Getting Through the Holidays
Christmas was a weird time in my family. My mom shopped and baked lots of cookies, and my dad drank and did lots of yelling. He was always tense, but in December, his volatility cranked up a notch or four. He had his own little Christmas Eve tradition of heaving the Christmas tree, lights and all, across the living room or out the front door. I remember his face one year right after he did it. It was puffy red, heaving and contorted with liquor and rage, his glasses cocked at an odd angle, his eyes watery and dark as he looked directly at me. Was he trying to come up with a reason to direct his rage at me, or was he wondering about his little girl’s reaction to his violence? I’ll never know.
One year, he capped off the tree-throwing ceremony by punching my mother in the face and breaking her nose. We all bundled up, piled into the car, and spent the rest of the evening in the emergency room. I was little, but I still remember the mortifying looks of pity from the nurses. My mother came home with a small white bandage over her nose, a slight nasal twang, and a cheerful mood—my father was so remorseful, he was being nice to her, and that made her happy.
Every Christmas morning, we all made a stab at normalcy. We opened gifts piled under the slightly askew tree and pretended everything was fine. We spent the day playing with our new toys and reading our new books, eating cookies and whatever fine meal my mother planned, and it was nice. But by the first week of January, you could feel the collective, unspoken sigh of relief throughout our house. Thank god the holidays were over.
To this day, I experience a sense of relief when January 1 rolls around. “I survived another holiday season,” my little voice seems to be saying. “I don’t have to worry about it again for a good ten and a half months.”
I know I’m not alone in this. The holidays are a tough time of year for a lot of people. Some feel stressed by all the stuff they have to do. Others feel financial pressures. Some who don’t have families feel terribly, horribly alone. Others feel obligated to spend time with a family they don’t like. For still others, it’s a time of feeling all-encompassing hopelessness and utter, suicidal depression.
For me, it was hopelessness and depression. Before I got sober, I self-medicated through the entire season. From the middle of November ‘til the last week of December, I was high, or drunk, or coked out pretty much constantly, from my waking breath to that sweet moment of unconsciousness. And even so, I was hard to be around. I hated Christmas and everything about it. I couldn’t escape it, and I couldn’t tell anyone how I felt for the shame of it. I have never had serious thoughts of suicide, but for six weeks out of the year, I understood how people could choose that route.
I’ll never forget my first sober Christmas. I walked into an AA meeting shortly after Thanksgiving and was met by a sea of glum faces. One person talked about his difficulty with the holidays, and it opened up a floodgate. Everyone in the room—everyone!—was feeling holiday pain. And through my despair, I experienced an exhilarating sense of connection. “I’ve found my people,” I thought. “I’m home.”
It was liberating to talk freely about my holiday angst without worrying about being looked at funny. Even so, it was tough getting through the holidays sober. Nothing to cushion me from my brutal depression. People were relapsing all around me, and I understood the powerful attraction of oblivion. But I made it through, mostly by gritting my teeth, going to a lot of meetings, and trusting my intuition that even this awful feeling was better than getting loaded.
After the fourth or fifth year of white-knuckling my way through the Christmas season, the pain started to ease up a bit. I gave myself permission to not visit my parents, even if I had no boyfriend to spend Christmas with. Even if I had to spend the day alone. I was an adult and could make my own decisions, and I decided to stop going home for Christmas.
Well, this was a huge paradigm shift for me, and with it came an amazing new perspective. I realized that the social norms and expectations governing the holiday season did not have to govern me. I didn’t have to do anything I didn’t want to. I could ignore the whole damn thing if I wanted to, and nobody could stop me.
With this new perspective, I started noticing some of the things I actually liked about the holidays. The lights and decorations, the great food, the time off work, the excitement of children, and going to Asian restaurants on the Big Day with the Buddhists and Jews. So I drove around and looked at lights, enjoyed the cookies and goodies, reveled in my time off work, tried to buy good presents for the children in my life, and ate Chinese food for Christmas dinner with a fellow Christmas hater, or sometimes an entire group of us.
I also resolved to avoid the things I disliked about the holidays: the pressure to spend money, the obligation to spend time with people I don’t like, the commercialism, the crowded malls. I learned to do what felt good to me and let the rest of it go.
In the past couple of years, Jim and I have started a new tradition of traveling over the holidays when we can afford to, and I don’t mean to visit relatives. Two years ago, we spent Christmas in Las Vegas, the most unsentimental spot on the planet, and it was the best Christmas I ever had. Being gone for a couple of weeks in December might be the best present I ever gave myself.
In short, I learned to do the holidays on my own terms. And I realized that the degree to which I am able to do this is the degree to which I remain relaxed and stress-free.
Now, I know that if you have kids, your choices may not be so simple. You have an obligation to give your children a happy Christmas. But you can set limits, and you can come up with un-traditional traditions, and you can be creative in providing a good holiday for them. You don’t have to traipse the malls and max your credit cards just because everybody else does. You don’t have to cook a big meal. You don’t have to bake cookies. You don’t have to have a tree. You don’t have to visit relatives if you don’t want to. If you give it some thought, you’ll come up with ways to simplify the whole ordeal. And your kids will benefit from your example of independent thinking, even if they don’t appreciate it at the time.
The point is that you, too, can do Christmas on your own terms. There’s nothing stopping you! It’s the answer to all holiday stress, from spending money to suicidal depression. I’m living proof of it.
My painful childhood memories of the holidays will always be a part of me, but they no longer control me. I get through the holidays just fine now, sober and alert, and if I can, anybody can. It’s all a matter of what you choose to focus on.