Families get a lot of press this time of year. People are urged to make amends, make phone calls, make food, and make nice. Get together with your family in the winter holiday season, and remember all the good times. Before I go too far with this, let me say that I’ve got nothing against families. I’m a long way from mine, though. When Christmas comes around, much as I miss them, I have to celebrate without Mom and Dad, Jenny and Kate. At the same time, most of my friends are headed off in a billion different directions to spend time with brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. So I’m left with plenty of time to think about families.
And here I’d like to raise a cheer for our “other families”—not our birth families, but our life families, the folks we spend all of the rest of the year with but who don’t really get credit for being family. I’m lucky because I have a big life family. In fact, it’s an odd kind of extended family. My oldest and closest friend, Lloyd, is also family to people I work with, people I surf with, and people I know in a different context.
According to tradition, family members are the ones who remain steadfast, while friends come and go. “Oh, that’s too bad,” people say. “It must be hard not to be around your family.” Yes, it is hard to have so little contact with my birth family, but it’s not at all hard to know that if I ever need a ride to a meeting, my friend Summer will immediately drop whatever she is doing and come swoop me up. If I’m struggling with what to do about a problem in my writing or in my 12-step work, I immediately call Scotty, Paul, or Leroy, and I know they’ll meet me and give me their best advice.
The great thing about my life family is they know me as a clean and sober, responsible adult. They never say, “But honey, we never thought you’d have a problem with something like that!” They know me. They know the person I used to be and the person I am today, and they have decided to be with me through thick and thin. Unless you’re extremely lucky, birth families tend to keep you in the box you grew up in. In their minds, I’m still that mischievous, pessimistic, invincible kid who gets away with everything. Of course they adore me, but it’s in that kind of distant, unfamiliar way that families have of adoring each other—almost as if they have no idea who I really am and are probably better off not knowing.
My life family, on the other hand, has chosen me. They like that I’m a little compulsive, and they are even willing to drive me back to my house to see if, in fact, I did leave the shower running—twice! They know that this is just a little part of me, and they still like me. Even better, they let me like them. They tell me things about themselves. They trust me. They laugh with me.
Let me repeat here: Nothing against birth families. I have a perfectly good, loving family that I’m very fond of, but even back home in Carolina, I am just as close to Jake, or Alex, or Rick. I know I’m lucky to have this big wonderful family of friends—children, teenagers, adults of all ages. We don’t live together, pay bills together, or have the same last name, but we are family by virtue of love—the absolute best version of family I can imagine.
John Blair Jackson lives in Santa Barbara, where he owns and operates More Core Surf and Fitness.