I had company this Christmas.
I don't mean the usual company - family and friends coming over to enjoy a meal and exchange gifts - although there was plenty of that, too.
I'm talking about the Shadow Me.
Shadow Me is the ghost of the woman I used to be: the broken spirit who never measured up in her own mind, who lived in fear and shame, who sought comfort and escape from a bottle every night.
She is always there, but in the hustle bustle of daily life she fades into the background, unseen and mostly forgotten.
During the holidays, she steps out of the shadows. It happens every year.
My first sober Christmas, three years ago, she was a clanging bitch. Her voice was a grating soundtrack to my life: you won't make it without drinking, wouldn't one glass of wine feel so good right now? Look at how everyone else can drink and you can't, because you ruined everything.
She was a heavy weight on my shoulders as I wrapped presents, decorated the tree, tried to play with my kids, ate dinner with my family. She filled the hole left by alcohol with her constant, nagging presence. I hated her, and everything she stood for. I felt broken, fragile and useless, like a vase that had been hastily glued back together, but would never hold water again.
I couldn't imagine that she would ever lose her power over me, so great was the guilt, fear and shame that fed her spirit.
This year she showed up on Christmas Eve.
I was in church, the lights were dimmed and I was listening to a stirring rendition of 'O Holy Night'. Finn was curled in my lap, sleeping; his cheeks were flushed bright red from excitement and fatigue. I gently stroked his hair, and sighed contentedly.
Without warning, Shadow Me slid silently into the pew next to me, her breath hot on my neck.
You almost threw all this away, she said. Drinking was more important to you than your children, your friends, your family. Remember the Christmas you couldn't even cook the dinner? The time you nearly passed out at the table?
I closed my eyes, fighting back tears.
I forgive you, I told Shadow Me. She sank into a stony silence, but remained stubbornly by my side.
Later that evening as my husband and I wrapped gifts, she hissed into my ear again: Remember that Christmas you didn't have any wrapping paper in the house? Or scotch tape? How angry Steve was at you as you wrapped presents in brown paper bags and masking tape? How you didn't care because you were buzzed?
Tears welled up in my eyes, but I sent her a silent prayer: I forgive you. You were doing the best you could. You didn't know what you didn't know.
I had a hard time falling asleep Christmas Eve. My head swirled with thoughts of the past: bleary, blurry Christmases spent groping my way through, living for the next glass of wine to make the fear and exhaustion grow quieter. I felt the guilt for all the lost days and nights crush me in its cold embrace.
Sleepless, I padded downstairs and sat staring into the dying embers of the fire.
Then I closed my eyes and faced Shadow Me head on.
You are not defined by your mistakes, but by what you learn from them, I told her. It's time to let you go.
Shadow Me flickered and shimmered, reluctant to leave. Who would I be without her? She has dogged me for three years, through each milestone, holiday, and countless witching hours. How can I let her go?
Can I stay strong without the guilt, without the fear?
You have always been worthy of love, I told her. I forgive you. I forgive you, and I love you.
Shadow Me flickered one last time, and then faded away.
Christmas morning the kids raced downstairs, squealing with delight.
"LOOK!" they cried. "HE CAME!"
They stood in a stunned silence for a moment or two, soaking in the sight of the stockings full to the brim, gorgeous wrapped presents spilling out from under the tree.
Shadow Me was nowhere to be found.
I stood with Grace, Love and Gratitude, and together we smiled.