Submitted by Todd Joseph, LPC-IT, CSAC
I love the holidays. As a child, I loved the gifts, the food, time off from school, and activities like deer hunting that only happened at the holidays. Now, as an adult I no longer hunt, but enjoy the gift giving, food, time with family, and break from work. Living the last several years in Florida, the holidays always seemed odd, off, and made up in a way I could never put my finger on. Maybe it was the warm weather, the pictures of Santa in a Hawaiian shirt and flip flops, or the fake snow. I always found the palm trees with Christmas lights particularly wrong. During my Florida time I worked managing and counseling in homeless shelters and drug treatment centers. My clients seemed to universally loath the holidays. They were times of sadness, anger, loneliness, and rejection. We did our best to normalize the fact that many were far from home, had no home, had no family, or family were the ones that created many of the difficulties that brought them to treatment. I suspect our well intentioned efforts felt as false to them as the palm trees with lights and fake snow did to me.
Now relocated back to Northern Wisconsin, the cold, snowy days feel right to me for the approaching holidays. However, people still share stories of past and present difficulty with the holidays. Common themes are feelings of anxiety, and a sense of hurtling out of control through the end of the year as the days grow short, and the holidays seem to come fast upon each other.
There is a sense of loss, and failure as the upcoming holidays not will be anything like what is portrayed on television or internet with beautiful food, and joyous families. Many families have lost someone during the holidays, or lost someone another time in the year, and a chair or a place near the tree is empty. For some, the holidays in childhood were worse than regular days as they were home from the safety of school, in a dangerous and chaotic environment made worse by holiday stress. Even for many without mental health or substance use problems the holidays are still difficult. Still present is the same sense of not meeting expectations, or family missing due to drug use, alcohol, death, or departure.
So, how can we support each other, and enjoy the holidays? First, let go the expectations created by society of perfect family gathering amidst a gift filled room, and meals that look like they were prepared by a television chef with a full staff. Accept who is there, why they are there, what is available to eat, give, receive, and enjoy. Second, focus on what brings you joy: gifts, music, church activities, joy of others, giving, volunteering; whatever makes you happy about the holidays. Third, be gentle with yourself. There is added stress at this time of year. It is ok to limit your exposure to things that take joy from you, even if it is family or work activities. Watch your intake of alcohol, drugs, and even food. They may help you feel better in the short term, but too much only adds to the sense of loneliness and sadness.
The holidays come with high expectations just as we are trying to adjust to the new normal of short, cold, and dark days. Try to focus on the things that bring you joy, be gentle on yourself, and find a little extra time to rest, exercise, and provide care for yourself. We can give to others best when we take good care of ourselves.
Todd Joseph is a psychotherapist and substance use disorder therapist at NorthLakes Community Clinic in Iron River and is currently accepting new patients.