Here’s a revised version of a piece I wrote last year on surviving the holiday season.
It’s two days before Thanksgiving, and my social media news feeds are full of holiday stories. Scores of people tell of the frantic cooking, cleaning, packing, traveling, and visiting they’ll be doing. Most seem to enjoy the beginning of the winter holiday marathon.
I admire these people. They’re better at entertaining and conversation than I’ll ever be. But I also know far more people who secretly dread those crushing five or six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. People dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other chronic conditions often struggle to make it through the winter holiday season without falling apart.
Yep, I see y’all out there. I’m one of you. And I write to you today to say: It’s okay. You’re not alone.
Twenty-plus years ago, long before any of my diagnoses, I forced myself to attend every family holiday party. I thought I had no choice. I knew my relatives would say bad things about me if I weren’t there. Even though my mental health suffered from the lack of quiet and processing time between events, I still went. And, long after the holidays were over, I hated myself for being this way.
It took me many years to understand what was really going on. Decades later, I came to see that those relatives would talk about me—and anybody else who was different from them—no matter what. I could go to the party, or stay home, but they’d still somehow find fault with me. Hell, I could’ve walked in with my very own Nobel Prize for literature, and they still would’ve found something to frown and sneer and whisper about.
Today, well into middle age, I understand now what I didn’t back then. I feel empathy for that lost, confused, sad person who loathed herself for not being like everyone else. I try to make it up to “younger me” by treating myself with kindness during the holiday season.
What helps me most? Quiet time by myself and as much sleep as I can manage. If I do any shopping, I do it during the least-crowded times of day. If I’m feeling particularly frazzled, I ask loved ones if I can drop by and see them when they don’t have a house full of people.
Spending time outdoors helps, too, even if it’s cold and I’m all bundled up. So does marking off the days on a calendar: “Ah, just two more weeks until the holidays are over. I think I can make it.” When the forced jolliness and extroversion feel as if they’re about to flatten me, I try to think about just today. Or just this hour. Or even just the next ten minutes.
Most importantly: if someone’s being particularly awful, I give myself permission to leave. In the moment, I may or may not tell them to go to hell—but I will remove myself from the scene of their bullshittery. The holidays are tough enough without a PTSD relapse. Those are particularly unpleasant, and if I can avoid one, I will.
Yes, I’m a Southerner, but I draw a big, thick “hospitality line” around my sanity with an extra-large permanent marker. Jerks do not deserve my company. My mental health is one thing I will not sacrifice for someone else’s comfort. Besides, as the saying goes: Life is short, and I am not the Asshole Whisperer.
Now and then, in the thick of the holidays, I forget to follow my own advice. That’s when I stumble. It takes me a while to get back to my version of normal. I try not to beat myself up about this. (The key word here is “try.”)
Wherever Thanksgiving and the weeks to come may find you, I wish you peace and calm. I hope you can be gentle with yourself as you navigate this difficult time of the year. You’re in good company.
If and when you feel horrible this season, know that I’m right there with you. We’re all in this together, surviving the holidays a little at a time.
Photo: Self-Portrait in Black, Rabun Gap (2017)
© R.S. Williams (all rights reserved)