The holiday season can bring mixed emotions for many people, so if you’re not feeling the holiday season, you’re not alone. Seeing old friends and family members may be exciting, dysfunctional families may cause you stress or anger, maybe you’re spending your first holiday alone, maybe you want to spend this holiday season alone, you may be learning to live with life after a loss (a loved one or even a divorce), you may be dealing with tremendous amounts of pressure, your illness – mental or physical – may be pushing you to the edge, and some people find that the holidays may bring up memories of disappointments.
Feeling depressed or anxious is not unusual during the holiday season, in fact many people consider the “happiest time of the year” as “the worst time of the year,” and that’s okay. There’s no law that says you have to enjoy any part of the holidays, not do you have to say yes to everything everyone invites you to. You’re allowed to say NO to events and you’re allowed to feel upset.
Just know that the perfect families you see on Facebook, in those sappy holiday movies, and every freaking commercial are actually bullshit. Sappy holiday movies and commercials act happy because they are full of actors acting happy because they’re getting paid to behave that way. And we all know how you can manipulate your Facebook (or other social media outlets) to make it appear that your family is happy, content, normal, and (clearly) better than yours. Plenty of people (raises hand) have a tremendously hard time skimming their social media during the holidays because it brings up something they don’t have: a child, a family, a loved one, friends, or even a place to stay.
This is also bullshit. Don’t buy into it. Seriously, it’s not worth it.
We’re (I’m) going to be splitting the list up based upon different scenarios you may be facing, divorce, addiction, dysfunctional families (etc), but let’s start with the general tips for surviving the holidays.
General Tips for Surviving The Holidays:
First things first: if you don’t think it’s going to be healthy for you to be around holiday stuff (commercials, social media posts, movies), DON’T. I mean it. Pay the $10 bucks to get Netflix or Hulu (I am a Netflix aficionado, by the by, so if you need some grisly things to watch to get your mind off the season, I’m your woman), delete the social media apps from your phone until the season is over, and practice my favorite word: FUCK NO. If doing what other people ask of you will do you in in someway (not judging a bit), say FUCK NO. Or just NO.
Remember: you DON’T have to be everyone’s everything.
If you’re afraid that using the n-word (NO) will piss people off, remember that there are sometimes that you simply MUST put yourself first. Your sanity, health; those are more important that eating Auntie Jean’s radish pie.
If you simply can’t face someone who’s going to yell at you or give you a damn guilt trip about the holidays, turn off your phone. Block their number. Block their email. Just until it’s over and your world has been righted again.
Ah, guilt. My default emotion. For someone raised agnostic, I carry a tremendously large amount of guilt on my shoulders. Is the problem my fault? 99.9% of the time it is not, but I still can’t stop with the guilt. If you’re feeling tremendous guilt for not doing That Thing (cooking, hosting, attending, buying presents, being cheerful, not whistling Zip-A-De-Do-Dah out of your damn asshole, whatever it is), my suggestion after years and years and years wallowing in it is to do something to get out of your headspace (no drugs, presumably no alcohol). What’s your absolute favorite thing to do? Build Legos? Buy a kit especially for the occasion. Needlepoint? Order yourself a couple of new patterns. Video games? Buy a couple of new ones to escape into. Really, this part is up to you, and it really does work.
As much as you can, stick to your routine to avoid unwanted (and avoidable) stress. If this isn’t possible (especially if you’re traveling), try to make sure you take at least a couple minutes devoted to yourself. I find hiding in the bathroom or garage or basement works quite well as it gives you a chance to just BE yourself BY yourself.
A lot of the stress around the holidays (for me, at least) is having to play the role that’s expected of me. I know that sounds weird and I’d like to be all “Free To Be You And Me” but that’s simply not always doable. I have to curb my mouth, NOT express my wildly different opinions, and pretend that I shoot rainbows and glitter out of my ass every single moment of every single day. I don’t, so it’s another role for me to take on.
When I was not estranged from my family, I’d have to be The Fuck Up (my role in the family)(see also: addiction), which made me feel about 12 again, which is how I would invariably act. If you’re going to be forced to play a role that you cannot abide by (i.e. The Fuck-Up), get out of going.
Personally, I find that the stomach flu works best. NOBODY wants to be exposed to that shit, even those of us with iron-clad immune systems. It’s a tactic you can only use right before the holiday starts, which may be stressful, but it’s The Easy Way Out.
The Hard Way Out involves being absolutely, undeniably, and often anger-inducing honest. Being honest is something important to me as an ex-addict, which is why it took me getting sober to cease our relationship. While that’s sad, what’s more sad is being treated like a gigantic toddler who can’t do anything right – at age 38!
I’ve got no judgement whatsoever for whichever method you choose, but I will tell you that The Hard Way Out will make you feel strong, mighty, and in charge of your own life.
Every other “guide to the holidays” will tell you to do it all in moderation. That’s bullshit. The holidays come once or twice or three times a year, so if you can enjoy them? Do. Eat that delicious radish pie (do not ask me where that idea came from). Chug on some ‘nog. Enjoy every second of it, if that’s possible. My only objection is drinking and driving. Or getting high and driving. Stay safe. You don’t want to ruin someone else’s holiday.
If you’re (your age here), you know that nothing will go as planned. Murphy’s Law LIVES for the holidays. And that’s okay. No, I mean it. You there, in the back, worrying yourself into a tizzy, trying to control all of the things, seriously, TAKE A BREATH. 9 times out of 10, no one will even notice what went wrong. They’re too busy getting drunk, singing “God Save The Queen” and passing out on your amazing, new mink rug.
If, by chance, you actually believe that one of your friends or family is able to pull off a perfect holiday, I’ve got some waterfront property in Arizona to sell you.
If you need help, say so. You’re not going to ruin anyone’s time by saying, “Hey, I need some help with (XYZ),” and if they act like you’re ruining your time, you have my permission photoshop the shit out of their photos.
If you want to be alone, that’s cool. Don’t let anyone tell you that you “shouldn’t be alone” during the holidays – UNLESS YOU ARE A DANGER TO YOURSELF OR OTHERS, in which case GET THEE TO AN ER IMMEDIATELY. But if you’re just an introvert who doesn’t get into the holidays or the crowds or whatever, you’re perfectly normal.
However, if you don’t want to be alone, find somewhere to go celebrate. Put a call out on Social Media, ask friends and family, find out what activities are in the area for people who can’t or don’t have a family. There’s absolutely NO SHAME in that.
If you anticipate spending the holidays alone, try to volunteer somewhere, like in a soup kitchen, with children in group homes, or the elderly in various facilities. People will so appreciate you that you may feel better about yourself, but more importantly, you’ll have company.
Let the past stay buried. A fair number of us (raises hand) have some wrongs in our past that we cannot seem to right, no matter how hard we try. This becomes problematic if you allow yourself to become an Injustice Collector. We’ve all met them, they’re the people who remember that thing you did once when you were 11 and no I will not let it go. If you’ve got one in your holidays, prepare for it, or (my favorite thing to do) is to record them with your phone if they start on that thing you did wrong – so wrong – 80 years ago and play it back for them, just so they can see how ridiculous they sound. It might not do anything, but it’s hilarious to watch their reactions.
Dude, you matter too. Yes you. If anyone tells you differently or makes you feel as though you should be doing X, Y, or Z and you don’t feel you can? Don’t. Say no.
Do something nice for yourself. I mean beyond the eating and merriment, something that you’re really going to enjoy. A massage for after the holidays. Buy yourself something you want. Stuff for a new hobby. Anything that makes you feel good (and is NOT illegal) so that during those nasty moments you experience throughout the holidays, you can look forward to something concrete.
Don’t go for broke. Yeah, it may be awesome to get your entire family elaborate, expensive gifts, but if you can’t swing it? DON’T. I’m not crafty (and I often think of crafty gifts as something terrifyingly – often hilariously – awful), but I can make cookies and shit like that. It’s cheap and easy. The holidays aren’t a dick measuring contest, they’re supposed to be about togetherness. Or, at least, that’s what the commercials tell me.
Addiction and Sobriety During The Holidays:
The holidays are a stressful time for everyone.
Between gift-giving, travel, and family, it’s really easy to jump into the easiest coping mechanism you have, whatever that may be – overeating, overspending, you get my drift. Addicts in recovery (as well as those facing an active addiction), are at particular risk for relapse and a nasty downward spiral. Sobriety is hard enough to deal with during the less stressful times in the year, the holidays practically beg for you to relapse or engage in an ugly downward spiral.
Why Are The Holidays So Difficult For Addicts?
As amazing as a holiday can be, addicts (in recovery or not), the stress and even merriment of the season can trigger the issues responsible for developing an addiction in the first place; money, loss, divorce, family, stress are all reasons that addicts may begin to use and abuse their substance of choice. Old conflicts with family and friends that haven’t yet been addressed can trigger a relapse. Much of the research on addiction has verified that the extra extra of the holidays can drive even a person long into recovery back into its claws.
On the other end of the spectrum, addicts without a stable family or group of friends are often left feeling alone and isolated during the holidays, another powerful source of the shame and boredom that can drive addictive behavior.
So we all agree: the holidays can lead to relapse. Period.
Tips For Avoiding Relapse During The Holidays:
The first – and best – thing an addict can do is to make – and stick to – a plan that accounts for the stress of the holidays. Some options I use are:
Go to a meeting before or after a get together.
Maybe plan a call with a sober friend during the event to check in on you.
Bring a sober buddy (or even your sponsor) with you to the occasion
Making sure you have a way to leave the event on your own so that in the event you need to get away from your relapse triggers, you can do so without depending upon Uncle Bob to drive you home
Make SURE you have an escape plan if things become too much.
Keep a soda or water in hand at all times; that’ll stop people from asking you if you need a drink.
Avoid those you’ve got to avoid to save your sanity. If Auntie Rachel, for example, is going to try to talk to you about rehab, rub the stupid shit you did when you were wasted in your face, make you feel ashamed, or thump her Bible at you, GET THEE AWAY FROM HER. You don’t need that level of bullshit.
If you’re already feeling triggered to use or believe that you will abuse during the holiday season, go back to rehab. You’ll be safe there.
Do not forget that many people experience a relapse AFTER the holidays, when life returns to normal. You’re going to have to plan for that, too.
Should I Choose New Years As My Sober Date?
If you’re still actively using and want to stop, chances are that you’re going to have to choose a Sober Date, and often times New Years Day is the day that many choose to stop other self-destructive habits. It’s a fresh year, a fresh take, a fresh new life.
(I personally could never manage the pressure of a New Years resolution, but hey, I’m me and you’re, well, not me.)
Unfortunately, as we’ve all learned, it doesn’t usually work, and for addicts, going cold turkey is a strategy that guarantees few success stories. It’s hard, even dangerous, to quit cold turkey depending on your substance of abuse.
If you do plan to use New Years Day as your Sober Date, remember this: you have got to work up to it. I’d go with starting a few months before, depending upon how long you’ve been using, and the amounts you’ve been using. Chances are, if you’ve been using a lot for a long time, you’re going to have to gradually start reducing.
Talk to your doctor about your Sobriety Date and he or she can help you develop a plan, because not only does detox suck, it’s incredibly dangerous if you’re abusing drugs or alcohol.
Lastly, when you choose a Sobriety Date, you’re making plans for long-term sobriety, not the short term.
The Holidays And Mental Illness:
See also: Mental Illness Resources
It’s entirely unsurprising that mental illnesses flare up during this time of heightened stress, triggers, overwhelming feelings, and financial strain (to name a very few). Once again, I urge you to take care of yourself above all else, no matter how often you’re harassed by well-meaning loved ones. Keep your routine, stay grounded, and be kind to yourself. I’m breaking some of these tips up by particular diagnosis, but they will undoubtably overlap, so you may want to read them all.
Depression And The Holidays:
People mistakenly assume that the rates of suicide soar during the holidays, which is a total myth (springtime is oddly when rates of suicide peak). If you are feeling desperate and suicidal, please call the National Suicide Lifeline immediately:1-800-273-8255
The holidays are NOT a happy, jolly time for a large number of people, so my first suggestion is to acknowledge – don’t stuff – your feelings. If you’re sad because you’re divorced, experienced a recent loss (etc), don’t hide it inside, let it out. You’re perfectly welcome to share your feelings with others – even those non-jolly ones – who you love and support.
If you’re feeling especially isolated and lonely during this holiday season, reach out to others. Talk to your friends. Discuss your pain with online friends. Go to a support group. You’re definitely not alone in feeling lonely. Hell, try volunteering your time so you can feel like you, too, are a part of things.
Keep taking your medications, don’t deviate from what you’d normally do, and practice my favorite word: NO. Your self-worth matters a hell of a lot.
Keep things on a schedule – this may sound awful to some of you (I get it), but if you designate certain days to certain tasks (such as Dec 1, get tree, Dec 2 decorate tree, Dec 3 massage) it’ll really help you from feeling overwhelmed.
If you can’t? Don’t. Period.
Don’t be ashamed if you can’t do it all. I have a sneaking suspicion that the only people out there that “have it all” are pretending or have hired enough help that they don’t have to lift a finger.
Don’t use the holidays as a time to even the score between you and someone else. Wait for a more appropriate time to discuss old wounds.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed at a gathering, don’t hesitate to seek out some alone time. The bathroom can be appropriate, I also like the garage, or just sitting outside alone, taking 15 minutes to yourself.
Anxiety And The Holidays:
Stress and the holidays go practically hand-in-hand, even the “fun” kind of stress is, in fact stress. People who have anxiety disorders often report a surge of anxiety before, during, and after the holidays. Here are some tips you might be able to use if you (like most of us) deals with chronic anxiety.
You may feel as though you’re on stage at some of the gatherings you attend, but rest assured, most people aren’t paying any untoward attention to you.
I’m always an advocate for deep breathing and escaping the situations that make you uncomfortable.
Confide in someone who is there (or, if you plan ahead of time to save stress, will also be attending) that your anxiety level is high. They can be a buffer between you and the rest of the guests.
If you’re caught talking to people, and you don’t know what to say, remember this: everyone loves to talk about themselves.
Drugs and booze are only going to make things worse – avoid them.
Practice saying NO. You’re not under any legal obligation to be present at all events, so if you can’t do it? Don’t.
Plan your entrance and escape. Come late, leave by X time. Come early and leave by Y time. These aren’t hard and fast rules and WILL depend upon you to know when you’ve reached your limit. When you have had enough? Go.
Dysfunctional (and/or) Toxic Families And The Holidays:
See also: (I am sorry there aren’t more, I’ve just not had the time to create more pages -AB)
While no one has a “perfect family,” some families are far more dysfunctional than others and the holidays often amplify your feelings and bring up past hurts, new hurts, and a generally awful time for most. If you’ve got one of these, here are some tips for dealing with your family during the holidays (if you are not estranged):
Keep expectations low. If every family gathering is a nightmare, toxic, and awful experience, don’t expect that this year will be any different. It’s important to keep things in perspective.
Stop lying to yourself and other people about how bad the situation is. If you hate a particular holiday, vent to your friends…and don’t be surprised when they reveal similar feelings. The act of letting it out and tell the truth about the situation is incredibly freeing. You don’t have to hold onto that lie anymore!
Make sure to stay connected with non-dysfunctional relationships. The beauty (and downfall, if you ask me) of the smartphone is this: you can ALWAYS be connected to someone, somewhere. Text your friends, share your story to online friends, whatever reminds you that this situation does have an end point.
Just keep swimming. If you’re not estranged and do plan to see your family, you’re going to have to come to terms with something unpleasant: It really might suck. It may be yet another thing to “get through,” and if that’s the case, the sooner you accept this, the easier it may feel. I always remind myself that I can do anything for X hours or days or weeks or whatever.
Don’t rise to the occasion. Cousin Sammy likes to bait you about (whatever it is. Politics? Religion?) which really chaps your ass. When he invariably begins to bait you, ignore him. Mumble something under your breath and walk the hell away.
Let bygones be bygones – for now. If you’re heading toward an estrangement, you can use this opportunity to remember WHY you can’t be with your toxic family. If you’re planning to keep it cool (good on you!), forget – for a couple of days – about differences and old wounds. The holidays are not the right time or place to begin to reconcile.
Stick to your emotional boundaries: if you’re dreading seeing your Asshole Brother, for example, figure out what you will and won’t tolerate (I will accept joking, I will not accept criticisms) and how to behave in both scenarios. The more preplanning in your brain you do, the better you can cope with it. Avoid people who make you feel like shit, and if you can’t do that because your whole family sucks, well, bring some headphones. Cancel on them. Do what you have to do to make it okay for you WITHOUT compromising your boundaries.
Make sure that you have an exit and entrance plan. First, make sure you can get out of there whenever you need to: drive yourself (do not make yourself anyone else’s ride, either), call an UBER, take the train, or the bus, of a pony. Then, if/when the celebration becomes too much for you, you can just GO.
If you’re really, really, really not ready to celebrate the holidays with your dysfunctional, toxic family, don’t. Yes that toxic guilt and shame you feel inside even as you read this is very common, but that’s probably how your family controlled you. Sometimes, you can handle your family, sometimes you can’t. It’s not within your power. Ask yourself if you really NEED to go, what the ramifications are if you don’t, and most importantly, what is the Emotional Cost of this interchange? Is it worth it to risk your mental health to make someone else who (presumably) treats you badly, content to continue to do so? I’m not about to tell you what to do, this is just a thought.
Dealing With Estrangement During The Holidays:
See also our resource page for Estrangement
So you’re estranged from your family – me too. It wasn’t a decision that you (proverbial you, that is) you took lightly, but the holidays often do bring up old resentments and an underlying sadness for not being able to safely be a part of your family. It’s okay, it’s not okay, I get it. Just remember that there are very good, very valid reasons you must stay away from these people. If you need a list of them, go for it, use it, whatever works best for you.
Most people who are estranged from family and loved ones feel a very special sense of isolation during the holidays. It’s still seen as a major taboo to many people which is why no one discusses it. They simply say things like “I’ve been too busy to see my family” rather than tell the truth. Guess what? You’re NOT alone. There are WAY more people who are estranged than you can even imagine.
Tell someone you love the truth about your family. It doesn’t have to be a production – unless you want it to be, simply tell someone that you’re estranged from your family and the holidays illuminate your sense of isolation. Don’t have to explain who, what, where, when, and why to anyone, unless you’re comfortable.
Even though you know you made the right call to cut of ties with your family, it can be extremely hard for many of us. The sense of guilt and shame triggered by the holidays can feel overwhelming. Don’t hide from it, let other people that you trust learn what you’re feeling. MOST people feel shame and guilt for SOMETHING around the holidays, so you’ll probably be allowing someone to let their own feelings out as well.
Create your own family. I know I have: my friends, my husband’s family, you reading this post right now (YES YOU); none of whom are blood relatives. I think my chosen family is far better, they understand me better, they don’t cast me to a single role in their life (The Fuck-Up), and they accept me for who I am and what I’ve done.
Go away with a loved one instead of sitting around, watching holiday movies (and gut-wrenching commercials), and feeling like shit. Go up to a cabin far away, go to the nearest big town and do something different. Check into a nice hotel, order room service, rock your PJ’s, get a massage whatever you do to make you feel like you.
DO NOT (and I mean DO NOT) LOG ONTO SOCIAL MEDIA. It’s simply not worth to have to watch the “perfect families of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest” show you how much better they are than you. It’s either going to make you dissolve into a pile of tears or make you rage-filled and angry. What you see is what they want you to see, and if you can’t handle it? Don’t do it.
The Holidays and Loss:
While we have a number of resource pages devoted to loss, this will include all types of losses. See also:
Loss is universal; we all live, love, and lose people throughout our lives. Sometimes, this loss can be felt harder than others, especially if you were particularly close to the decedent. The first holidays following the loss can be a bittersweet time for many who are simply remembering those that are not there, and this is both completely normal and a great part of our grieving process. Here are some tips that may help those of you who’re mourning a loss during the holidays.
The first step for those grieving is to remember that it’s okay not to be okay. You need to acknowledge that it is going to be terribly painful but that you will survive.
Try to create a tradition that honors your loved one during the holidays. Light a candle, get a special ornament, take some time to remember those who you’ve lost. It doesn’t have to be a huge production.
Come up with a plan for the holidays. I don’t know what yours looks like, but make sure to plan times to be together and times to be alone.
Remember: you don’t have to go anywhere. Don’t isolate yourself, arrange check-ins with your loved ones, and do things that you want to do.
Be honest with yourself and everyone else about what you can and cannot do, which can be tricky, but also worth it.
Don’t berate yourself with guilt if you simply cannot manage the holidays like you did before the loss.
The Holidays And Divorce
See also Divorce Resources
Newly-single or freshly divorced? The holidays can be a landmine of exploded feelings, anger and resentment. This is only multiplied when there are kids involved.
Keep expectations low. I know this sounds kinda pathetic, but it’s hard as hell to see your ex on a day which you used to celebrate together.
This is gonna hurt for at least the first few years. I’m not gonna sugar-coat this for you in the slightest because I hope that you know I’m the friend that gives it to you like it is: it’s gonna suck. You can make it suck more or less, but the pain will be there.
If you don’t have to see your ex, congrats, but there’s still going to be a gigantic hole where your ex (and/or their family) once was. I can’t help you fill it, just remember that it won’t always feel like this.
If you’ve got kids that are planning to spend half the holidays with you and the other half with your ex, things can get even more painful – especially during year one.
See, if you’ve got kids and an ex, you’re probably used to having both around during the whole of holidays, and once you’ve got to change houses mid-holidays, it’s like a knife in the back. Yes, you’ll see your kids half of the time (fair), but the other half is disquietingly lonesome. I’m not trying to rain on your parade; I’m being honest with you.
If you do have kids, make the transition easier for them: don’t start a fight with your ex (if you feel that cannot be avoided, have another person (like a mother or father or sister) do the drop-off for you. While you are no doubt hurting, your kids are experiencing far worse and more tender feelings:
- Don’t put your kids in the middle of this during the holidays. It’s simply not fair to them.
- If you can’t be objective with your ex, don’t try. Send an email, text, anything that will keep you two civil
- Do NOT try to pry information about your ex out of your kids – playing telephone sucked in the playground at school; it’s going to be worse now. If you can, you talk to your ex about what is going on in their life.
- You don’t have to buy your kids affections. Sure, they like gifts (who wouldn’t?) but it won’t make the holidays brighter if you’re going to be heavily in debt because you feel guilty for the split.
- You can start new traditions with the kids – maybe not Year One – most people are too frazzled to think of anything great, but if you can? #winning
In the event that you have a chunk of the holidays alone, MAKE SURE YOU HAVE SOMETHING ELSE TO DO. While it won’t mend your broken heart, it’s better to keep your mind and body occupied as much as possible. Hang out with your family, hang out with friends, plan a chill and binge on Netflix of your favorite shows. Stock up on your favorite holiday items, and realize that eventually this will not feel like dying.
Don’t be shy about asking for an invitation: most people outright assume that their newly-single friend has other plans, so speak up. If you don’t want to be alone, ask around to see who’s doing what. And if you’d rather spend this part of the holidays alone, well, that may be what heals you. Just make sure not to isolate yourself too much, it’s not great for you.
Remember this to be true: The holidays are not enjoyable for everyone.
And I’m sorry.
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