Surviving the Holidays
Surviving the Holidays
For some people the holidays are a great time to get together with family and friends. For others holidays bring an even greater sense of loneliness and isolation. I especially speak of those who suffer from depression, or some other form of mental illness, as well as those who are chemically dependent. People who suffer from this combination of illnesses, known as the dual diagnosed, are doubly marginalized from society, for both mental illness and addiction are two of the most stigmatized ailments there are. Here are some tips for surviving the holidays for people who suffer from one or both maladies or know someone who does.
But first, I’m going to open and close with this:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Cultivate a sense of gratitude for what you have
It’s amazing how much there is to be grateful for. If you are reading this, you’re alive, literate, and most likely free. These are amazing gifts in and of themselves. You probably also have a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your stomach. True, you may not have everything you want, but chances are good that you have the basics, and when it comes down to it, that’s a lot to be grateful for. If you’ve ever been without the basics, think back on those times; if you’ve never been without, you’re more blessed than you realize.
Don’t spend the holidays alone
When I get depressed, my modus operandi is to isolate myself. This is a bad strategy. The sense of loneliness and sadness that depression brings is only exacerbated by being alone. With some important exceptions, spending the holiday with others is better than spending it alone. If this involves associating with people you don’t know that well, so be it. It’s hard to stay depressed when you’re among a group of people. Of course, all poisonous people, those that are harmful in one way or another to our well-being should be avoided, especially during this time, as the holidays seem to be a particularly vulnerable time for many folks.
Treat yourself well
Now is not the time to forget all those things that bring you comfort. If reading is your passion, then by all means read. If you like baths, take a long one. This is true for walks and exercise as well. Don’t stop taking care of yourself just because it’s the holiday season. More often than not, if I find my mood slipping it’s because I’m not doing something to maintain my sense of well-being.
It’s normal to want to drink/drug around the holidays, especially because others are doing it—even those who normally wouldn’t indulge (how ‘bout them fab office parties?). But news flash: the days surrounding the holidays are just like all the others, and you need to be ever vigilant when a craving strikes. One of the best strategies I know is to urge surf. Based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, it essentially means riding the wave of craving. Yes, you want to drink (or drug, or eat a huge piece of pie). Okay, feel it, feel that desire. But rest assuredly in this: the desire is going to pass, just like all the others have. The craving for a drink/other drug is not always going to be as intense and everlasting as it feels at this moment. I promise you. Get to the other side of the wave, let it break and deposit you safely on shore. With a little practice, this strategy can work wonders.
Put off anxiety until the final moment
This is a trick I use against the demon of anxiety. It is essentially a delaying tactic, but if you follow it to its logical conclusion, I assure you that you can get past even the worst moments of anxiety and stress. It is simply this: don’t let the person/place/situation that is making you nervous make you so until the exact moment you have to experience him/her/it. This relies on the idea that the thought of something is actually worse than the thing itself. And 9 times out of 10 it is. If you fear waking up alone on Christmas morning, try not to let it get you down for days or weeks ahead of time. Instead, say to yourself, “Okay, is this the moment when I wake up alone on Christmas morning?” Except when it is that moment the answer to the question will be no. If it is not immediately in front of you, why worry about it? It won’t do any good at all. And the revelation for me came when I actually got to the moment for the anxiety-provoking incident to occur. Because then I found that the stress during that moment was relatively minor compared to all the stress that had led up to it. If you’ve ever survived a stressful situation, I’m sure you can relate. Oh, and if you’ve survived one stressful moment, chances are great that you’ll survive another one. When I remember all the stressful things I’ve gotten past, it gives me confidence to face the next stressful thing.
Don’t have unrealistic expectations for the holidays
Don’t get caught thinking that the holiday is going to solve all your problems, that underneath the tree you will find solutions and anodynes to all your pains and troubles. Maybe it worked that way when we were kids (remember how much you wanted that remote-controlled R2D2?), but no longer. By the time we’ve reached this point in life there are no quick fixes to our happiness, even if it sometimes seems that way. Happiness comes from one day at a time lived to the best of our ability; it is a by-product of a long-term effort. Remembering that should help keep things in perspective.
Remember what the season is about
Here’s a hint: it’s not about me or you. In a twist on a familiar refrain, Ask not what the holidays can do for you, but what you can do for the holidays. The holiday is really about giving to others, but I don’t have to tell you that, right?
Try to recapture the wonder of childhood
Remember the holidays of your childhood? Remember the wonder and magic of it all? Try to recapture that sensation. Something that helps me do this is writing down all the joyous memories of holidays past. I remember that the days right before Christmas seemed endless and that I would have done anything to make the time pass. I remember the whiteness and purity of snow, of the magic-frosted mornings filled with hot chocolate and restless anticipation of The Big Day. I remember the holiday songs streaming throughout the lavishly decorated stores that seemed to hold anything a child could ever wish for. I remember making sugar cookies with my mom and decorating them with different colored icing in thick white tubes. I remember the incredible magic of seeing the brightly colored presents under the tree on Christmas morning, and thinking how tired Santa Claus must be from delivering toys to every child in the world. But most of all, I remember the people, my two beautiful, long-haired sisters, and my mother and father. My parents are gone now, and one of my sisters has multiple sclerosis, but in my memory my family is young, vibrant, and healthy.
This too shall pass
When the pain feels like it will last forever, please realize that it won’t. There will come a day when you’ll smile again, love again, laugh again, and get enjoyment out of the things you used to. I know that it may seem impossible to believe at times, but please trust me on this one.
Please get help if you need it. There is absolutely no shame in it at all. In fact, the only shame lies in not getting the help you need. People are out there who can, will, and want to help. Here’s an excellent place to start:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org. We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Please know that I care and that I’m always reachable by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wishing you the most loving, joyful, and peaceful of holidays,