Ah, it's that time of year again. Snow is falling (well, it is if you're lucky enough to live in a semi-normal climate). Lights glow from trees. Delicious smells waft from kitchens. Families gather together in love and goodwill to celebrate gratitude, the birth of Christ, the miracle of the lights, or one another.
Or...not. Can your family's gatherings be described more as an emotional and spiritual WWE event than a live-action Norman Rockwell painting? Do you leave each family function feeling as though you've been used as an emotional (I sincerely hope not physical) punching bag? Have you reached a point where you've made the decision to stop attending any family holiday functions, but the holidays still reach out to make you feel miserable and alone?
Then you're in the right place for this post!
I've mentioned in previous posts in this series that I have cut off all contact with the more dysfunctional and/or addicted members of my family of origin. Though I know that was the right decision for us and I do not miss the nastiness, drama, and insanity that was always a part of my family's holidays, I think that even the most detached person who has made this kind of decision feels as though they have a hole in their soul during the holidays. The important thing is to recognize that in most instances, that longing is for something that didn't exist in the first place, rather than a tinsel-covered version of what does exist. In my case, I wish that I had family members in these particular roles who were kind, functional, supportive and loving, the sort of family who I would rationally long to see at the holidays. I had to recognize that it not only was it okay to mourn that I didn't have such people, but that I needed to recognize that the family members I did have in these roles would not--and, in fact, could not--fill the roles that they were called to fill, and no amount of effort on my part would change them.
The way that I've found to work best in dealing with holidays as an adult child of dysfunctional and/or addicted parents is to follow this plan:
1) HALT. Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? If so, I am not going to think about these feelings at all until I have taken care of those basic needs. Those needs exacerbate an already stressful time of year. Don't forget to exercise; even if you just take a brisk mile-long walk, the endorphins and fresh air will help clear your head.
2) After those needs are taken care of, look at those feelings calmly and rationally. Has anything changed to make me feel that way, or are bad memories and feelings just resurfacing? If something has changed and I need to respond to it, I'll decide on a reasonable course of action. Most of the time, however, adult children in this situation realize that nothing has changed, and that this is just a resurgence of past unhappiness. Acknowledge this, but do what you can to change your memories of the holiday by making your own good memories, which brings us to step three.
3) Think about what made you happy as a child or teenager about this holiday. You'll have a lot of bad memories, but try to look past them to the small, happy things. Was it a particular Christmas carol? Seeing lights on a neighbor's house? Even something as small as red, sparkly nail polish? Make a note of these things, and focus on them. Note: retail therapy is not the point here. Don't go out and spend thousands of dollars on stuff you don't need! The point is to make your own happy memories. If stringing a few $5 strands of lights around your living room while listening to Christmas music will do that, then do it!
4) Get out of yourself. Immerse yourself in something happy, but also look for a way to make someone else joyful, too. Look for the older woman who always goes to Mass alone, and make a batch of Christmas cookies for her. Bring some across the street to that neighbor you keep meaning to visit. While you're there, ask that person how they're doing--and really listen. You might be surprised. Invite them over for dinner. Dinner doesn't have to be fancy; the best compliments I've gotten on spur-of-the-moment dinners are usually on something as simple as a pot of soup, a loaf of good bread, and maybe some fruit for dessert. Simple food is often the most comforting, and it encourages people to relax.
5) If you've set reasonable boundaries with the addicted or dysfunctional family, do not allow holiday feelings to overrule your need for these boundaries! I quite agree that it would be wonderful if such family members would, a la a Christmas TV special, use this time of year to reform their behavior and become the people they're called to be. The fact is, it just doesn't work that way. If, for example, your brother spends every Christmas drunk out of his mind, making inappropriate comments, getting behind the wheel drunk, and setting things on fire while in an alcoholic stupor, and he hasn't gone to rehab, attended recovery meetings for a significant period of time, and generally shown a determination to change his life before the holidays set in, it would probably be a bad idea to invite him to your house for Christmas dinner and then lend him the keys to your car on the rather flimsy grounds that "after all, it's Christmas!" The fact that it's Christmas won't change anything. If anything, an addict is much more likely to behave badly on important days because of his or her interior guilt over the way that he or she is behaving. It's a pretty vicious cycle.
This can be hard. It gets easier over the years, but yesterday, for example, I woke up absolutely miserable. Why? Well, partly because I hadn't had quite enough sleep, and partly because, well, we're in the midst of the holidays. I love Advent; in fact, it's my favorite time of year. I love the feeling of waiting-in-hope, the sight of an Advent wreath on the table, the baking and distribution of Christmas goodies, the decorating, the yearly decision-making of Where To Put the Creche, and so on. Yet Advent does build expectations of family and home, and though I could not be more blessed in my spouse or in-laws, they cannot, and should not be expected to, replace what isn't there: a loving, warm, supportive birth family.
Yesterday, I made a conscious decision that I would not allow bad memories and a longing for something that isn't there to determine how my day would go. I knew I had several things to do that would make me happy, so after I took a much-needed nap, I got busy doing them. One of the things a person learns in Al-Anon is to "act as if": i.e., act as if you are functional or happy or what-have-you, and soon you'll find yourself being exactly that. So I finally dug out that Advent wreath, I put up the crèche (sans Baby Jesus, of course--He arrives on Christmas), I looked over the Christmas decorations to figure out what still worked and what I'd need to buy, I made a batch of pfeffernusse dough (really, how can you go wrong with anything that has cardamom, orange peel, and brandy in it?), I made an exception to my usual not-before-Gaudete-Sunday rule and put on some Christmas music...and an hour or so into all of this, I found myself in a really good mood. In fact, by the end of the day I could honestly say that it had been a very good day.
1) HALT, and deal with any immediate needs you have.
2) After that, acknowledge the negative feelings, but don't deliberately linger on them.
3) Make and/or perpetuate your own Christmas traditions.
4) Take the focus off of yourself and put it on someone else, and that in a good way.
5) Keep those boundaries firm.