The Best Gifts Can't Be Wrapped

By Joe Nistler


The “Unhappy Holidays” event presented by Dissonance brought to light some great perspectives on navigating the holiday season when you suffer from addiction, mental illness or—if you’re like me—both. For most people, holidays mean reuniting with family. And for many, that means diving into an unhealthy atmosphere that we do our best to avoid throughout the year. But the panel got me thinking that the holidays don’t have to be unhappy. I can find plenty of things in the past year for which to be grateful—things that will get me through the season unscathed, even when circumstances conspire against me.

This holiday season has been humbling, to say the least. For all intents and purposes, I got laid off from my full-time job yesterday. They call it a "two-week unpaid vacation," so technically I’m still employed, but I’m pretty certain that I won’t be called to go back—no one will, the company’s done. I loved my job to the point that it often felt too good to be true. Now the cynic in me is laughing, saying, “See? I told you it wouldn’t last.” The funny thing is, despite being thrust into easily the most unstable financial situation since I’ve been sober, with more unknowns than I ever hoped to encounter at once, I can’t help but feel grateful—even happy—for the spiritual wealth I’ve come to grow in my recovery, and the friends and family that helped me along the way.

I’m fortunate enough to have a family that is starting to understand my substance use disorder and my recovery and support me in it. I was looking forward to buying gifts for the people I care about, to show them how much I care. It would have been the first time in years I would have been able to wrap presents, and now that option is gone. But I don’t feel the shame or disappointment in myself that I thought I would, because in the past year I’ve stumbled upon something much more valuable than the things we put under the tree.

This day last year, December 16th, was the last time I picked up drugs, and in two days it will be the anniversary of the last time I put them down. Last Christmas was the first in this new era of recovery for me, but it didn't feel all that different from the other unhealthy ones in my past.

This year is different. I can feel satisfied with my accomplishments and stand tall on them, rather than using them like a smokescreen to distract from the underlying addiction. I have seen the people around me grow and learn along this journey, too—I don't feel envious of them anymore. I can share honest moments with the ones I care about without crawling through the foggy haze of addiction. I welcome the unknowns and see them as opportunities, rather than devastating setbacks.

I still worry about what will come next, and how to find the right way—the worrying is a part of a clinical disorder with which I'll always have to live. But this holiday season, most importantly, is the one-year anniversary of the day I decided that everything would be all right. It was more powerful than a realization, it was truly a decision to start doing right, with the understanding that somewhere, some cosmic force would recognize that decision and allow me to persevere through the hardships. If I can remain genuine in my humility, gratitude and servitude to my community and higher power, I strongly feel that things will work out how they're meant to.

Call it faith, call it "turning my will over to a higher power as (I) understood him," call it a spiritual awakening—the only thing I realized last December was that things were never going to improve in the long run if I kept acting on the same impulses and trying to cheat the system for instant gratification. Looking back, my decision touches on several of the Twelve Step principles that have proven such an effective solution for me—turning over my will, addressing character defects, taking personal inventory and practicing the principles in all my affairs. But it’s hard to nail down just which step led to that moment. How do I really explain the instant I decided to change my life? How much of a role did I, myself, even play in that?

I'm certain of one thing—without loving people and opening up to some positive forces in my life, I would not have come to the same conclusion. I would not have recognized the blessings around me and the journey that lay ahead, and I would not be able to look around today and recognize the same loving joy around me amplified by my spiritual presence.

Life is stressful right now. There are a lot of unknowns, and I’m waiting to see what comes next. I always thought having to file for unemployment the week before Christmas Eve was a Dickensian cliché that couldn’t happen in real life, yet here I sit. Before, these circumstances might have broken me, but not anymore. The only antagonists in this story, though, are my addiction, my mental illness, and that one drink or hit that could return me to despair. I hear it calling to me from time to time when I’m most vulnerable, but thankfully I haven’t had to feed it for a full year now.

So maybe I can't fulfill that ego-driven homecoming fantasy of showing up at my parents’ door with presents under each arm. But at least that’s the only thing this holiday has in common with those in the past. I don’t think that’s the point of the holidays, anyway, nor is it the point of recovery. The desire to give “things” to my loved ones wasn’t entirely altruistic to begin with. Instead, I see that the best gifts can't be wrapped. They are the ones that keep on giving, for as long as I work at them. They are the ones reassuring me that when one door closes, another one opens. And until I find the next door, I have a lot to celebrate this year.


Joe Nistler is a Twin Cities-based writer for recovery-focused magazines across the country. He also covers local music and culture for 608 Magazine in Madison, WI, and is a graduate of the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.