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Holiday Harmony: Navigating the Horrible and Discovering Your Happy This Season

(Trigger warning for mention of holidays, food, abuse, childhood trauma)Here we are in the middle of November more precisely the 15th, fast approaching the holidays. The revelation of just how close the holidays were upon me came to me like a proclamation from my husband as he announced this morning during breakfast, “Next week is Thanksgiving”. His words penetrated my dissociated mind as I was biting into my fried egg on buttered toast, triggering a brief wave of dread as the realization hit me. His words echoed in my head “Next week is Thanksgiving as the knowledge filtered through to the parts of me that had been deliberately avoiding thoughts of it, hoping, perhaps, that by some miracle, we could skip past it, just as dissociation once allowed me to do. However, indifferent to my desire to somehow just skip past the holidays and ignore them I was reminded of how just like the summer's warmth that had faded without my permission and fall was upon us I found myself less connected to my external surroundings this past month more than usual. While the autumn hues painted the world and the air grew crisper I had been preparing for the October speaker series and found myself mostly indoors. As the news of how close the holidays were settled into my grey matter, my brain invoked the principles of radical acceptance, acknowledging that Thanksgiving would arrive regardless of my wishes. After finishing my quick meal, I started going through the small stack of mail on the kitchen counter where I found more unwelcome reminders from the postal service urging the timely shipping of gifts. I heard an inner response from someone inside that said, “I hate the holidays.” The tug of discomfort persisted as my husband handed me an insert from Sunday’s church bulletin inviting the women to a Christmas program and coffee from a different church titled, “A Quiet Christmas” as he asked if this was anything I would be interested in going to.  I heard the grimacing “no way” from somewhere deep within and that was quickly replaced by some part who longed for a quiet peaceful Christmas doing whatever it is that we decide to do without any pressure or expectations from anyone else. Another part just cringed inside when we read the word “Christmas”. We all entertained what it would be like if they had a tea instead, since our stomach can’t handle coffee.  What would it be like going to a church in a neighboring town when we haven’t even attended our own for months… or has it been a year? With ladies that we didn’t know.  A part of me spoke up inside, “We can drink our own tea at our own house and not have to celebrate with people we don’t know at a church that is scary for some of us.”  I asked Frank if he knew what day of the week December 7 was and when he said it was a Thursday most of us were relieved that we have therapy on Thursday mornings…our out. It was then that the irony struck me - parts longing for quiet peaceful holidays when Christmas especially had been anything but peaceful or quiet in our childhood. At that moment I was thankful for the escape I had made years ago from societal and family expectations, the passed-down traditions, and the pressure to have to celebrate holidays a certain way. My chosen path has been to think about the reason for the holidays. For me, Thanksgiving is being thankful and grateful. I can do that every day and any day of the year. For me, Christmas is about celebrating the time when Jesus was born. I can celebrate that truth all year long and be glad for the relationship I have with Him. I haven’t had Thanksgiving dinner at my house for a couple of decades. My husband and I go to one of our children’s homes. I don’t decorate with a regular Christmas tree and all the ornaments. When I do, it’s a little miniature artificial pine tree in a plump little burlap bag with a few ornaments hung on jute or twine rope with simple little white lights that sit on the electric fireplace mantle. It’s not about getting or giving gifts, or sending out Christmas cards. Holidays for me have not been about celebrating on those two or three specific days of the year. I have embraced simplicity without expectations, a focus on the present, and collaborating with my parts to see what we decide to do which has meant getting together with family just because we choose to be together, not necessarily on the day but around the holidays where everyone brings something to help with the one meal to take off the stress of the person who is hosting without any focus on giving gifts. It’s doing what is best for me and everyone else all wrapped up together in a bow that is largely controlled by my parts and me talking together and making compromises with other family and friends to make holidays happier and more peaceful. 

How do the holidays unfold for you? For some survivors, it's a joyful prospect, filled with plans for family gatherings, cherished traditions, the excitement of decorating, and the anticipation of festive meals. This could include good memories and associations connected with turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and pumpkin pie with whipped topping for dessert.  But for others, it can be a very stressful ordeal, laden with reminders of past traumas and abuses, where triggers cast long shadows, making this time of year especially difficult, dark, and daunting. Christmas decorations may illicit associated triggers of when everything wasn’t safe and the mere thought of shopping, purchasing, and giving gifts, and all the added stress on top of our already demanding lives can make us wish for these days to just pass by as swiftly as possible; dissociated away because it’s just too stressful and chaotic. 

Very recently, my grandson and his wife had their first baby boy. I drove my daughter and three granddaughters and I, 2880 miles four days there and back sharing a hotel room halfway there and halfway back. All 5 of us found ourselves in close quarters in a midsize car, and then staying at my grandson’s small home 7 of us along with a new baby were sharing space with 1 bathroom. It was a collaborative effort, and a testament to this family's collective growth in having healthier family dynamics than I ever had with my family of origin that included each person’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being because I, and my daughter and her children chose to be the ones in the family to heal and learn to set boundaries, ask for what we need and have the safety together as survivors to give that to each other. Using my DBT skills I was able to adopt a dialectical perspective considering each person’s viewpoint without internalizing their needs realizing that everyone involved needed to have their needs met, and other than the children, each person was also responsible for their own self. Everyone deserved and needed to feel safe, and be able to have and express their own thoughts and emotions. During my stay with family, it was necessary for me to adapt for the well-being of my inner selves. We devised a working plan as we met each challenge communicating our needs in healthy ways. Sensory overload and heightened stress prompted rejuvenating walks, offering a distraction from being overwhelmed. Seeking support from a friend through a mobile app alleviated the emotional burden as we mutually provided solace for each other later having a phone conversation. Engaging in household tasks during moments of self-pity, finding solace and solitude on the deck to converse with God, and taking a short nighttime drive for introspection and talking with my husband in a CVS parking lot became vital strategies. A quick trip inside the store to purchase a little pink and teal stuffed octopus that was small enough to put in our purse who we named ‘Pinkie’ helped bring comfort for littles. Changing the environment, even momentarily, proved beneficial for my mental and emotional well-being.

Being around my family of origin has not been an option for me for 30+ years as it was not safe to be around them. I am so very thankful I and now my daughter have been able to stop the cycle of multigenerational abuse that has touched us all and that I can see the healthy effects of my modeling and paving the way for my daughter and her children and grandchildren to do the same. It takes a lot of commitment and communication, asking for what we need, setting boundaries, and being sensitive to the needs of others in the family. Life is messy and I would rather join in the mess in a much more healthy way than what was modeled for me and let my children and grandchildren know that they are worth it and loveable than withdraw and isolate... because it is in the mess and the stress that we find the wonderful delightful things in life that truly matter…connecting in a relationship. Things will come up that no one can plan for, but when things do arise we can find out just how much strength we have and how resilient we really are. 

How can we improve our mental health during the holidays and more importantly moment by moment as we go through it?  I think that part of recovery from past abuse can include redefining what the holidays mean for us individually by taking an inventory inside to check with all the parts asking them for what they want and need. What feels safe? What feels unsafe?  It can be very empowering to navigate the holidays with intention by first of all communicating with our inner people. This can greatly enhance our overall mental health. Planning ahead and making decisions can be challenging for survivors. The struggle to commit to plans can arise from the internal conflict felt when different parts of oneself hold conflicting views, wants, and needs. There can be the fear of losing autonomy or what I call the fear of commitment once you have to follow through with the plans you have made. Some parts then feel like it is a “have to” and that their choice has been taken away. Empowerment lies in preemptive communication internally and making unanimous decisions. Who dictates that we must adhere to tradition? Family? An inside part who doesn’t want to rock the boat or cause conflict? Empowerment can come in creating our own traditions like pizza and game night on Thanksgiving, celebrating on alternative days, choosing smaller, more intimate gatherings. If you choose to go to a family gathering that normally would cause stress you can use the following tips or create your own: Tense atmosphere? Focusing on eating or savoring the taste of a hot chocolate, coffee or tea or an iced cold pop or juice can provide a subtle escape as you mindfully savor the taste and the aroma of a meal. Sipping on a beverage can ground you in the present moment. Feeling irritable? Express a need for rest or a nap. Sensing a need for rejuvenation? Take a refreshing shower. Overwhelmed? Step outside for fresh air or a change of scenery. Feeling lost and alone? Reach out to a friend. Breaking free from traditional holiday expectations and forging new, personally meaningful traditions is an empowering journey for survivors. Here are some guidelines to navigate the path of holidays: Communication: initiate open and honest communication with family and friends about your intentions by sharing your needs for a more personalized approach to the holidays. Boundaries: establish and define what your boundaries are by identifying what feels safe and manageable for you and your inner people and what does not feel safe or manageable. Then share with your spouse/significant other or support person. Then kindly and lovingly communicate this clearly with family and friends. Be firm with your no and be willing to compromise. For example (I am not able to stay all night but I am able to come for dinner) Create personalized traditions: establish new traditions that align with your values and bring joy to you and your family. Decorate using a different theme than the current holiday (like having your friends over for a 70’s party) Engage in activities that you know your family will enjoy that you normally do at different times of the year. Celebrate at your own pace: Celebrate on a different day, celebrate on your schedule when you choose, select different occasions that feel more comfortable and authentic for you or family/friends. Choose your gathering space: Opt for neutral or environments like a restarurant that help you feel less vulnerable and safer. If certain family spaces trigger discomfort or anxiety, consider meeting at a location where everyone feels safe and respected. Stay overnight at a hotel instead of at your family home.   Have small intimate gatherings: Instead of large family gatherings opt for smaller more intimate settings that would allow for meaningful connection but that would limit the overwhelming dynamics of a larger group like a family reunion. Alternative Locations: explore alternative locations for celebrations, such as renting a cabin, staying at a hotel, or even enjoying a day at a local park. This change of scenery can provide a fresh perspective and create a more comfortable atmosphere. Choose Non-Traditional Meals: Cook a unique non-traditional meal like pizza and a game night, ordering takeout, having a potluck with friends, preparing a meal that feels right for you and your family/friends. Prioritize Self-Care: Incorporate self-care into your holiday plans. Allocate time for quiet moments, relaxation, or activities that bring joy to each family member. This can help alleviate stress and foster a positive holiday experience. Involve the Whole Family: Encourage input from all family members when deciding on new ways of celebrating. This inclusive approach ensures that everyone's needs and desires are considered, promoting a sense of unity and shared decision-making. Focus on Meaningful Activities: Shift the focus from materialistic aspects to meaningful activities that promote connection, gratitude, and shared experiences rather than getting caught up in the commercial aspects of the holidays.

Choose to not do anything that has to do with family or the holidays: Do something completely different and try out something new that you have wanted to do but put it off.  Start with Small Changes and introduce these changes gradually for yourself and others who need time to adjust. Change is always hard for everyone involved. By starting with small adjustments here and there allows for time for you and all your parts and your family to adapt which provides for a more manageable transition to new traditions.

These simple yet effective strategies can be instrumental in navigating the holiday season, and fostering a positive mood and appreciation for loved ones.

I recently encountered a quote that said, “If you think the way you have always thought, then you'll always feel the way you've always felt." This cyclical pattern of thinking, feeling, and doing underscores the importance of self-talk to our inner people for those of us who have DID. By cultivating an awareness of our thoughts and actively changing them, we can transform our emotions, actions, and ultimately, our well-being. This way of thinking feeling and doing places a considerable amount of control in our hands and offers a pathway to a more positive and constructive experience during the holidays.

I took this quote and thought about how it relates to tradition and expectations that families can have during the holidays and I would like to end with this “If we continue to do things the way that we have always done them we will continue to do them no matter what it does to us and the other people in our lives will just expect us to continue to do them.”

We don’t have to accept a long-standing invite that is no longer even spoken just because that is what our family has done for years. We don’t have to have people over to our home year after year no matter what it does to us. We possess the agency to decline hosting gatherings that compromise our well-being by saying no. The power of no is that it is a complete sentence. Alternatively, we can come up with a compromise that involves careful consideration of weighing the pros and cons of several choices that is workable for all the people involved including our parts. You may choose to engage with family or friends the same as you have this holiday season or choose not to engage in the holidays the way that you have done in the past. 

Recovery is about reclaiming our voice, our choices and creating a holiday experience that aligns with our values, fosters a sense of connection with all of our inner people and with others that is unique and tailored to our specific circumstances and preferences. If we forget or fail to acknowledge and honor our own needs, emotions, and limitations, and what is best for our emotional and mental health first, we are jeopardizing our own mental and emotional health. We can honor the needs and wants of others only after we have taken care of our own selves. Then we can go on and meet the goal of authentically honoring our goal of finding what our version of holiday happiness means for ourselves and others if we choose to celebrate at all.


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