Usually I love the winter holidays. I have great memories from when I was little and my brothers created present treasure hunts for me and from when my nieces and nephews were kids and presented their own original holiday plays. I find the Chicago holiday lights cheerful and a great antidote to the sometimes dreary weather. But bright lights and parties and unrelenting good cheer, in my experience, can also make a person feel that much worse if the holiday occurs after a serious loss, during a difficult personal time, or simply brings bad memories or highlights challenging family circumstances.
|An ornament from my parents' Christmas tree that's now on mine.
2007 was one of the hardest holiday seasons for me. Early that year, both my parents were hit by a drunk driver and died of their injuries. Sadly, through the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists (AAIM), I also know many people whose children were killed and who struggled with the first holiday season and every one thereafter. Less tragic but still extremely difficult situations like a divorce or job loss can also make the end of the year and coming new year hard to handle. And then there are the day-to-day, year-to-year issues that cause many of us to dread holiday meals. Thanksgiving dinner can be less about gratitude and more about refighting family battles, highlighting longstanding feuds, or prompting excessive drinking and related unpleasant behavior or, worse, tragedy if drinking and driving leads to a crash.
What's important when feeling blue or more seriously depressed or anxious at the holidays is experimenting and finding what works for you regardless what tradition dictates. The most freeing thing for one of my friends was realizing there was no law requiring her to attend family holiday gatherings. From then on, her view was, “If you don’t like your family, find another one.” I've spent many holidays with friends rather than family for various reasons. Some people I know from AAIM changed holiday locations after their childrens’ deaths, choosing to travel for Christmas rather than staying home. Others invited friends for coffee and cake on Thanksgiving rather than hosting a traditional large family dinner.
Starting a personal solitary tradition can also be wonderful. A photographer I knew in my twenties found being with his parents very difficult and instead went out each Christmas morning at sunrise to take photographs of Lake Michigan. They were among the most beautiful pictures I’d ever seen, and his ritual struck me as wonderfully peaceful, sane, and happy in an often too-intense holiday season. During a few of the years after my parents’ deaths, I skipped some holiday gatherings entirely in favor or rewatching favorite movies or rereading favorite books. I found the familiarity and predictability comforting after shocking, disturbing life events, and I was freed of feeling I had to keep up a happy face. My favorite books to revisit run the gamut, including Pride and Prejudice, The Little Princess, Gone With The Wind, Atlas Shrugged, The Dead Zone, and The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. I also like putting on a few CDs (yes, I still listen to music on CDs) and making a favorite food like Pillsbury biscuits with cinnamon and brown sugar or heating rich hot chocolate with real milk and dark chocolate shavings. I do try to avoid more than a glass or two of wine because alcohol is a depressant, and too much of it and I’ll start dwelling on people I’ve lost rather than remembering the happy times I had.
In addition to rereading favorite novels, there are a few nonfiction books that helped me over the years, particularly at the holidays. One is Anthony Robbins’ Awaken The Giant Within. I particularly recommend his chapter on the questions we ask ourselves. It's a quick way to help yourself if you tend to get stuck mentally asking things like why something terrible happened to you or someone you love, or why your family is so difficult, or why you aren’t more successful (and I have at different times asked myself all those things, which is part of why I'm enjoying turning fifty). If you are grieving a loss or suffered another type of crises, whether recent or not, I found Living Through Personal Crisis and Coming Back: Rebuilding Lives After Crises and Loss, both by Ann Kaiser Sterns, very helpful. I don’t think the latter is in print anymore, but you can buy used copies on Amazon. And I often refer back to Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff, a book I avoided for many years because the title made me think it was about learning to be a slacker. To the contrary, it is about how to be relaxed and happy while still working hard and achieving goals—very valuable to me as for many years I bought into the idea that those two concepts simply could not coexist.
I hope some of the above thoughts are helpful if you’re struggling with the holidays this year or if the holidays are generally a challenging time for you. And to all my friends, readers, and colleagues, my best wishes for a safe and happy holiday season.