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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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