Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way at the beginning: holidays are hard for everyone! For complex reasons, they are hard because we live in a broken and messy world. In simpler terms, holidays are difficult because of expectations. Something about ANY special day raises expectations of what we “should” be doing and who we “should” be doing it with. I am not just referring to the biggies of Thanksgiving and Christmas. I am also referring to the obscure holidays like Super Bowl, Easter, Valentine’s Day, July 4th, each of our birthdays, etc. You know we are an athletic family if the Super Bowl is considered a national holiday. In fact, this last Super Bowl Sunday began with Jack (my 7 year old) and me in tears on our sofa because our plans fell through. To add an additional layer, when we are single, divorced, widowed or in an empty, lonely marriage; holidays can feel excruciating. It is like a day designed to turn a magnifying glass on every corner of our life that feels like something is missing.
With Easter being this weekend, I am acutely aware of my feelings around holidays. This is not my weekend to have my youngest son-he will be with his dad. My oldest is at college for the first time on Easter. I feel sad about all of this. No one to cook Easter dinner for, not sure what church to attend (church home has been a bit up in the air since my divorce), no reason to stage a visit from the Easter bunny for Jack, not sure who to spend the holiday with, and at this point not sure I want to get out of bed. Maybe I am acting dramatic (I do have some decent skills in that arena) or maybe I am the only person who feels this way. I realize I am a grown woman and I have a rich, sweet, full life with great friends. But Facebook and TV tells me this is a day to be with your husband and your 3 perfect children and dress in your finest and go to church blissful and happy. Only to return home and have your entire extended family over, who you get along with perfectly, for whom you have prepared a gourmet meal, and have nothing but fun, laughter and sweet memories. Let me say that even married, even in my sweetest season of life, I have never had a holiday unfold just that way. Ever.
There also seems to be certain ‘triggers’ that can occur around holidays. If we grew up in a home with any dysfunction at all, (which ought to cover all of us) the holidays were a time when all of that dysfunction was on display. If there was alcohol use, then we all drink more at the holidays. If there was rage, anger or verbal abuse, there is more stress and thus more abuse at the holidays. One of my biggest trigger holidays is Memorial Day. I spent many years attempting to figure out why that particular holiday causes such an instinctive, emotional low for me. I drive home from work on that Friday every year feeling such intense feelings of loneliness and being ‘left out’ that the emotions threaten to choke me. What I believe to be true is that my home during my school years was the least safe place, emotionally and physically for me to be. School was a place where I felt safe, known, loved and successful. School usually gets out for the summer at the end of May. So my body has a stored response of what I believe I felt when I knew I was going ‘home’ for the summer to be with my family; sad, lonely, scared and hurt. That still happens for me today.
So what do we do? It is certainly an option to stay in bed and wish for the day to hurry by. I have no judgement for that response. But I want to find additional options to honor holidays, both for myself and my children in a way that cares for myself and others. Well, one thing I do is attempt to be intentional. I reach out to my ‘safe’ people and let them know I am struggling and ask for help. I reach out and try to plan something that feels good to me for that day. That may be staying in my PJ’s all day or that may mean getting out and being with others. I have found it is also helpful to temper my social media usage on those days. It is a known fact that if you get on social media, you are going to get the best scenarios in everyone else’s life. Those may be authentic or not; nevertheless it is not helpful to expose ourselves to this idea that everyone BUT us is having a peaceful, content, fun-filled holiday with their loved ones. As simple as it sounds, I have also found a lot of freedom in accepting that it is OK and normal for holidays to hold sadness and loneliness. I now let myself feel my feelings about that. I welcome the feelings instead of attempting to run from them, ignore them, or numb them (except for Christmas when I drink my face off). I also work to quiet my shame that tells me things like “you have plenty to be thankful for,” or “get yourself together,” or “you should be stronger or in a better place than this”.
Lastly, during major and minor holidays may we ALL live a life of inclusiveness and LOVE. For example, my brother John can find any stray in this city-he has a gift! Many Thanksgivings ago he started inviting all the strays to my house for our family Thanksgiving. Initially I was frustrated. I love to be in control. I have a lovely home and I like having things “just so” when I entertain. His laid back nature, the more the merrier attitude, and inviting people up to the last minute did NOT work for me. I mean, how could I set the tables? How many places should I set? What if I had the table set and he called and said two more were coming? What if they were annoying? Or worse, not safe people? I had kids didn’t I? I feel a lot of shame that is, at times, the spirit of my heart. But let me tell you my perspective from years of having strangers at my table. It changed me for good! I still keep in touch with many of them. I am richer from having met each and every person who sat at one of my tables for a holiday. My kids are better people for it as well. Let us be intentional about finding the lonely and hurting people in our community and welcoming them to our tables, especially on days that may be difficult to some. Sometimes they are weird people from another country and sometimes they are me and my 7 year old. I want to love people more than I love a decorated table perfectly set for Thanksgiving dinner. Loving well always means getting messy. May we be mindful of those around us who have had a devastating life change at the holidays-every year because it doesn’t always get better with time- and welcoming them to be with our imperfect family. I want to be open to letting my holidays be filled with authenticity and whatever emotions or changes may come my way.
So who is having me over for Easter? I will be in my pajamas.
The start of a New Year always seems like a good time to re-evaluate how we are living and have renewed energy to really pay attention to our health. For the past couple of years, for me, this has looked like giving up alcohol for the month of January. I find that over the holidays my nightly glass of wine or 2 has increased in quantity and frequency. Parties, family dinners, more eating out (and of course family survival! Just kidding-kind of….). Last year during dry January I made it 10 days. I was in the middle of my divorce and was very aware that I was using alcohol to cope. I was kind to myself and said ‘It’s OK’, I will try again next year. So here I am again, and as always, it has brought up a lot of different things for me that I would love to share with you.
The truth is we all use something to cope with our feelings. One of my mentors in the field of addiction, Chip Dodd, often says “we all are addicts”. In that we all use something to numb our pain, feelings, and thoughts. For the purpose of this blog, I am using the word ‘addiction’ and ‘drug’ not necessarily in the classical sense but to describe anything we use to numb us from the reality of our lives and/or our pain. Alcohol, weed, shopping/spending money, religion, food, sex, pills, work, control, attention from men/women, exercise, pornography, screens (i.e. phones, iPad, TV), codependency (dedication of our time, energy, resources in order to control or manage the feeling of others) just to name a few. Obviously, some of these addictions are more socially acceptable than others. We often look up to those who are incredibly dedicated to exercise. Those who are addicted to control often are lauded as so organized, driven and successful. There are drugs on this list that are good things in and of themselves but can become maladaptive when they are used impulsively and to excess in order to numb our feelings. In my life, I have used alcohol, spending, and control as some of my favorite drugs. And let’s be honest, I have made codependency a virtual part-time job. But when I focus on abstaining from alcohol, I notice that feelings start ‘leaking’ out of me. I am so thankful when this happens even though it doesn’t always ‘feel’ good because it shows me I have been carrying feelings that have not been processed and need to come out.
Some opposites of the word numb are lively, responsive, and sensitive. As I abstain from the various things I use to numb, I notice I become more ALIVE. I feel more present. I feel more engaged in my life and I get a lot more done. With alcohol especially, I sleep better at night, so I end up waking with more energy. Not that I am ‘drunk’ all the time previously, but even with the first drink of wine, my feelings become dulled. I am also more aware of my sadness, my fear and my anger. Yet if we don’t have and feel our feelings, simply, we don’t grow. We don’t change. We don’t heal. We don’t move toward acceptance. Incidentally, this creates greater emotional impairment, which usually leads to a greater need to numb. We must have our feelings to live a full life.
But the reality is that we live in an ‘extreme’ culture. We so often find ourselves in an all or nothing frame of mind. This is NOT what dry January is about-going to the extreme of ‘I will never drink again’. I feel sure alcohol will become a part of my life again. But taking a break relieves the places in my life where alcohol has become habitual or even dependent. If we go to the extreme place of ‘I will NEVER again,’ that sets us up to more than likely fail. Which creates a ton of shame that we couldn’t quit. Then to deal with that shame, we often go back to the same thing we were trying to quit or another substance and plunge back in trying to numb the shame. Additionally, we usually escalate and end up needing more to numb. What is the alternative? The concept of recovery. Instead of trying harder, what if we surrender to our powerlessness? The first of the twelve steps. This is where we have to start. We must admit in our attempts to numb our feelings by impulsive activity with something or someone, our lives have become unmanageable. We need God. We need community. We need to take a personal inventory. To look inside ourselves. We may find that we need to make amends to our self or others. That is where freedom exists. Recovery provides great principles with which to live our everyday lives.
Alongside that, secrets, lies, hiding, and broken promises are all part of a life of impairment. Something I see every single day is the reality that secrets are toxic. Many people are ‘using drugs’ to cover some secret we carry. Secrets make us sick. All of us are going to struggle to live life soberly. We are going to fail. We will mess up. We will slide back into dependency on a substance, need to look inside ourselves and have to enter our recovery again. The most important action to make a part of your everyday life is transparency and authenticity. Tell the truth about your insides to a couple of safe people EVERY DAY. Notice I say SAFE people. Do not keep secrets. Secrets will literally kill you. Watch for where you lie to others to hide your use of your ‘drugs’.
So my invitation to all of you is the same as I have issued myself – would you consider where you are numbing? With what do you numb? Are you willing to surrender that numbing person or thing for a season to see what feelings are there so you can have greater freedom and grow and heal? Seek accountability as you enter this process. Find a buddy to participate with you. Find alternative, healthier options to allow us to cope with our pain. I usually exercise a lot more, walk my dogs more, drink a TON of hot tea, do yoga more, play more, and cry more. I have noticed that the hardest part of the day for me in this dry season is at the end of my last session of the day. I spend my day sitting in really heavy emotion with people and setting my own emotion aside, so it would make sense that I would gravitate to numbing at the end of my day. But I am learning to create alternative and healthier ways of taking care of myself in that moment.
I also want to mention that if there is something you can’t ‘quit’ for 30 days, I invite you to consider that your dependence or habitual use has escalated into addiction. Addiction always escalates. We will need more and more to numb to cover our increasing pain of whatever we are trying to escape. If that is the case, seek the help of a therapist, addiction specialist, tell your religious leader, or even a friend. Find a 12-step meeting and GO! If you love someone who seems addicted to something, get out of your denial and enabling and DO SOMETHING. Something that is in line with taking care of yourself and your kids (if you have them) as opposed to protecting and care taking the addict. You need to know I ought to be the best addict in the world. I come from a long line of codependents, alcoholics, cocaine addicts, sex addicts, work addicts and control addicts. By the grace of God, I have not ended up there. YET! But I am aware of my propensity to live impaired for the rest of my days. However, I have had a taste of something that is incomparable- FULL LIVING. Getting up in the morning and going through my day with a heart that is full of feelings- the mess and the beauty of life. The thrill of knowing I feel and I am alive. It is well with my soul. I wouldn’t trade this for anything.
Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. (Deut 30)
How many of us would be able to say our current circumstances in life are what we imagined they would be at this age or this season? In my office these last few days, I have sat with several women who have said some version of “this is not how I thought my life would turn out”. Women who are grieving (or not) the losses that have come from life NOT turning out the way they thought it would. Though the circumstances vary, I can relate to this theme in my own life.
At 25 years old, I got married thinking I was marrying for life. In fact, pretty much demanding that I be married for life (at least from God) because of all the instability in my own childhood. In my mind, this was how my story got redeemed. Never could I have imagined I would be a single mom and widow by the age of 30. Yet when Jim died, I found out who I was for the first time in my life. It’s what led me to get my Masters degree in Marriage and Family Therapy and ultimately find my calling and passion in life. I then remarried and had another son. This past summer, I got a divorce from my second husband and my life broke apart again.
Now, let me be the first to tell you, I would have NEVER chosen this road for myself. I could have never predicted the twists and turns of my journey this far. If there is anything I have learned in all of this it is that life is not about a DESTINATION….it is about the JOURNEY. We, all in some way, view life like a bullseye that we are supposed to hit that deems us “worthy” or “successful”. For example, we are supposed to be happily married by 25. We need to have 2.5 kids by 32. Promotions at work or kids that make the honor roll. Then what happens is that we feel so much shame if we aren’t where we think we ‘should’ be by that certain age. There is no such bullseye- or destination. There is a path. I believe a path littered with mess, brokenness, and beauty. This path is a journey leading us to who we were made to be; one that involves both successes and failures.
But what if our ‘failures’ aren’t us missing the mark? But instead experiences to make us who we were created by God to be?
At 24 years old, I married Jim with such hope, naïveté, and dreams. Now at 45, if someone would have told me where I would be this evening, I would have walked out of the church. I would have told you and God, “no thanks, I certainly did not sign on for all of this”.
But here is the rub- I would not be ANY of the person I am today if not for every second of this journey of mine. Would I have picked this? HELL NO! Yet, I look back and see how every loss, every tear, every screw up, every moment of beauty, every failure, every start over has been necessary. So when my kids are hurting, I can be present with them. When a client is at the point of thinking death is better than life, or when someone wants to tell me their deepest secret that they haven’t told a soul- I am able to sit with them. Cry with them. Not fix them (God knows I can’t even fix myself). Not judge them. Not undermine their pain with a scripture or a trite word. I am able to sit in their pit of hell because I have been to my own pit too many times to count.
I don’t have answers- my own life feels like a wasteland at this point. But I have my journey…and it has changed me, gentled me, humbled me, made me wise and mature, and brought me to my knees. I would have never chosen it yet I can’t deny every step of this journey, even in my pits of hell, have made me the person I am today. If I am brutally honest, I would not trade a moment.
*The top picture was taken of my view while on a walk at Percy Warner Park.