5 Beautiful Ways to Survive the Holidays While Miserable

Are you overwhelmed by the holidays yet?

child fireplace mug family
Redefining meaningful holidays

Did you sit through Thanksgiving a little bit grateful but also a little bit sad? What if you are entering the holiday season in the midst of a crisis relating to your child’s chronic illness?  Or a loved one’s catastrophic diagnosis, PTSD or something else that makes you totally unfit to enter into the spirit of the season?

That’s me at the moment.  Thanksgiving has come and gone—even Nordy’s finally put up it’s Christmas decorations.  But here I am not feeling at all Christmassy.

What to do?

Well first, if you’re me, you check to see if Christmassy is really a word and if you have spelled it correctly.  Then you come up with rules to survive this season of joy, even though you feel like you haven’t been capable of joy in quite some time.

#1          Fake it

I was talking to my sister around Thanksgiving.  She was asking about my son who spent a few weeks in the hospital before being transferred to an inpatient treatment program.  When she asked how I was doing, I was too tired to be anything but honest.

Tired and sad.  Empty. That’s what I told her.

Shocked, she claimed I sounded so good.  She thought I was doing really well.

I told her I was faking it.

Sometimes when you act like you’re fine, happy even, you can trick your brain into believing it.  If it works, you can scrabble together some of the energy you need.  Even the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re happy.

This fake it ‘til you make it strategy is based, in some respects, on science (see, for instance, here or here), and I have found that it works pretty well to get through short term social engagements.  Especially those I want to go to, but don’t feel like I have the emotional stores to make it through dry-eyed.

This was the strategy I used for Thanksgiving.  Sad and tired notwithstanding, I wanted to go, I wanted it to be an occasion filled with love and laughter. So, I faked it.  I forced smiles and laughs until I was really smiling and laughing. As I faked my own joy, I was able to openly connect with my friends and family.  I was able to feel true delight at our friends’ engagement, real enjoyment in food lovingly prepared.  I left feeling genuinely thankful for so much.

One caveat, you have to make sure it’s the happiness you are faking.  It doesn’t work if you are just burying the sad you feel.  You have to honor the sad and then make a point to enjoy your time with family and friends.

 

#2          Lower the bar

I’ve been working on lowing my bar for a while.  I remember a few years ago I was asked how I was doing and instead of throwing out a reflexive, I’m fine, I thought for a second.  I realized both of my children spoke to me and that makes a great day.

Not good.  Great.

My expectations frame how I perceive my life.  So, I pare it down to the barest essentials.  Now, I don’t even need the kids to talk to me for it to be a great day.  Today, it’s just that the kids are alive.  And, given the fragility of life, I know it’s possible I may have to lower it even further.

“But, Gigi,” you say, “my bar is already on the ground, how can it get even lower?” And to that I say, “get a shovel.”  It can always be lower.

 

#3          Re-evaluate your priorities

Just because you have always had a Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah party at your house, doesn’t mean you have to have one this year.  Just because your family loves your version of holiday feast, doesn’t mean you can’t just go to Red Tracton’s and let them do the cooking, serving and cleaning up.  Take a look at your holiday traditions.  Decide which ones have real meaning to you.

For me, it’s always been the tree.

girl christmas tree presents holiday
My perfect tree, long ago and far away

I have a tree decorating ritual, complete with cookies and champagne.

It’s a little obsessive, I admit.  After the tree is up, I string the lights, then wind the ribbon around it.  Next, the angel goes on the top.

After that, the kids get their new ornament.  We give them one each year, even now that they are 16 and 19.  My mom did this as I grew up. When she finally sent them to me after I got married, I relished putting them onto my adult tree.  It acknowledged my old traditions at the same time I began creating new ones with my husband.

She continued this tradition giving each grandchild an ornament every year.  Now, we each have our own large collection.  We take turns placing them on the tree until it’s full and my husband says we have too many and need to scale back.  After that, I try to balance the aesthetic and fill in the holes with the red blown glass balls which my husband claims don’t fit.  Then we stand back and admire our work.

That’s it.  A perfect holiday for me.  We have done this exactly the same for 18 years or so. I thought it was required to make our holiday perfect.

Until last year.

Last December I was barely functional. I was dealing with migraines, and vertigo and my own mental health issue.  School carpool and my doctor’s appointments were almost the only reasons I would leave the house.

It was our first half-assed Christmas.  The tree went up just a few days before Christmas, we didn’t even decorate it until Christmas Eve.  No cookies, no champagne, no pictures.  No ribbon, just lights.  We picked out a few ornaments and didn’t bother with the rest.  And even though there was plenty of room, the blown glass balls stayed in their box.

And I still had a perfect holiday.

It wasn’t the ritual or completed tree that was important.  It was just us being in this together.  That space of time we took to be with each other.  I recently talked to the boy about last year’s half-assed tree and he remembered it as a great tree.

We will probably have a half-assed Christmas this year too.  I’m redefining perfect in ways that have nothing to do with gifts, decorations and traditions, and instead revolve around space and time carved out to be grounded with those I love.

crane in lagoon at christmas
What I do with my crew instead of shopping

Sometimes half-assed is perfect, you just need to reevaluate your definition. Distill what you need to make meaning of this season.  You will be amazed by how much you can let go.

 

 

#4          Give your time to your community

Time is always a precious commodity during the holiday season.  The theory of relativity never seems to work in my favor in December.  But if you spend your time helping others, it can ground you in the meaning of the season.  And, if you’ve followed number 3 above, you will have lots more of it.

It’s sounds counter intuitive, but it is backed up by science.  Volunteering has positive effects on the volunteers mental and physical health.  (like this from Harvard).  Do yourself a favor and take a shift at a local food pantry, organize a toy drive for foster kids, take time to play with some Head Start kids.  Smile at strangers.

#5          Quit reading lists of how to survive the holidays.

Breathe, you got this.

 

(c) 2017 Gigi Quinn

Dishes, autonomy and a mug full of wine

I am currently drinking wine out of a coffee mug. It’s a fairly plain white mug with the chemical structure of caffeine printed in black on it. I remember purchasing this for my husband when he was in graduate school. It was prior to amazon.com so I had to take the long train ride to Redding terminal market where I had seen it a few weeks before but neglected to purchase it because the panic of Christmas shopping was not yet upon me. I used cash, and it was the only thing I purchased, except maybe some yummy Amish baked goods that I can’t exactly remember but I’m sure I couldn’t resist.

Those were easy, simple days when a 15-dollar mug that spoke to where we were at that moment in time was a perfectly acceptable gift. I kind of miss those days. But as lovely as those memories are, they somehow don’t distract me from the fact that I’m pissed I am drinking a fairly decent Malbec from this same mug 20 years later.

dishes
A sinful of dishes?

Why, you might ask? Why am I pissed off or why am I drinking wine out of a coffee mug? The answer is the same to both questions. If my son had bothered to do the dishes (it’s a consequence for something he did that I can’t quite remember) on any one of the last 5 days, I would be using a wine glass instead and not be pissed off.

Or if I had decided to do the dishes myself because sometimes you need to pick your battles, I might be sipping it out of one of my regular glasses, the cute French ones with the bees on them.

Perhaps if I had really thought through giving him dish duty as a consequence I wouldn’t be so angry, because I would have never shot myself in the foot by giving him something that is important to me. Or maybe I’m just pissed he still has to have consequences at all.

Or that I’m the one doling them out.

I used to think I wanted a dish fairy who would come and magically clean the kitchen while I slept or read a book or did anything else but the dishes. To me they are a chore much like the laundry, never ending with no sense of accomplishment upon completion.

But the dishes and I have come to a sort of détente, I do them mindfully, and I don’t freak out about how they are a symbol of the lack of respect and gratitude that my entire family feels for me.

So maybe I haven’t come to détente with my dishes, but I have come to realize in the grand scheme of things dishes are not a ditch I want to die in. I just do them and they stop irritating me.

Instead of a dish fairy, now though, I want a consequence fairy. A fairy who will magically swoop in and issue the perfect consequence for whatever infraction has been brought to my attention. A consequence that will be a punishment that fits the crime sort of thing, something that will be meaningful and not punitive. Something that will be a learning opportunity and bring greater meaning and respect into all of our lives.

Or, fuck that, just something that he will do and if he doesn’t only he will suffer any negative impact. Just not the dishes, it drives me crazy having a sinful waiting to be done.

Ha-ha. Did you see that? I accidentally typed sinful instead of sink full. Maybe this is a sign I have a subconscious belief that dishes are my punishment for some horrible sin I committed.

Maybe I feel unworthy of love and the dishes have just become a projection of this deeply held, unacknowledged belief.

Maybe I’m not upset about the boy child’s refusal to do his job, but instead feel I need to be punished because, perhaps, I am a bit too jealous that my husband is in New Orleans eating his way through the best culinary city on the planet while I am at home with a sink full of dishes and drinking wine out of a coffee mug because our almost 18-year old son has decided to assert his autonomy.

who me toddlers become teenagers
Who me? Assert independence?

If I indulged in another mug of wine, I could probably come up with all sorts of Freudian issues that this anger is indicative of. I could use my now better than average knowledge of psychological wellbeing to institute a treatment plan to help me recognize and overcome these issues and start building skills to make them manageable.

I probably don’t even need another mug of wine to realize that this nest leaving behavior is the same pain-in-the-ass behavior from when he was two and asserting independence.

Enough, enough! I’m fine with independence. I can deal with change and distance and autonomy. It has been my goal as much as it has been yours. There is no need to challenge my authority, goodness knows I haven’t asserted it very much anyway. I know you are capable of independence. I know that you are ready. I know I can’t control you or anything else.

Could you please just do the dishes?

(c) 2016 Gigi Quinn