack a day smoker and she died of lung CA at the age of 68.
    Her father, too, was an alcoholic but began his recovery when he was in his mid forties and never touched another drink, he died at age 89. This was before places like Ark or AA. He tried to get my mother, his daughter, to seek help but she never would.
    Take care, Jillee, and keep on your path as your story will help many others.

  • Thank you for being so brave in sharing this inspirational story. It’s good for people to hear and understand that sometimes there’s more to a person than what meets the eye. Congratulations on your sobriety and where you are now.

  • Hi Jillee, Thank you so much for sharing your story. That takes tremendous courage. On this Thanksgiving day, I am a divorced 64yo woman who’s 40yo adult son lives with her. My son has a brain injury, which happened in 2013, but he is very functional. That is my blessings. My son was an addict before his injury, but being in a coma for a week and hospitalized for a month, he came home detoxed. I was so happy. However, as you know, the real problem was not dealt with. So in 2014, he went into treatment but they only kept him for a week…that is standard here…it is really hard to get help and all they do is keep you long enough to detox you and send you home, sick as a dog, for a family member to do the rest. He had not eaten for a week and was very sick with a really bad cold. It was hell…trying to get him to health while he was so sick and knew just what would fix it! Anyway, he did stay clean for 18 months. His drug of choice is opiates. Unfortunately, he hasn’t fallen off the wagon, he’s face down in the mud. Your story will help many, and please, to all who see this…please keep me and my son in your prayers. Happy day to all of you and may God bless. Stay safe!!!

  • Thank you for sharing a very intimate part of your life. That can’t be easy. All our experiences make us who we are today. I am grateful for you and your business. Thanks to all your hard work, you have made all our lives easier, better and happier. God bless you and your family. Overcoming an addiction is a battle won!

  • Bless you Jillee and all those others out there who have kicked addiction or are battling it.Thank you for telling your story,it may help someone who is having an uphill battle.

  • You are very brave and I admire your courage and congratulate you for overcoming your challenges. You are a daily part of my life (coffee and One Good Thing by Jillee every morning). I’m so glad you have become who you are and help so, so many people.

  • Jillee. You are incredibly brave and I admire that courage! I have been following you probably since you started your blog. Whenever I’m hit with a question on how to get a stain out or how to do something, I turn to you. Thank you for being you. I’m proud of you! What you are doing and have done is not easy! I applaud you!

  • Congratulations on your sobriety! I too struggled with alcohol. I am grateful every day for the gift of sobriety. Thank you for sharing your story. We are never alone!

  • In my experience very few families escape this disease. There’s a lot of denial, perhaps, but this is the truth. There is no such thing as” recovered” either. It’s recovering, one day at a time. I’m so happy for you!

  • I’ve followed your blog for years, so I’m no stranger to your story. I just want to give you a hug!!! It is so brave, and I know it’s got to be difficult as well, to open yourself up to us like that. I’m proud of you for having the courage to make that phone call, complete your program, rebuild & repair your relationship with your family, and just to continue to put one foot in front of the other each and every day.

  • I remember reading this story in your book. I’m thinking of showing this to my Sister. Her kids are adopted. The youngest is from a family with mental help disorders. We had hoped my Niece now 14 would somehow be able to escape this. They have diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder and her birth siblings all have this. I’m not going to say anything more because of respect for my sisters family. I’m hoping this will help get her back on track before it’s too late.

  • It’s very brave of you to share the hard part of your story with all of your readers. Thank you! It’s not easy to open oneself to others, when so many can be downright mean! I’m thankful with you for caring, supportive people who are willing to give of themselves to help others. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

  • Hi !
    I’m French, often reading your posts when having my breakfast. I would like to tell you how much proud of all you have done, you can be !
    Congratulations !

  • Hi Jillee – This was a VERY brave post to write, because it exposes so much of you. That is hard when it is that personal. I remember when I was 21, I was headed out to the Virginia mountains to commit suicide because I was in such a low place in my life. A friend of a friend was actually a psychic, and stopped me just as I was leaving. Not the same exactly, but in some ways very close. The difference was your choice of death was wine, and a little more slowly…and mine was a car over a cliff at 70 miles around a hairpin curve.

    So even though not identical, I understand that black and low place. I think it is hard to admit that you have an addiction of any kind, even if it is exercise, which I used as a panacea as a young teenager. I am so glad that 1) your family cared enough about you to work through it with you, 2) that you had the strength to face your addictions and overcome them, 3) you found a passion for your direction. I hope you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving in spite of all of the mask and distancing requirements…

  • As someone who also has a past I’d rather forget, I felt every single word of this blog post. ALL OF IT. For me, there was so much self-hatred that went along with the pain I was trying to numb.

    My life is so much better now, that it is easy to push this painful part of my life behind the other boxes of memories. Your story, however, made me remember, and in the same moment, be so grateful I am no longer in that spot. Remembering also gave me new compassion for those who are still struggling…to remember how horrible and hard it is. I also appreciated your sharing the advice about following your passion.

    Thank you so much for sharing your story…and thank you for sharing your passion on this blog. I look forward to your blog posts each day and have found them to be very helpful.

    I hope you have an awesome Thanksgiving.

  • I like this quote:

    Just as the wave cannot exist for itself, but is ever a part of the heaving surface of the ocean, so must I never live my life for itself, but always in the experience which is going on around me. It is an uncomfortable doctrine which the true ethics whisper into my ear. You are happy, they say; therefore you are called upon to give much.
    Albert Schweitzer

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