Who wants to be dark and dreary around the holidays? Everything around us suggests that this is a season of merriment, that holidays are meant to be a time of touching togetherness and affirming bonds of family and friends. But for those whose lives have been affected by living with addiction, this season can also bring an uncomfortable mixture of feelings and memories, we feel somehow dissonant with the tune others are whistling. Rather than reminding us of what we have, in other words, the season also reminds us of what we have lost. Pleasure during the holidays can feel anywhere from just beyond our reach, to a million miles away. We can see it and even sense it, but we just can’t feel it. We’re stuck in pain from the past that makes us unavailable to the pleasures of the present.
The Greeks have a saying that they share among the community at funerals, it is, “zoi seh mas” which translates as “life to us”. I am Greek American and have probably grown up saying this but it wasn’t until my grandmother died, that I understood its power. My family was losing its beloved anchor, the person who we had relied on all our lives to love and connect us. And one by one, we kissed each other on the cheek and said this life affirming phrase, “life to us”. Life to those of us who are still living; who have years ahead of us wherein we will need to find meaning and purpose. Years in which we need to come up with our own ways of staying connected so that we can carry on the beauty and love that is in our hearts, the love that Grammie helped put there. We are still alive even if she is not and we have a job to do.
Alcoholic, dysfunctional or broken families sometimes experience a sort of inner death that can go unacknowledged and ungrieved. It is a death of the family we thought we’d always have, a deep injury to our ideals and dreams; an injury to our sense of self and self in relationship. We learn that along with providing us with a sense of place and purpose, being in a family can also break our hearts. And it is the feelings surrounding this heartbreak that get re-stimulated around the holidays alongside memories of warmth and connection.
And losing a family to addiction is not an obvious death, no one is bringing around casseroles and condolences to help us mourn with self-respect. Addiction losses are surrounded by hidden pain and shame that make mourning them very complicated. But those of us who feel that we have lost the family we thought we had, still need to find our way towards warmth and connection so that we can thrive, just as if we had lost someone we love. We need to somehow accept that loss is a part of any human life and grieve with dignity, what we no longer have so that we can be open to what can still be.
Sense Memories and Holidays
One interesting feature of memory is that our brain/body network hangs onto those memories most tenaciously, that have a powerful sensorial and emotional content. In other words, the holidays can be a real emotional time bomb in terms of memory. Not only are feelings around traditional family and community rituals and gatherings heightened around the holidays, but these memories are loaded with sensorial and feeling content that makes them more intense and easy to recollect. The familiar sights and sounds of the season can send us into outpourings of emotion. We whirl in the blink of an eye, back to times gone by, recollecting what is was like to tear open our presents as kids and wait without sleep for the moment when Santa would slide down the chimney and bring us all that our heart desired. Our child mind comes alive and we find ourselves tearing up to Bing Crosby and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. And along with these opulent floods of feelings and scenes, particularly for the child of addiction, can come disorienting memories of drunken, yelling parents, family fights and slamming doors.
So how do we plow through the pain, acknowledge it, feel it and somehow still be open to the joy and beauty that the holiday season really offers? That’s the big question. Here are a few small answers. As ACoAs, we may well need another kind of list of tips for the holiday season than we generally find in magazines, maybe something like “How to Restore Rather than Relive Feelings Around the Holidays”; we need to learn how to learn to:
- Surrender to the strange mixture of feelings of longing and loss that the holidays might bring up, so that we can experience and process them, rather than stay stuck.
- Be open to the warmth and joy of the season and willing to feel these good feelings, rather than ward them off, block them or talk ourselves out of them.
- Take in our own moments of simple, sensorial pleasure whether walking down a decorated street, enjoying holiday music or cooking seasonal foods.
- Decorate our own day and take ownership of creating our own holiday moments or rituals, rather than waiting for someone else to do that for us.
- Be open to the experience of joy.
In order to do this, it helps to understand how early childhood relationships may have traumatized us, how we might be living that pain out in our adult relationships, and what we can do to “restore our sanity”.
Following is a short clip on how to do just that. www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYZKto4SYts
Tian Dayton, MA, PhD, TEP, is the Director of the New York Psychodrama Training Institute and the Program Development for Breathe Life Healing Centers and executive editor of the Journal of Psychodrama, Sociometry and Group Psychotherapy. She serves on the board of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and is the author of 15 books. Dr. Dayton is the creator of the Internet's first interactive self-help website, www.emotionexplorer.com. Learn more at www.tiandayton.com.