The Most Wonderful Time of the Year?
We all know that the holidays are "the most wonderful time of the year." Everyone's family members are delighted to see each other, and everyone sitting around the dinner table keeps their voices low and gets along well. No one stresses about their finances when buying gifts because everyone always ends up happy and possesses no envy or bitterness towards those who get a bigger, more expensive gift. There is no pressure to drink alcohol at social functions. Everyone has the same beliefs about the reason for the season. The holiday Hallmark movies are an accurate depiction of everyone's holiday...
Yeah, that's in an ideal world.
The holidays can range from a mildly depressing time to a traumatic time for those of us who are recovering from any addiction (especially codependency), other mental health issues (e.g. depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.), or trauma (e.g. death, divorce, abusive relationship, etc.). The colorful lights, certain smells (e.g. Christmas trees, cookies baking, hand lotion, etc.), changing weather, Christmas carols, etc. can trigger regression and even full-blown relapse. The reason for this is learning by association, which is called "classical conditioning" in psychology. Throughout our lives, we associate things. The saddest part about that when it comes to the holidays is we can associate beautiful, joyful, and innocent things with depressing, horrible, and scary things. For example, in The Language of Letting Go, the meditation on "Holiday Triggers" , a woman talks about associating the smell of hand lotion around the holidays triggers memories of her father's drunken rages and her emotions (e.g. the desire to control) that came with it. For me, the changing weather triggers memories of my cousin because I know that time of year from January 11th to March 25th, when I was at his house while he and his girlfriend were doing drugs ,is coming again.
Social pressure is a big part of the holidays. Workplaces, schools, religious organizations, friends, and family host holiday parties. Drinking and gift-giving are a part of the many of these parties. For individuals who are recovering from a substance abuse problem, the pressure to drink alcohol or even use other drugs can be a big relapse trigger. Adult children of alcoholics can become afraid of intoxicated people. Recovering overeaters can feel pressured by the presence of food and certain traditions to overindulge. My counselor, who is a recovering overeater, jokingly states that part of the development of his problem was the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes. Good codependents may feel the pressure to please everyone, so they max out their credit cards to buy everyone the "perfect" gift and even treat everyone equally. The reality is you cannot please everyone or buy everyone 300 dollar gadgets.
Personality conflicts are also a major cause of holiday dread. The holidays are one of the few- if not the only- times of year where everyone in a family may be under the same roof. We have all heard of the people who pray that they do not kill their in-laws before their turkey is served or get their wallets stolen in the middle of the night by their distant cousin, who just flew in to New Jersey from California.
Traditions and religion/spirituality are still a major part of the holidays for many people. Differences in traditions or religious beliefs can be a major source of conflict . The Lifetime Movie Will You Merry Me? sums that up perfectly with the Jewish woman's family who ends up having to spend the holidays with her future husband's family who are Christmas crazy. Changes in tradition due to death, divorce, family dynamic, marriage, etc.. can cause depression and resentment.
How to Accentuate the Positive During the Holidays
Anything in life has a positive and negative side to it. Unfortunately, it is easy for those of us who are from or are currently part of dysfunctional families to only look at the negative side of the holidays. Keeping a positive and negative notebook and writing about the things you like about the holidays in the positive notebook and writing the things you do not like about the holidays in the negative notebook can help you separate the two. After you have completed your writings, read the composition in the positive notebook over and over again and discard the negative composition by burying, burning, releasing on a balloon, or placing in a box to turn over to the Higher Power of your Understanding.
Acknowledging your unhealthy associations and disassociating them can help. For example, if the smell of hand lotion triggers fear and your desire to control a situation, step back (physically, mentally, or both) and say to yourself that "It is just hand lotion. That person or situation can no longer harm me, and I am safe in the present."
If possible, avoid triggers. Regardless of the social pressures, stand by your recovery and value system. No one else's opinion matters but your own. Your recovery should come first, and you should not feel like you have to put yourself in a compromising situation for the sake of etiquette, tradition, or to please other people. You are the one who is going to have to live with whether you relapse or not or have a PTSD episode or not. Would you rather have your co-workers think you are an anti-social weirdo or end up dying on the street because you could not come back from this relapse?
Self-care is key. Yes, buying gifts, cooking, planning, and dealing with unpleasant people is stressful, but practicing self-care will get you through it. Do not spend more than you have or do more than you can at one time. You cannot give what you do not have. Take time at the end of the day to curl up on the couch and watch a good Christmas movie. There is no shame in just going into the bathroom just for a moment of solitude in the midst of the festivities.
When it comes to dealing with unpleasant people, you can use the tool "Would you rather be happy or would you rather be right?" and detach with love. Someone in Al-Anon shared with the group to avoid a futile debate with someone, just say, "You may be right." If they think they are right about the sky being purple, let them give themselves a check in their winning column. That is their perception, their issue. Keep in mind that everyone has their own beliefs and the ultimate authority is the Higher Power of YOUR Understanding. Let people have the Higher Power of THEIR Understanding and respect it. Some people believe that spending time with family is the reason. Some believe that Jesus is the reason. Some believe that miracle at the Temple where the menorah stayed lit for eight nights is the reason. Some believe that making more money is the reason. Others (like myself) simply believe the celebration of life and the coming for the winter is the reason. Whatever you believe if for you, which should be whatever makes you happy and motivates you to celebrate. If you have to convince others to believe what you believe, then you must not really believe it yourself.
Changes in traditions can be hard. My one counselor told me "the one constant in life is nothing will stay the same." One big change about the holiday season is it starts right after Halloween in many places now ,instead of after Thanksgiving ,and Black Friday starts on Thanksgiving afternoon. I personally do not think that is right and just makes the holidays more about commercialism than the celebration of life and friends and family. Society changes; people change; and circumstances change. Being bitter about the changes will not change any thing. Honor what was good in the past, but be open to change. Practicing gratitude for today is key. In my family, my parents and I no longer spend the holidays with our extended family. This Thanksgiving, which is our second in a row that we spent alone together, was all too quiet, boring, and a bit awkward, which upset me, but I learned to just be grateful that I am celebrating it in peace with people who genuinely love me.
Most importantly, just have fun and be grateful. Buy yourself something and have fun with it. Keep it simple. Enjoy the time of year and be grateful to be alive another year to see it. Do not get so caught up in "right" or "wrong." Stay focused on what makes you happy and is healthy and comfortable for you. The holiday season ends with a new year, which is another chance to grow and change. A saying says, "Recovery is 90 percent acceptance." After you accept what is, be grateful for what you have.
Bria Riley is a published author, recovering codependent and adult child of an alcoholic, who is active in several recovery programs. She knows the turmoil and heartbreak of growing up in an addiction-stricken family and wants to help others who have also been affected by addiction through her writing.