Choice Solves Chaos


By Tanya Ruckstuhl LICSW

The holiday season is upon us. I haven’t even finished shopping or inviting guests over and I’m already fatigued. I have social engagements for five out of seven evenings this week.  I’m also trying to bake a vat of coconut maple granola to give away.

Between going out for dinner with friends, dragging my kids to wholesome seasonal activities that they grudgingly tolerate, and generally attempting to trip the light fantastic, I will be sucking down a nontrivial amount of caffeine to counterbalance the exhaustion of social overstimulation.  Technically I don’t have to socialize like a Hollywood coke fiend or bring the kids to hear a sixteenth century Viennese Pianoforte, see zoo lights and visit downtown for the gingerbread house display. I want to do all these things.

A friend once told me about a little known category called an “ambivert” which is a person with equal extroverted and introverted traits.  That pretty much sums me up, as well as a lot of folks I know. On vacations, my favorite part is hanging out at the hotel room with my sweetie, a book and a cup of tea after sightseeing and before dinner.  I wouldn’t want to spend the whole day cooped up inside, but the counterbalance of explore-retreat lends adventure a cozy perfection.

Here I am in middle age and I still haven’t figured out the whole-life pacing thing, but I am starting to understand my need for variety and balance.  In my work as a therapist I’ve noticed that we course correct all the time. Work too much and you miss your kids. Work too little and you lose your sense of contribution. Exercise too much and you get obsessed and become rather boring company. Exercise too little and you become lethargic (and rather boring as well.)

Mental health is noticing when and where we are out of balance, and to GENTLY bringing ourselves back in alignment with our obligations, energy, and interests.  Gently means not talking meanly to ourselves, while still being honest and affirming choice. In truth, have too many plans this week, but I still have choices: I can enjoy it or just deal with it or I can cancel/reschedule/leave early. When we assert choice (I want to do all these things) we are less likely to fall into resentment, irritability or self pity.

Now I have to go. The granola baking/gift wrapping/hair curling requirements of this evening’s festivities hum an urgent tune.





Options = Hope

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!