Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Holidays and Business

Housekeeping:  There's another poll on the sidebar, take a minute.  And this post feels long to me, so grab a bite to eat and come back.  Settle in.

"Last year you weren't nearly this busy," FD corrects me.

I had told him that I'm beginning to feel the effects of nonstop holiday happiness.

"Who can remember last year?"

I remember blogging about this once, getting ridiculously busy in October, the drama, the sadness, the relentless desperation not letting up until after New years. I wrote that it had something to do with the stress of planning, how planning extended lengths of time socializing with family brings back memories, and they aren't usually the good ones. Heaven forbid we should remember the good ones. 

The thought of Uncle Al getting wasted, Cousin Ina slamming the door, swearing,  "Okay, that's it, we're getting a divorce!"  This type of family dysfunction-- boozing, screaming, slamming-- anger-- even passive-aggressive anger, "Good to see you, too," especially this-- tends to be a downer.

Add to that the happy family script: We're supposed to like getting together as a family.  You've seen the commercials, especially the one with the cousins getting away from their parents to a restaurant for dinner, just the cousins.  Delightful, but how often does this happen?  Great when it does.  I think it was Leo Tolstoy who said, 
"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." 
Anna Karenina.  He was right, of course.

A prescription to manage the anticipatory anxiety:

a) plan as little as possible, wing it
b) label dysfunctional patterns, but don't argue; discuss
c) have an escape plan
c) expect little
e) accept a lot
f) and when the catastrophic expectations materialize, laugh about them.

Because after all, they were all predictable, the catastrophes.  We know our family members well enough to predict their nahrishkeit (rhymes with bar-ish-kite, means foolishness).

So clear the snow off the getaway car and check the availability at the local hotels.

But getting back to FD. He is right. This season has been the worst in years. Something in the air, something other than poverty, although poverty, and the anticipation of poverty, doesn't help; it is bringing people down.

The social scientist in me says it is entirely random, this year, and I'm different, too.  It is the luck of the draw, the draw of my particular patient mix, and really, mine is great, but this is work, not cocktails.  If you accept a lot of new patients, the complexity, the responsibility, will overwhelm. Never launch them, is the answer.  And take frequent vacations.

Maybe, however, there's a global confluence of variables at work, too. The unemployment, terrorism, the economic collapse of governments, the senseless murders and suicides hashed over repeatedly on the ten o'clock news. Kids voluntarily foregoing childhood, sexting.  War in Iraq, no pay raises for military families.  Riots.  Explosions in the Middle East.

Business as usual? Maybe yes, but these nagging toothaches add to what we already have, pain in our own ecosystems, in our own families, somewhere there is pain.

So avoiding the worst of times* is the prime objective.

We could start with ourselves, logically. Others might act out, Uncle Al, Cousin Ina, but we're affected, too.  Under the spell of what is supposed to be intimacy, I think the healthiest among us regresses. Where else can we be ourselves, the ones we used to be as kids, if not with family? 

We're a little different when we're with them, our siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins.  We slip into old patterns in the same context, eating and drinking with them, the same dinner table, hearing the same snarky jokes at somebody's expense.  The context triggers the synapses, old nerve pathways, thoughts and feelings of childhood come alive, like some ghost of holidays past.

Once we're there, we lose our more mature defenses-- intellectualization, rationalization -- the ones that make us think things through, forgive; and we regress to the childish ones, denial, projection.  The ones that blame.  The fun started with planning; being together finishes us off. 

You might think it isn't worth it, going home, but I think it is.  It's worth watching how this happens to us, and better even, it is worth labeling what is going on, appealing to the intellect of others in the family, the ones who might get it, who work programs or have had some therapy, or maybe caught on years ago, as children.  Also appeal to the heart of the family, the place in each of the first degrees, second degrees, thirds, that wants this to be a happy family.  Enjoy the best of everyone, and fight the regression to denial, projection.  Stay adult.

Just don't referee.  That's what you spent money on the tune-up to avoid. 

Not everyone goes home, goes anywhere is the truth.  If we didn't have good holidays as children, if there were no presents under the tree, if there was no tree, if there was no dad, no mom, if nobody filled in, if there was no Santa Claus, if someone died,  then for sure, no matter if we have reinvented ourselves, now have a functional family, a home, it is still sad, remembering. And if we haven't reinvented ourselves, if we have successfully abandoned the dream of the happy family, then there is no reunion.  No matter, sad.

And if our parents didn't make it as a couple, if there was violence in the home, if there is violence in the home now, then LOSER is written all over us, we're sure.  Adult Children of Losers, ACOL's, and sadness. And the expectation that our spouse should have helped us correct this by now, by the holidays, for crying out loud, and didn't, then the blame game is in full swing, and it can be a very loud game.

Conflictual couples conflict the most before and during the holidays (probably associated with license to drink/use). It is wishful thinking, peace on earth.

My son asked me, "Why do you think this is, that people lean on their therapists more during the holidays? You would think they would be busy baking cookies. Eventually everyone needs cookies."

He is thirty-two, responding to my late office hours. I tell him that time's running out.  Fix it now, fix it now, people tell themselves.  Count down. . .Ten more days . . ., nine more days . . ., eight more days . . ., seven . . .

And the days are getting colder, and darker, and what we really want, all of us, is to snuggle up close with people we love, or one person, maybe by a fire, and sip something warm, maybe hum, turn on Johnny Mathis, sing.

That would be the goal, I suspect. And by the time we get to December 24, some people pull it off.


*Different author, Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.  Bring one of these, a good book, on vacation.


porcini66 said...

TD, this is an amazing post. You've captured the essential dichotomy of the family relationship so perfectly with this post, I think.

I'm not going home this year for Christmas, can't afford it, and my Mom is very sad. Ya know, Dad in the nursing home, older brother hates family gatherings so won't show up or won't stay long if he does, yada, yada...

Part of ME is sad, too, knowing that Dad won't be around too many more Christmases and that Mom really DOES love family gatherings, etc. I want to be there to support her and to give her a happy time.

On the other hand, though...I'm so happy to be spending the holiday with my own little family. No drama (well, hopefully, no drama...), and just spending the day with US. No pretense. No airs. No worrying about that undercurrent that threatens to pull me under whenever I go home.

Norman Rockwell, we ain't. But my goal is to give my kids the best possible memories of this time of the year, every year. With any luck, my kids will want to come home to visit long after they've moved out and been on their own...

Anonymous said...

TD, excellent post! This will be my family's second holiday season since my Grandpa's suicide.... and...well, things are so far from happy/normal/functional that it's ridiculous. But I still go home, because, despite the "crazy", they've made me who I am and I love them more than anything. And in the midst of the stress? I totally label people. And think of inappropriate things I want to say but would never verbalize. And then? I remember I can let it out at my bereavement group the next week. ha. :)

Cheryl said...

Why didn't you post this in Oct? You're Jewish. I'm Jewish. The holidays are over. Does me little good now. I start worrying about the holidays a bit before Yom Kippur (when my mother starts sending me emails that I'm dead to her and she'll be lighting a candle for me) and the anxiety goes through Thanksgiving. Now it's done, thanks to, of all things, gingerbread houses (gave us something to do besides talk to each other)

and my mother getting a kidney stone and ending up in the ER (leaving her too drugged up to bother me).

I started worrying about Thanksgiving in Sept, getting pissed at my therapist for not wanting to process things so far in advance (said there were immediate issues) but it turned out ok.

Dreaming again said...

"But getting back to FD. He is right. This season has been the worst in years. Something in the air, something other than poverty, although poverty, and the anticipation of poverty, doesn't help; it is bringing people down."

I'd agree. Hardest year in a long time here. My social psych prof (had her for developmental and women's studies as well) said it's her worst semester in 20 years. She gave more F's out in ONE class than the previous 3 years COMBINED (complete with teaching intercession classes)
A friend who is a Dean of Student Services at my university said she's had more students in her office in tears (me included, and in our 12 years of friendship, she'd never seen me cry) than she had ever had.

Something is in the air that has made it difficult, for almost everybody. That, for me, made it a bit easier ... something about being able to say "it's not just me!" that helped to take away some of the "Am I crazy?" feeling of the extra stress.

Peggikaye (

kg said...

It wasn't you, but maybe you can be encouraged by this too---
Some years ago my husband was depressed (and angry). He had lots of old family stuff to process. It was hard work (for us and for our therapists) and it took quite a while. BUT IT DID HELP!
Things are better than they ever were. And now, this year when it really does seem like there is so much stress and hard stuff, I am watching my husband use what he learned to manage it. He knows that he can go back for a "tune-up" if he needs to, but he is doing so well! Therapy has made a real, long term difference for our whole family.
What you do makes a difference.
We encourage many of our stuggling friends and family to go give it a chance.

Hope said...

I'm going home for Christmas for the first time in 15 years. I realized last week that I like the idea of going home more than the reality of going home.

We are staying in a hotel to have some solitude away from my siblings and parents at the end of every day. They don't understand our need for it. I'm not explaining it.

"...enjoy the best of everyone." That's the line I will tuck away and repeat as a mantra as needed. Thank you.

Quillside said...

am going to read this twice a day for 2 weeks. thank you :)

lostinamaze said...

Great post! I love the 'Adult Children of Losers', made me smile.

Tzipporah said...

Best Hanukkah present this year was "Android Karennina," of the 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies' genre. You might enjoy it.

Ms. Adventuress said...

I am so grateful to read this year, it seems, I'm okay with all that is...not going home, or anywhere, not trying to acceptance, my guess.

Anonymous said...

Some advice on handling the panic about my therapist being away. pretty please. the feeling of abandonment. and the secondary shame. i've been with him for 2 years and I'm feeling my feelings when I haven't in the past. i know intellectually that it's good to feel but I'm so not liking it.

Wendy McIntosh said...

I'm quite pleased with myself this year. I actually listened to my therapist!! My daughter and her family stayed in a hotel for the week of Christmas, my husband made arrangements to go visit his mother after new years (otherwise there would have been a death in the family - hers..) I told the kids I needed 3 hours uninterupted peace and quiet in my room every day but Christmas. We had 4 birthdays, one trip to the emergency room (which ended up with Hubby in ICU for bleeding ulcer) and everyone - including Hubby said they had a GREAT TIME. We didn't plan anything, but all the adult kids took it upon themselves to plan individual days with friends etc. My grandchildren were also very well behaved! My husband jokingly told my 8 year old grandson, when asked why he had to do something he was told to do, that it would give him something to tell his therapist when he is older. Grandson said - I'm already seeing a therapist and as soon as I get home, I AM telling him!!! LOL!!!

JJ said...

Thanks for some holiday perspective. I'm processing what I would do differently next year to actually enjoy the holidays. This year we were snowed out of our trip to see my family and finally had to cancel the whole thing, my husband was so sick with ear and sinus infections and pink eye he didn't get out of bed the whole week of Christmas and I was left entertaining and hosting my in-laws alone in addition to caring for sick hubby, preschooler with a cold and newborn. Grandpa with COPD couldn't be around preschooler with the cold (and didn't want Grandma to get sick and expose him to it) so little boy was bitterly disappointed with grandparents in town but not coming to see him, and I was disappointed that two days of promised babysitting I had counted on to make Christmas "happen" evaporated....

Next year I am going to plan breaks in the action, wrap ahead of time, plan for sickness and (hopefully) be surprised by health, and drive to far away airports so I can take direct flights. And try not to be in the kitchen when my mother-in-law cooks... we do things too differently! :)

Syd said...

I am just now reading this. It was a good year for me. But I see the pain in others and the break down of social mores happening all around. That is a big issue. People seem stressed. And it is bound to rub off. I just try to keep my little light burning against the darkness.