Sobriety and the Holidays

Sober Holiday, Numero Uno.

Sober Holiday, Numero Uno.

I’m now approaching my second year of Holiday Rejoicing as a sober individual. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anything alcoholic at all, and by some evil twist of fate, my HE (Hepatic Encephalopathy) prevents me from consuming more than two liters of fluid per day. Do you know how hard that is? I’ve always drank as much water as I could during the day, especially when working in coal mining, which is a miserably dehydrating environment or when working construction outside in the dead of summer, with the sun beating down mercilessly on any exposed skin. So, it’s rather strange for me now to carry around a half-liter bottle so I can make sure I don’t consume to much liquid!

The Holidays are stressful on everyone. Sober or not. They are a time of great joy, merrymaking, traditional dinners and gatherings of family members, and more often than not, they are a wonderful environment to make a fool of yourself on the third (or twelfth) glass of wine. It’s anonymity in an acceptable environment!

Last year, I was mostly shielded, rather intentionally, from the stress of making other people uncomfortable while drinking around me. I worked all through the holidays, most of the time belied by my colleagues as I motored my way through another shift. Two wonderful friends of mine who more or less adopted me as kitchen moms, kept an eye on my rapidly failing health with great alarm. It was a welcome relief from the inevitable question that hosts had to ask themselves if I was invited: “Should we serve alcohol? Should we hide it? WE can still drink, right?”

It was uncomfortable and exhausting. In a professional kitchen, nobody asks personal questions. Unless you open yourself up to them. You don’t have to explain to anyone that you don’t drink. Just don’t. The world marches on. Nobody modifies their behavior, or more importantly, feels the need to, in your presence. I like that. You are free to be whomever you want to be. Much like coal mining, working with real watermen, cooks only judge in terms of liability. Can you or can you not do your job. If you can perform while drinking a handle of tequila a day, then so be it.

My greatest achievement as a cook happened on Thanksgiving morning of last year. Sober only about five months or so, I was still suffering through the remnants of damage done and learning to accept the harm I had caused to my body. That morning, I was in charge of breakfast. I prepped for dinner the night before, and in true professional cooking reality, prepped for breakfast too. It was a late night and an early morning. I fell into bed beside my sleeping wife after kissing my son, still very much a baby then and didn’t stir until my alarm went off quietly in my ear. I was still in the darkness, planning the day. My short-term memory was getting worse and my Ascites was becoming obvious. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off.

Delores saved me that morning. Every single time I started to lose control, she swooped in and righted the ship. Together, we threw 112 plates on the pass in 90 minutes flat. All from scratch. No easy eggs, each plate to order. Pancakes, waffles, chicken and waffles until I ran out 20 minutes in. Sausage, bacon and corned hash were cooking on the grill alongside eggs, each order somehow perfectly clear in my mind. I became a machine. Time literally stood still. I could do no wrong. As orders piled up, plates started to the pass faster and faster and faster, until even the wait staff began to take notice. Runners began to tread cautiously, worried they would break the streak.

I was finally pushed off the line by Chef. Loaded down with Thanksgiving Day orders ready to go, many of which I had prepped the day before, they impatiently stormed my work area as I cooked around them until the last breakfast order was filled.

As I stumbled away from the line, people started to clap. Delores started it, I think. The wait staff joined in. The kitchen manager, Marcus, followed suit. He had stared open mouthed at the number of orders coming off the line for nearly a half hour.

Then, just like that, we moved on. I crashed for a moment on the loading dock, breathing carefully and trying not to faint. We quietly sipped our coffee, watched the snow fall through the fog and I shared a cigar from chef with the few outside with me. Conversation went back to the usual: Who is going to get drunk at the employee party and who may or may not sleep with whom, always a lively topic. My sobriety went unnoticed, uncelebrated.

Which is what I wanted.

This year, I will be invited to lots of gatherings, hopefully. I also hope that the topic of my recent battle with alcohol is forgotten. Someone will be uncomfortable, no doubt, and feel the need to explain to me that THEY are NOT AN ALCOHOLIC. They don’t drink this much, hardly ever, and they feel bad for drinking around me, and so on.

During that moment, I will slip quietly away to last year, when nobody knew and nobody cared.

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