If it’s time to take out the big guns, even cop an attitude, because if you’re determined not to be plowed under by the f-ing holidays, again, read on.
If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes.
The truth about becoming mentally healthier is… drumroll, please! It’s largely in our own hands.
The first time I tried to escape the sadness of Christmas and create my own thing, I was still in active addiction. All I managed to do was hunker down in my studio apartment, isolate myself from everyone, and stay as high as possible. I vascillated between wallowing in self-pity and zoning out so I couldn’t feel anything. I had no money, no plans, and no one to hang out with. I chose to make gift-giving, or lack thereof, the one criterion for whether I would celebrate with someone. I didn’t want to show up empty-handed, so I didn’t show up at all.
This was one of several times in my adult life when I’d racked up debt because of low earnings and was feeling the pinch of making those monthly payments. So, I dropped out. Yes, it was a relief to step off the merry-go-round of traveling the 500 miles to be with family and of gift-giving. But, no, I did not have a sweet, quiet, happy time with my new plans.
In fact, I had no plans, except to stay high. I figured the rest would just happen. Needless to say, nothing actually happened. While it was a relief to not have to hide the using, in the end I still felt like a total loser, still sad and disconnected.
Here’s the thing: The holidays can’t fix anything. They amplify what’s already there. Yet somehow at this time of year we think, “This year is going to be different. I will pick the perfect presents that will communicate the perfect message to my family. In my case: “I’m capable, thoughtful, clever, of means. I know you, I’m good, we’re eternal.” Instead of what I was really feeling, all the time: I’m a piece of shit, you hate me, I have no one. I’m a failure, I hate you, etc., etc., etc.
The holidays, I realized later, were just another thing I, as a perpetual victim of life, was pinning all my hopes on to save me. So, while that was a shitty holiday, it serves today as an example of how bad things can get if I don’t make it my business to maintain my mental health and do my best to create the kind of holiday that feeds my soul.
Keep It Simple, Shed the Shoulds and Make a Plan.
One of the gifts of recovery is realizing no matter which day it is–Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year’s, our birthday, our mother’s birthday, our clean date, the anniversary of our parent’s death–It’s another 24 hours above ground. And what am I going to do with it? As a recovering person, I need certain things need to be in place every 24 hours. On the physical level: food, movement, water, fresh air, cleanliness, basic maintenance of the “meat suit,” as a friend calls it. On the emotional level: emotional honesty with myself, connection with people I trust whom I care about, a ready supply of emotionally healthy activities. On the spiritual level, connection with Something Greater, meaningful activity, a sense of meaning and purpose.
Everything else, as they say, is gravy. So, how I handle the holidays boils down to honestly answering two questions: What matters to me? And how am I going to take care of myself, given the uptick in unhealthy choices all around me? The second one is a no-brainer, given my history and commitment to wellness: Still do the daily things. Recognizing that I am sensitive to lapses in self-care, I commit to eating, resting, hydrating and maintaining my physical self every day, even on Christmas. I don’t skip meals or count pie as being lunch. I don’t judge others who do, so relax. People misunderstand this as being super-disciplined and “good.” Nope, I’m also bad (6 nugget-sized candy bars a days since Hallowe’en, anyone?) but I’m committed to doing my best. I don’t want to be miserable anymore. I discovered I’m so much more sensitive to changes in diet, timing, routine, company, environment and feelings than I ever, ever knew. So I’m cautious and mindful. Protective, even.
What are your no-compromise, must-do daily things? (Download the worksheet here.)
Now, in addition to your must-do daily things, I can add in some special holiday things if I want to (more about that in a minute), but I let my guiding principle be to keep it simple. If it involves running up an uncomfortable amount on my credit card, driving across 5 towns, fitting in 12 things and not eating, it’s not simple. I leave plenty of time to sit and rest, drink water, and regroup. I do one thing at a time.
Now for the first question: What do I want the holidays to be about?
Having established that the holidays are NOT going to be about fixing what’s wrong with every relationship, making up for lost time with people I see once a year, or proving anything, I get to choose what I want them to be about for me. The holidays can be about celebrating.
Interestingly, this is something that I am not so great at. In my using days, I celebrated everything and by extension, nothing. I celebrated it’s Monday, I finished work, it’s a free night, it’s Tuesday, I’m sick, I got a raise, I’m pissed off, I’m bored, I’m lonely, I’m uninspired, I want to write a song, I can’t stand myself, I can’t stand you, it’s Friday! Like that.
I’ve since learned that celebration is about marking something as meaningful and worthy of note, and that I get to say what that is and how to actually celebrate it. On an average day, that might simply be a high-five accompanied by a hearty, “We did it!”
What’s special about the winter time of year for me are 1) the change of season, 2) possibly the magic of snow, 3) the fun of surprising and delighting people with thoughtfulness, 4) traditional foods, and, 5) (sometimes) hanging out with people I love. Pretty much in that order. (But some days it’s all about the food.)
What to do if you don’t feel like celebrating
Feeling celebratory on demand is actually …impossible. So, I offer this: Think of the holiday season as an invitation to consider celebrating something that matters to you. Just an invitation. Examine, match it up with your feelings, beliefs and needs, and reject or accept as indicated.
And grow a thick skin, because people are going to have expectations. But since we’re talking about taking charge of your health, it only works if you get to decide on your own bottom lines with gift-giving, socializing, attending special activities, and all the rest. In other words, if all you do is resist others’ ideas because they don’t seem right for you, it’s going to be harder than if you adopt your own set of guidelines based on your own needs.
Are there elements of the seasonal celebrations that you do enjoy?
Such as: hot chocolate, shopping for trinkets, caroling for old people, lighting candles, going to church services, listening to special music, volunteering at soup kitchens, Thanksgiving dinner (or just the deserts), giving little tokens or cards, making things by hand, learning to cook a traditional recipe, learning something about how other cultures celebrate, understanding more about the religious aspects of the holidays, exploring alternative beliefs.
It can be good to just plunk yourself somewhere you know is an okay place to be, be yourself, and let the time go by. Meet a friend for coffee. Go shopping with someone who has a lot of shopping to do. Hang out while your friend bakes. Go to the Christmas fair and people-watch.
Make a Plan
Yeah, I said that twice, because nothing increases anxiety and the chances for an oops in personal well-being more than unscheduled, free-floating, unstructured, expectation-laden time. Especially during the holidays. You just know that someone somewhere is doing something better or expecting you to do better. So instead of driving yourself crazy with the non-strategy of winging it, make a plan. That means pick out a few things you’d like to do and put them on your calendar. Coordinate with a friend, mark the date of a fair or a concert, carve out time for crafting. Whatever it is you want to have in there, put it in. This creates the container that also keeps out what you don’t want. Neat.
And after you’ve looked at the big picture, focus again on today and make a plan for that, too.
With these as our guides, navigating the season can become manageable. You’ll see elements of all three woven throughout the free download, Vibrant Energy Through the Holidays, which you can use to create a personalized plan for yourself. Hint: It also has tips not covered in this post.