The Holidays and New Ways
(November 26, 2015)
As I sit here on Thanksgiving morning in my son’s living room watching Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with Eli, my grandson, I am thinking of past Thanksgivings and this past year. My thoughts and feelings are very mixed.
My father-in-law passed away this past year. My single son bought his house. The family tradition for over thirty years has been to have Thanksgiving dinner in this house   My son, being a sentimental sort, has chosen to continue that tradition. So, here we are this morning. The turkey is in the oven, and my son and daughter are on their way to run a 5K race (the Turkey Trot – another tradition). I am the babysitter. The four of us spent the night here – no doubt the first year of a new tradition.
Although I look back on many of the past Thanksgiving Days with fondness and a sense of contentment, the ones I remember with the most exactness and poignancy have been those that were the most painful. There were three of them – 2009, 2010 and 2011 – my benzo withdrawal years.
On Thanksgiving 2009, I had been in post-acute withdrawal for one month from forty years of alcohol abuse. At the time I didn’t know it, but I was also in tolerance withdrawal from twelve years of Klonopin use. I was suffering horribly with anxiety, fear and depression and had no clue what was happening to me. I thought I was going insane. Nonetheless, I was in this house on that day and managed to live through it appearing relatively “normal” to the rest of the family. The remaining holiday season was absolutely horrid and increasingly worse. Shortly after it ended, I found myself in the psychiatric hospital for a 3-week stay under suicide watch.
I was certain that Thanksgiving 2010 (and the following holiday season) would be much better. How could it possibly be worse? That Thanksgiving Day I had been off the Klonopin for three months. Mentally I was suffering horribly with severe acute anxiety, dread and not wanting to even be alive. The derealization was intense. I recall two specific things about that day. The first had to do with my father-in-law’s television. He had four separate remotes for various components of his “entertainment center.” Somehow during the week, he had done something to get them all messed up. I was asked to straighten it out somehow. I was essentially brain dead but gave it a shot. I had one huge panic attack while I tried to convince my brain to reenter functionality and allow me to “think.” I came pretty close to succeeding. No one could tell I was consumed with terror – except me.
The second thing I recall is that I was asked to say grace at the Thanksgiving dinner. Again, I was able to “perform.” It’s amazing how we can appear “normal” to those around us while we are dying inside. Obviously, Thanksgiving 2010 was not an improvement over 2009.
Then came the holiday season of 2011. At the time, I had been sober for two years and off the Klonopin for about 14 months. I was not well yet, but I was beginning to feel better – enough so that I was able to do a little shopping by myself and drink some coffee, something I had given up for two years. I knew I was going to be well….finally.
For me, as is true for maybe everyone in benzo withdrawal, the holidays took my “low” even lower when I was ill. We know we should be especially happy during that time of year, but we can’t lovingly persuade or coerce our brains to allow us to be happy – so we are even more depressed, lonely (even with people all around us), and drenched with feelings of hopelessness. I completely understand that. I remember it so well.
As I look back on the two really dreadful holiday seasons of my withdrawal, I can see some positive things. The first one is that, even though we feel absolutely horrible during withdrawal and believe that we have lost our mental capacity to think and function, we actually have not. We feel like the “slate has been erased clean” and that we will have to start over and relearn everything when we are well. That is not the case at all. We are simply unable to readily access our capabilities as we once did. It’s like they are locked away in some area of our brain, but we don’t have the key or we have a key that opens the lock but the door only opens a crack allowing us to peek inside from time to time and  momentarily touch them.
The other positive realization is that we are very different on this side of withdrawal – in several good ways. Prior to withdrawal, if my father-in-law had passed away, the atmosphere in his house (now my son’s house) would be very heavy and sad. He was a man who lived life and enjoyed it as much as he could. The absence of his energy would have made the day almost morose. But somehow his energy has been transferred to me. I am always looking for the next good thing while enjoying the present. He never dwelt on past difficulties or miseries. I view past troubles and pain simply as stepping stones that have gotten me to where I now am – a really good place mentally and emotionally. Benzo withdrawal changed me so profoundly that I give positive energy to the rest of the family and many friends.
I know the agony of withdrawal is especially bad during the holiday season – so much so that you probably would like to completely skip from October directly to January. I could hardly bear the thought of the holidays when I was ill. It filled me with dread.
Once you are through withdrawal and well again, the holidays take on a brand new meaning and create amazing emotions so intensely good that they are indescribable. It’s almost like experiencing them for the very first time. It’s much like being a child again - joyful wonder.
Happy Thanksgiving!
“Good morning starshine. The earth says hello.” - Willy Wonka
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