I know that the holidays are brutal for many, and they can be a time of high expectation and low return. Plus, we are under such pressure to have a picture perfect holiday (cue cell phones, presents, decorations, activities …), that it’s pretty hard to feel solid in our already fragile sense of self and what’s important and what in the heck we’re supposed to be doing. They can be deeply depressing and feel very hopeless. For others, they’re a reinforcement that we have nothing. And some are just seemingly inevitable horrible firestorms where you just know somebody’s going to cause a scene, blow up, get hospitalized, wind up in jail ...
I enjoy thinking about the holiday and gratitude at this time of year -- my gratitude for finding my own way to recovery is tied up close to that timeframe, too, so always a good time for me to remember.
I know some people who say that it’s artificial to celebrate holidays like this on a single day, that we should be thankful all the time. I don’t disagree. And I don’t want to confuse gratitude with use of that word in a religious sense. But I respond to little ceremonies and traditions, and I find the holidays a good way to take a step back and appreciate and get encouragement in that from others, by giving it a little extra focus. And in case we didn’t do so well with that throughout the rest of the year.
It can be so easy to drift, that various holidays served as sort of timestones for me as I was trying to navigate and when I really didn’t have very much else to tether me.
,,, and Drinking
I don’t have a specific holiday story as an example, but I remember feeling so, so ragged and bleary on holidays. Running around, trying to drink, but not enough to throw me too far off, and the timing, and being distracted, trying not to spill or trip, trying to keep track of what I was doing … I seriously don’t know how I stood all that stress (and didn’t poison anyone by accident).
The drinking added to my stress and anxiety 100-fold in retrospect. It’s such a tricky thing. It feels, in that instant, like it will help, like it is helping, but even AS I was doing it, I knew that I was purely inviting disaster, every time.
At best, it knocked me off my game. At worst, well. Looking back, I just feel sorry for that poor young woman who thought she was reaching for relief and a great way to cope and to enjoy life, but was coming up with what was the very opposite.
It was the very thing that MADE me feel frazzled and tired and wrung out and desperate and sad and frustrated and confused. And then I’d reach for more. It still feels too soon to be comical (like maybe in another lifetime), but it’s hard not to see that element.
I have also had my share of holidays alone and of holidays full of emptiness or disappointment, and I know many people who have zero nice associations with them, so it is a feeling of being out of sync with everyone around them.
One of the most valuable things I’ve found is the ability to shift perspective, by examining things just a little bit. Instead of staying stuck with discontent, complaints and yearning, I actively try to notice the other things around me. The little moments when a ray of sunshine breaks through. When a child breaks into an absolutely radiant smile. When someone is thoughtful. When just by dumb luck something goes well. We can look for and focus on almost anything, at least for a moment.
I broke my arm very badly a couple of years ago. It was the elbow and I just shattered everything in there. Long surgery. And recovering reasonable use of that joint felt agonizingly slow.
I swear to you, though, that even though it was my dominant hand, the thought flashed through my mind, “well at least it’s not my leg.”
I am beyond grateful that it didn’t knock me out of life even more than it did. I was surprisingly competent with my left hand (thank goodness!), and I sure am grateful for all the times I should have been injured or worse and miraculously wasn’t. I’m no martyr, and I can complain with the best, but that’s a decision that I make that I want to look FOR the brighter side of things. It makes my life brighter.
How Can You Do That?
How do you look at the bright side, when the world is falling apart and life is hard and unrewarding and bad things happen to us? Well, first, I’m no expert, and I fail as often as I succeed in staying positive and cheerful, but I think the attempt itself saves my sanity.
First, we tend to exaggerate how bad things are. We turn everything into a catastrophe, and everything is the worst ever. That’s just not true. If we’re still alive, it’s not the worst ever. It‘s just not.
Even though I broke my arm and it was initially very chaotic, I was able to get help. I did not get run over by a car, and the EMT and hospital were all wonderful, as was my ex who came and got me and my children who came and helped take care of me.
Whether I felt sorry for myself or whether I focused on being grateful, I was still stuck with a shattered elbow and all the practical work of recovering from that. The best reason to focus on the gratitude piece is that it made me feel better about the whole process. Nothing physically or practically changed, but my attitude made me a lot less miserable.
I’m not sure about the scientific validity of keeping a Gratitude List or Journal, but they’re worth giving a try. Morning or night (or both), just jot down 3 things that you’re grateful for. It can be anything -- being alive and breathing, being addiction-free, having beautiful people around you you love, heat, a nice interaction with a neighbor, a flash of laughter. Here’s a nice article https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-journal with a whole variety of suggestions. I think Oprah was big on them for a minute there.
I don’t see how it can hurt to spend a moment noticing the good things in our lives, and lots of people swear by gratitude lists and journals. You don’t have to do anything fancy, but there are lots of beautiful journals out there if you want to make the whole process its own little ritual, like a little treat.
What would be my point in all of this? Well, in my personal experience, when I look around at the beauty, I am less devastated by ugliness; when I look for the good, I am reminded that it eclipses the bad, even though there may be difficult spots where it’s hard to see a glimmer of hope. The more in touch with what I am thankful for, the larger the space that occupies in my heart and life, and the less room I have for addiction, drinking, drugs. Just like addiction can crowd out life, life can also crowd out addiction and render it unnecessary. It’s such a poor solution to anything.
I am grateful for my family, my neighbors, my acquaintances, my friends, my city, my country, and my world -- with all their faults. Thank you, all!