The Christmas I Broke Us

Photo: Getty Images | Unsplash, Craig Adderley | Canva
Mature man staring at Christmas tree

I hadn’t worked for two years. Christmas was coming and we were out of money. I quelled the panic inside me by bathing it in alcohol. Every day.

I had come out of law school near the top of my class, editor-in-chief of the law review, and bursting with potential. A law firm on the upper floors of a black glass building in downtown Portland hired me, and I used my signing bonus to buy my first decent suit. My wife and family expected to see me shine in the legal profession the way I had in law school.

It didn’t work out.

The law firm was composed of good people who gave me every chance to succeed, but I failed. The job that everyone expected to be my springboard to success turned out to be the pinnacle of my legal career. After a year of disappointing performance, the partners told me we were not a good fit. I proceeded to descend the economic ladder, working in sketchier and sketchier law firms and increasingly demeaning legal jobs. When no one would hire me any longer, I opened my own office and gave myself most days off. To drink.

The wife who worked while I went to law school gave up on me after I violated every obligation that a husband owes to his wife. When she was gone, I found a new wife in the bar where I drank. To this wife, who was supporting a young son, I still looked like I had potential, or at least more than her previous husband.

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With a new family, I made it to the office more often than before, but it didn’t last, and eventually, I couldn’t do it at all.

I broke down, telling her I had hated practicing law from the first day and that I needed to walk away. I would take a break and then find something in an associated field, maybe in government, education, or insurance. She had a good job. She loved me and was willing to support me through the good and the bad.

But I didn’t get another job. I turned in my life insurance policy for cash. I collected unemployment. I stopped paying my bills and process servers I used to hire came to our apartment with summonses for me. I declared bankruptcy. I took my book collection and, a few books at a time, sold it to a used book dealer for money to drink.

Having to support us on her income, my wife became frustrated and then angry with me, but we loved each other so she soldiered on. I lied to her. I told her I had applied for jobs that I hadn’t. I told her I had interviews, but I didn’t. While she worked and my stepson attended school, I sat in the apartment. And I drank.

For two years.

Photo: Andrew Neel/Pexels

As Christmas approached, we decided we would spend what little Christmas money we had on our boy.

We could get a tree and gifts for him and make a Christmas dinner. To afford those things, we would forego gifts for each other. It was not my first time being poor and not the first time that I had made an agreement like that with a woman I loved. It is the kind of agreement that responsible adults make, but compassionate adults never keep.

We blamed our condition on bad luck. On a downturn in the economy. On discrimination. We never blamed it on my drinking.

We ate our Christmas dinner and watched while her son, my stepson, opened presents and then went to be at his father’s house for a second Christmas. The two of us were alone to open the remaining presents under the tree. I poured myself some vodka from the bottle of Stoli that I kept in the freezer. There was always money for Stoli. We opened presents from my parents. There was one for both of us from her brother and one from my sister.

Then there were three left, and they were all for me. From her. She had broken our agreement.

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I had not. There was nothing from me under the tree for her.

When all the presents were opened, she cried. I asked her what was wrong and tried to comfort her.

“All I wanted from you was a pair of socks,” she sobbed, “Just a damn pair of socks.”

Three months later, unable to carry out the suicide I’d been planning, I checked myself into an alcohol treatment program. I have been sober ever since.

The marriage lasted another five years and every year I included among her other gifts a pair of socks — a reminder and an apology for that terrible night. It wasn’t enough. We tried. We truly did, but I broke the marriage that Christmas Eve, and despite valiant efforts on both our parts, it would not be put back together.

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That Christmas occurred over thirty years ago.

Once sober, I returned to the legal profession, built a successful career, and retired. She never remarried but found peace. As I look back, the hurt I caused the ones I loved when I was drinking was most often not from what I did to them, but what I failed to do.

Many recovered alcoholics have done things that can never be made right. For me, one of those things happened that Christmas Eve thirty years ago. The memory of it is my Ghost of Christmas Past. It visits me every December to remind me what I did, where I have been, and where, if I am not vigilant, I could go again.

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Orrin Onken, a retired elder-law lawyer, writes about aging, cooking, and addiction on Medium. His legal mystery novels are available on Amazon.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.