Sunday 20 January 2019

How to survive the festivities when you find Christmas a nightmare

Overblown expectations and forced merriment can make the festive season a nightmare for many, exacerbating the difficulties they live with throughout the year, writes Caomhán Keane. But with some careful preparation, you can survive the festivities

Christmas shopping. Stock image
Christmas shopping. Stock image
Christmas can be a very sad and lonely time for some people

Caomhán Keane

'The human being is designed to be gregarious," says Martin Rogan, ceo of Mental Health Ireland. "They are supposed to be engaged with other people. If, for whatever reason, they haven't achieved that in life, it can become quite stark at Christmas. They feel the contrast with the idealised version they see on TV and their own experience of it and can find the whole period quite challenging."

The irony of people's struggle at Christmas is that it originated as a pagan feast meant to bring people together. "The whole idea was to make the winter survivable, that during a dark and bleary time, it would give people a boost over the homestretch and see them through to springtime.

"But the completely overblown expectation, forced merriment and demands that you be cheerful and socialise can end up having the exact opposite effect and they can get quite down."

Christmas can have a positive effect too. Donations to charities go up, people's concern for their fellow man goes up. They want to include others.

But that can lead to a bank of expectation for how the day or week is going to go. "They have visions of a log fire, a juicy turkey and parcels under the tree.

"But the movie is never as good as the book. They forget about the hangovers, the snide asides, the exchanging of daggers rather than gifts.

"You also sometimes don't see one another from one side of the year to the next and then you have to live under the same roof, staring at each other across a dinner table. It leads to an over intensity."

People can get overheated. Literally. "The living room should be between 16-22°. But with the heating on, the fires roaring, people simply become too hot and it lowers their flash point, they are prone to be more aggressive, which coupled with the fact that they have probably eaten too much, drunk too much and said too much can help things become unpleasant."

Martin suggests that as well as timing your turkey; you also schedule room for fun. "Get a deck of cards, plenty of board games. It's a time for levity and these help people step out of their traditional roles, your old aunt with her bum in the air playing Twister. It brings something fresh to conversations that can become very stale, very quick."

While excessive drinking causes enough problems for the general public, for people who live with an alcoholic or substance abuser it can be especially traumatic.

"Dad or Mom are great fun until they've had a few whiskeys and things turn dark, unpleasant and occasionally violent," says Martin.

"For so long I thought 'Christmas is ruined. He's drunk, so we can't go to x, y or z." So says Gráinne Brown (not her real name) a representative of Al-Anon a support programme for the families and friends of alcoholics, whether or not the alcoholic recognises the existence of a drinking problem or not.

"Addiction became the centrepiece of our Christmas. What I learned, what got me through, was to think, 'you didn't cause it, you can't control it and you can't cure it. Once an alcoholic wants a drink, they are going to drink. It's an illness. They won't change until they do. So now we make plans to suit ourselves. We have a great Christmas leaving them to it."

She says it helps to remind herself that this person is as powerless as you are in the situation. "It's a disease. Don't have so many rows about their behaviour. Until they mind themselves, detach with love, without getting angry and resentful."

This is easier said than done.

"I have been in Al-Anon 14 years and I can still slip back on to old behaviours because I just get so frustrated. I just have to remind myself of what's good for me. I'm lucky as through the fellowship I have so many people I can call who have been through it themselves. They are only a phone call away."

Christmas is not the time to try to spur an alcoholic into change. "It's a waste of time. It makes the addict feel more ashamed, which makes them drink more, which causes them even more shame. It's a vicious circle. You might get a few minutes of satisfaction emptying the vodka down the sink, but that feeling goes down the drain pretty quickly after it."

The mismatch of values or beliefs and a disconnect over expectations can result in toxic behaviours between parents and children over Christmas while reverting to or rebelling against our past roles in a family can cause friction among siblings.

"Whether your 14, 44 or 84, old emotions will rise up when you enter the family home," says psychotherapist Karl Malden, whose website Toxic Escape aims to help people detach from the toxic people, emotions and situations that are holding them back.

"The more difficult it was as a child, the more potent these feelings can become as an adult. When we regress the more vulnerable we become, the more affected we are by slights and triggers."

He recommends you stage-manage your visit home. "It's like going to war. Control the environment as much as possible. Say to yourself, 'I am only going to stay for x amount of time', 'I will talk about this and not that topic' and if you cave in, or are ambushed by seemingly innocuous comments out of left field that turn increasingly sour, you are only human. Don't beat yourself up."

Bring a buffer if you can, a partner or a child. If that's not possible, have somebody on standby, who you can text to ring you when the conversation is drifting into toxic territory, so you have that window of escape.

Most importantly, don't let this trip define your whole Christmas. Have something nice planned for the next day or that evening. So when the passive aggressive comments start and the emotions rise, you can take the sting out of the present with the balm of tomorrow.

"You make their words irrelevant."

If you can't get away he recommends getting your Sherlock Holmes on. "Observe what's going on. Take physical note of what's being said, who is doing what. It can help you distance yourself from what's going on at the moment and it can guide you on how to deal with these same situations next year. "

Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not the busiest time of year for most helplines. "That would be May and August," says Cindy O Shea, Samaritans' Irish regional director, "then comes Christmas. What we do see is a change in the seriousness of the calls.

People with mental health issues can be triggered by all these ads advertising happy families enjoying themselves, highlighting the deficits in their own life. You're reminded time and again that Christmas should be about family, that unification and happiness. When perhaps they don't have those relationships to enjoy. They may have lost some in the previous year, or lost a job so they are financially insecure, which can have a detrimental effect on their mental health, building to a climax over the holiday period."

One-in-three callers talks about being lonely over the holidays. People are more stressed, more suicidal and there is a rise in domestic abuse. "The build-up for Christmas begins in September. The minute you see a picture of a Santa in the shops, the stress and emotion start building and building, rising like a crescendo."

One group that does see a huge spike in the need for its services around the holidays is BeLonG TO, a LGBT youth organisation in Ireland, which caters for young people aged between 14-23 years. "We don't have official figures as of yet on this, but I would guess there's about a 50pc increase," says Moinne Griffith, executive director of BeLonG TO.

Apart from all the other stresses of family life, pretending - or not - to have a wonderful time, young LGBT people have the added pressure, when they aren't out that they are going to be outed, and then rejected.

"It's a hugely anxious time. There's the fear they'll blurt it out or others might. They might want to come out and are weighing up if this is the right time. They are under a huge amount of pressure and they don't have school, college or a job to escape to, so whatever was on your mind before is felt more intensely. It's like a pressure cooker.

"And if their families are not accepting of who they are, it can be really tricky and challenging and sad and upsetting. They can feel unloved." Among the issues that BeLonG To deal with is the deliberate, pointed deadnaming or misgendering of young trans people, family telling them their homosexuality or their gender dysmorphia is 'just a phase', prying questions about their love life or being exposed to casual homophobia by families unaware there is a homosexual in their midst.

"Lean on your logical family if you can't rely on your biological one. It might be a few weeks until you can physically see each other, but make time to call each other, check in on one another through social media. You are not alone, even if it can feel like that."

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