Holidays – can be more than difficult for some of us. In fact this time of year can often be hell for those of us who come from families of drama/trauma and dysfunction. Understanding that we are not alone in this and finding a few strategies to navigate this season that can send us to the edge is often helpful.
As we are quickly approaching the holiday season for 2015 I thought I’d take a minute and share some posts from the past that I’ve done on the subject.
Before I get to the essay’s from the archives though I’d like to suggest that it IS completely possible to find our way back to the light even though this may feel like a dark time.
By first choosing to change the way we view this time of year.
We can choose to do a repeat of years past where we feel alone because we can’t be with our families for whatever reason. Patterns of family dysfunction and abuse may have driven us to distance ourselves. Or maybe they were the ones that initiated the shunning as you began growing in your healing journey because of their expectations that you resume your traditional role of scapegoat; the one who is the family “problem”.
Sibling’s can be cruel. Parents can be dismissive. Feeling judged, criticized, or constantly on guard can leave us wishing we’d not attended family events or wondering how we can get out of going. Or maybe during our journey because of our own patterns of dysfunction passed generationally to our children they have found the need to distance themselves.
Or maybe it’s simply a matter of being physically incapable of engaging with the bigger world due to illness, iatrogenic (doctor caused) or otherwise. Being isolated and feeling alone because we are disconnected, distanced or otherwise have no close relationships other than our online world can be fodder for our mind to go to that place of “shoulds” and expectations that things be different than they are.
And this – is the source of our suffering.
Regardless of the reason we are distanced from others during this season we can change our focus, find a future and free ourselves from the misery and suffering that magnifies our aloneness.
The desire for things to be different than they are is the source for much if not all of our human emotional pain. In the 12 Step programs we hear about “letting go”. In the serenity prayer we learn about acceptance of those things we cannot change. Buddhism tells us that it is our resistance to reality that is the source of our suffering. Christianity tells us that when we turn to acceptance and release our concerns that we will find that peace that passes understanding (Philippians).
So how do we do this? How do we find “acceptance” of events and feelings that we find unbearable?
- We find hope. When we see ourselves as powerless over our state of mind and state of being we are going to feel hopeless. There is no getting around that. This plays out all the time, every day, all around the world as millions are told their suffering is a brain disorder or disease and choose death over suffering that doesn’t stop. Suffering is real. The idea that our suffering stems from a brain disorder or disease is not. There is no evidence to prove this and psychiatrists world wide base their diagnosis on a list of behavioral symptoms garnered over years of observation and compiled into what we now know as the DSM (diagnostic and statistical model of mental disorders). Many of us seeking help, as we do, feel a sense of hope because we have a “diagnosis” so now they can tell us what to do feel better. We are given potent and toxic drugs that offer severe and deadly side effects that kill those taking them 25 years sooner than those who do not take them. You can read more about the biological paradigm of what is today called mental illness here, here and here. Disclaimer: this is not to say that anyones struggle is not real. It is. Suffering is real. I understand that some have found using pharmaceuticals to be helpful although I have not found anyone who can tell me that these drugs have completely relieved them of their suffering but in fact often have caused additional suffering and physical harm by way of side effects we are told are necessary (Note: please see this video about the intended effects of these drugs. You can read more about one persons journey to this understanding here. For more on how to become more informed on this issue and the safe reduction or withdrawal from psychotropic drugs please begin here.
- We recognize and process our grief at the losses we’ve experienced; we “go through” and will find we can “get out of” that dark place. Too often in a society that says any emotional expression outside of the “norm” is an inevitable lifetime illness we never learn how to “grieve” and instead learn to stuff our feelings. The result of this is typically we either shut down or blow up when things become overwhelming; we can’t contain feelings that were/are biologically created to be expressed and relieved through that expression of emotion by way of our words and physical expressions through our behaviors.
- We feel the anger instead of denying or stuffing it. Anger unexpressed will express itself as physical illness or emotional illness/instability. We will either act out against toward others and ourselves or eventually shut down when we can no longer contain it and have no way to express it.
- As we allow the anger at some point we will also begin to feel grief and sadness. Oftentimes we can’t identify what is causing our deep sadness but will rather describe it as “depression”. This in turn feeds the idea that we are powerless over these feelings and require some sort of intervention to feel better.
- As we allow and process through these feelings in time we find acceptance. This is that place where we can acknowledge “what is” without needing or wanting it to be anything other than it is.
As we engage in this practice we realize this is an active, not a passive process.
This work is not something we do once and hope for a magical outcome. This is why it is called “work”. For us to find that place of peace that passes understanding we must learn to return to the process and be willing to live in a state of self-awareness and acceptance.
Creating new meaning
Part of this process is learning to create new meanings for holidays and other days that might be emotional triggers that can send us off the deep end and back to that dark place. For a long time, post family events during the holidays – this time when I was first learning to live this new life outside of the drama/trauma and dysfunction – I would sit alone. Holidays were not like any other day. They were holidays. Or birthdays. Or the day my mother took her own life. The point is that the year is full of days and dates that hold memories – good or bad. And these memories can quickly take us down memory lane where we are either reminiscing or wishing that things could have or could be better. The magical thinking that leaves us wishing and wanting for more that “what is”.
One year I had had enough. It was August. The month my mother took her own life. Each year was a struggle. For all of these years I did not connect the dots of my low mood and irritability to this event that took place now forty years ago. So I decided to start creating a new experience and story for myself around this time of year. I began with weeks before the anniversary date of her death investigating things I could do ON THAT DATE to give it new meaning. Ultimately I enrolled in a course that started that day. Now – my brain had something else to connect to that date besides just my mothers death. I still deal with this anniversary date every year but now I also have something positive to connect to it so I can mourn her life and death when it comes up for me but I can also choose to reflect on how taking this class enriched my life.
Another example would be the holiday season where I’d chosen to no longer attend the family gatherings that always left me feeling “less than” and drained. I would become sullen, angry and irritable at the way I was treated but as happens in families of generational patterns of abuse and denial it was not acceptable to address those feelings or the way I was treated. After a few years of sitting home alone and dwelling, bathing in and embracing my resentment and anger I decided that I would no longer be alone. I decided to volunteer at a local restaurant donating their proceeds to a children’s program. It felt odd and different to be around strangers on this day but in the process I came to value the fact that I could determine my destiny and how I experienced this difficult time of year.
These are just a couple of examples of what we can do to create new meaning and relieve ourselves of the chronic emotional and physical pain that comes with prolonged suffering.
If holidays are hard for you? Take some time to consider what you might do to make this year different.
How could you process your anger and grief at the losses you’ve faced?
How could you make new meaning for these days?
So while holidays can be hell for those of us from backgrounds of generational patterns of drama, trauma and dysfunction we are NOT powerless to change this for ourselves.
I wish you the best and look forward to hearing from you about the strategies and choices you’ve made to make this holiday season, if not a happy one, at least one in which you can find acceptance and maybe a little bit of that peace that passes understanding….