By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Holidays are a strange time of the year. We all have these Norman Rockwell-type images floating around in our heads. Our holiday fantasy usually looks something like this: Families gathered snugly together to feast on delicious food, sharing laughter and drinks and great feeling of merriment, joyful holiday music in the background, beautiful decorations to delight the eye, and (miraculously mute) children frolicking in the yard contentedly.
Unfortunately the reality is sometimes more like this: socially awkward moments of feeling disconnected to the very people we feel we “should” be most connected to, food that is either not that great tasting or so good as to inspire overeating as a coping mechanism to counter act anxiety, warring agendas regarding what to watch on television, cranky children, drunken family members, one person loudly obsessing about when precisely the pie should have but did not come out of the oven, another trying to sell memberships in their new Ponzi scheme.
And even more difficult still is going through the holiday season without having a crazy family to be annoyed by. People who are alone during the holidays often feel like The Little Match Girl, outside in the cold watching those lucky souls in warm and comfortable houses. It’s one thing to be driven nuts by people who know you, but harder yet to be surrounded by the festive fervor and to feel isolated from it at the same time.
Ah, the holidays! It’s no wonder that depressed people get more depressed and anxious people get more anxious inside the twin pressure cookers of expectation and disappointment.
Imagine buying a lottery ticket and telling yourself, “I absolutely must win and when I do I’m going to buy a cruise ship and a pony and if this ticket is not a winner I am a total loser.” Can you recognize how unlikely a pleasing outcome would be?
Regardless if you have crazy family members who make you wish to be an orphan or no family and are facing the challenge of how to fill the hours, the most important mental health booster you can engage in during this time of year is to focus on cultivating the little pleasures that you can be in charge of.
For myself, I like to listen to schmaltzy Christmas CD’s, make lavender scented bath salts for my friends, assist my children in making hideously ugly gingerbread houses (they keep getting uglier each year: pretty soon we’ll be using them as Halloween decorations). This year I’m adding going out dancing with some mom-friends to my holiday traditions.
There are endless activities and rituals that can help you experience the expansive joy that holidays are all about, or to reconnect with your inner calm. One of my friends goes out of town each year with her family so they can focus on sharing experience rather than things. Another increases her twelve-step meeting attendance so she can surround herself at least part of the time with people who understand and support her recovery. Another one volunteers at a soup kitchen to remind herself that service work is the best antidote to depression.
Whatever helps you find your own sense of balance within the mad tornado of expectations and obligations—or within the empty time and loneliness—remember that you have options…and that as long as there are options, there is hope!