I don’t know why I felt compelled to toss this blog post out here so near the end of the holiday season, but I’m trying to go with my gut and share more of myself on my blog. So maybe remember this for next year.
It’s been a couple of rough years for my husband and me. My closest friends know the whole story, but I’ve never been the kind of blogger who vomits up every single stressful situation or small hardship in my life. I know it’s therapeutic for some bloggers, and others do it for attention, but I tend to be more of a private person. Some of those struggles I have to process through before I’m ready to blog about them. Some of those struggles I will never blog about.
I fight this battle between seeking others out for support or turning myself into a recluse. Lately I’ve been forcing myself to seek love and support from others, no matter how needy I feel. I struggle desperately to not think that every time a call, text or email arrives from me that my friends think “Oh great. Wonder what the hell has happened now?” I also struggle with posting about problems on social media because I don’t want to be thought of as a drama queen or attention whore. I’ve dealt with people like that, and it was miserable. I’m super-sensitive about being perceived as one of those types of people. I usually like to joke around on twitter or Facebook, and I don’t want to be the Debbie Downer of the party. I feel this despite the fact that when I’ve reached out for support and solace, I’ve been overwhelmed by the advice and compassion I’ve been given, sometimes to the point of tears.
It’s hard to feel full of Christmas spirit when your heart is breaking, when the pain seems to surround you and anxiety presses you down. And the expectations that we have or that others have for us only make it worse because we feel guilty or wrong for being unhappy.
There are a lot of people who are grieving this time of year. It could be the loss of a loved one (even one who died years ago), the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, the loss of the hope that your life or your job or your family could be what you wanted it to be. You may be struggling with illness or poverty or watching someone you love suffer from those things. You may suffer from depression which compounds any of the other losses you’re dealing with. You may not know exactly what is wrong with you, but you just can’t muster up any holiday joy. I’m in no way an expert in the mental health field, but I do know what has helped me in the past and what is helping me this Christmas.
Ask for help
My first bit of advice for when you’re struggling is to reach out to your friends or family that are supportive people (we’ll talk about the unsupportive people in a little bit). I did this recently when I felt myself sinking under the weight of anxiety and grief. And guess what? My friends were delighted to help, grateful to be able to do something for me. There were a few presents that I was dreading buying. And you know what? I asked my mom for help, and she came through like a champ. A couple of months ago, I could feel my body sinking into the horrible unhealthy patterns it’s learned while I haven’t been able to be as active as I’d like. I reached out to my former yoga instructor to see if there was any way I could work around my injuries. And guess what? She was glad to help as well, giving me a free private lesson so I could figure out ways to add yoga back in to my life and keep my body from debilitating further. There are so many other things that I’m so grateful for, but what I’m trying to tell you is to ask for help. It doesn’t make you weak. It allows you to strengthen yourself physically, spiritually or mentally, so that you can help others that need it. It’s a brave thing to do, and when others see you asking for the help you need, you might give them the courage to ask for what they need.
Limit the jerks
Those unsupportive people? I take a pretty hard line stance on this. If they’ve proven time after time again that they aren’t interested in being there for you, are only interested in what they can get from you, and undermine you at every opportunity, you don’t need them in your life. Friends and yes, family members do not have the right to make you feel like crap. A good therapist or support group can help you learn how to set up boundaries with these people, so they can’t suck the strength from you. If you’re struggling with the money for this right now, call your local Department of Health or a local university to see what resources are available. It will be a long, hard journey, but it will bring you much relief in the end. If you’re not ready to take this step, limit the time you spend with them as much as you can. Create tasks that you “have to do”. Stop in at a party, and explain that you can’t stay long because you’ve got another to attend, but how nice to see you. If someone says something insulting or rude to you, tell that person they’re not allowed to talk to you in that way, and if they keep it up, you’ll leave. And if they keep it up? Follow through with your threat and leave. And if you’re not ready for that kind of stance, do what we Southerners do. “My, that’s interesting” said in the most kind but bored tone usually works fairly well. A glass of wine in your hand always makes this easier.
It’s OK to be sad
Please allow yourself to be sad. You don’t have to be happy and jolly just because it’s Christmas. It’s your life, and you can cry if you want to. Really. Buy the tissues with the lotion in it, and allow yourself to grieve the losses you feel. Grief is not just an emotion. It’s a process, and sometimes it’s a sneaky son of a bitch. It can hit you when you least expect it. Let yourself give in to the grief, so you can begin to heal. You may always have a scar, but it’s better than letting it fester inside of you.
Allow yourself peace
Take time to breathe. Cut back on holiday activities. Don’t go all out decorating the house. Don’t accept every holiday party invite. You don’t need to make a holiday meal with all the trimmings. Make it simpler or ask for help. Buy a smaller tree, and enjoy decorating it with such imperfection that Martha would have a stroke. Go for a walk. Take a hike in a quiet place. Even if you’re not religious, sitting for a spell in a church can soothe and calm you. And when you start to feel frantic, sit down for a minute, breath deeply, and remind yourself that imperfection can be your greatest ally. Perfection is kind of a pompous ass, and no one really wants him around anyway.
Throw out the traditions you don’t want and create new ones
Does making a holiday meal exhaust you? Don’t do it. Make something simple or fun like fondue. Make an assortment of appetizers to nibble on. Make a dinner out of cookies and ice cream. Order chinese food. Just because it’s Christmas doesn’t mean you have to have the Norman Rockwell feast.
Is there a holiday movie that you love? Watch it again and again. I adore Holiday Inn even though I know I’m going to cringe through that whole horrible Lincoln’s birthday scene. Love Actually is the most wonderfully cheesy movie, and I cry every time I watch it.
If you hate dealing with a Christmas tree, do something else. Buy a rosemary bush pruned into a tree. Buy a Charlie Brown tree. Wind white lights around a few bare branches.
If the idea of traveling just puts you in a tailspin, find some way, any way to put it off.
Holiday baking can be as simple as buying a tube of sugar cookie dough, and letting your kids go wild with colored sugars and icing. I realize that as a food blogger I’m supposed to be appalled by this, and say that I made 18 different kinds of cookies to give away to everyone. Screw that – I was too busy trying to keep my head above water this year. My friends and neighbors might get Valentine’s day cookies this year.
Declare Christmas an all-day pajama day. Go for a walk. Have a tacky Christmas sweater party. And don’t feel like every Christmas has to be like the one before to be real. Traditions don’t make Christmas real. People do.
Find a way to memorialize your losses and griefs
Light a candle at a church. Find a group to go caroling with. If your mom loved to knit, buy yourself a gorgeous hand knitted scarf (or knit it yourself, but that would stress me out). Look through gardening catalogs and pick something that reminds you of what you miss. Then grow it come Spring. If your dad was a fireman, buy yourself a little fire engine to put on your keychain. Donate to a cause that the person believed in. Write a letter to the person who has hurt and disappointed you, burn it, and scatter the ashes in the wind. Get a tiny little Christmas tree and put up pictures of the ones you’ve loved and lost. If your husband loved a fine aged scotch, drink one in memory of him. If your child loved dinosaurs, maybe a small tree decorated with dinosaurs is the thing for you.
My husband and I are insane, and usually put up a cat themed tree that has a few cat angel ornaments on it. This year was too stressful, but we’re going for it again next year. We usually put it up and cry when we see those angels. And then we laugh at how tremendously tacky we are as we decorate the rest of the tree with cat ornaments and ornaments of all the things our cats would kill if they were outside. It even has cat shaped lights. It is hideous. We love it, and we remember the furbabies we miss, cry and laugh at how tacky we are.
Heal yourself spiritually
This doesn’t have to mean you need to be religious. Sometimes I feel God closest when I’m hiking. You might just find the beauty of nature soothing you. Go listen to a choir sing. Listen to children playing in a park, and find joy in their delight. Go help someone you know is in need, and give back to the karma in this world. Create whatever it is that soothes your spirit.
I am christian, and my church helped me though this season. They have a service that’s known as their Blue Christmas service. The darkness of the world is acknowledged, and the joy that can be found even when all seems lost is celebrated. We offer up the losses in our lives and recognize the blessings. We can be anointed with healing oil, or light a candle in remembrance of our grief or loss. Marcus and I were brought to tears several times, but we felt comforted knowing that there were others sharing in our grief. I’m grateful to belong to a church that recognizes that it’s OK to struggle with the darkness, to feel at times that you have no faith, to feel at times that joy is impossible. God loves us even in our darkest hours.
I think about the struggles that Joseph and Mary went through. They must have felt anxious and scared. Mary felt physical pain when their baby was born, but might have also felt deep emotional pain knowing the rough journey her son had ahead of him. A baby was born that would bring joy to the world, but he was also the son that would be taken away from them in a horrible way.
If you find comfort and love from your religion, take advantage of that. If you don’t feel that comfort and love, but still hope for that spiritual sustenance quit doing what isn’t working, and find a church that focuses on loving and taking care of people, rather than condemning them. They’re out there. I know because I go to one.
Listen to yourself
That’s where the quiet part advice comes in. Listen to what’s going on in your mind as you breathe deeply. What sounds good to you? If Christmas on a tropical island will heal you, and you can afford it, go for it. If you want to escape to a cabin in the snowy woods? Do that. If your whole neighborhood puts up lights, and you can’t bear the thought of it this year? Don’t do that. If helping feed homeless people at a shelter brings you comfort? Do that. Really listen to yourself. If you haven’t been doing that, it’s a bit hard to hear your inner voice at first, but keep doing it, and it will rarely lead you wrong.
As I sit here typing this, a Sammy-cat lays across my lap. She’s so sprawled out that I’m typing this with one hand, knowing I’ll have to add the capital letters later. I know there are people who aren’t pet people. But pet people will understand why I’m sitting here typing one handed, brushing tears from my eyes, feeling like my heart is breaking. Sam was the first cat Marcus and I co-owned. She became part of the furred & unfurred family we created for ourselves. I sit here typing this, hoping and praying she’ll make it through the holidays because we want so badly for her to die at home surrounded by the two people that love her desperately.
Added to everything else that has gone on in our lives? I’ll be honest – it’s going to be very hard for me to be joyful this Christmas, but I’m lucky enough to have a family that will understand this. I’ll find joy in their compassion and love. I’ll find peace in the fact that I know others are struggling to find joy in the darkness, and know that none of us are alone. I’ll remember that the struggle to find joy is something we all go through, and there will be Christmases where the joy will just seem to emanate from everything and everyone.
But it’s perfectly OK for the joy this year to be bittersweet. And it’s OK for yours to be bittersweet as well.