How to Survive Another Christmas Part Two
Free and Easy Christmas Trauma Treatments
Continued from my last blog post . . . Some mental health practices for dealing with Christmas trauma . . .
7.) Get a notebook or a bunch of scrap paper and write a list of bullet points that answer the question ‘Why is Christmas hard for me?’ Each reason gets its own full page.
So, you might use up ten or twelve or twenty pages, each headed with one line of your list. “Brings up childhood poverty” one page. “Brings up the time Uncle _____ tried to _____” (Fill in the blanks.) “Reminds me of how depressed Mom always got.” “Painful to be around Dad when he is drinking.” “Always have to be nice to _____ who makes me want to vomit.” Et cetera.
Be as honest as you can. Simply naming and giving space — a whole page (or two or three if you want) — to the actual difficulty of Christmas helps to validate and modulate your own feelings.
Part of the reason why Christmas is so hard is because of all the pressures we feel to enact roles in the myth of Christmas — of plenitude, of happiness, of love, peace, joy, blahblahblah.
Walking in a winterland? WTF? There is no snow where I live in Canada: there used to be snow here in Toronto. Now it’s raining and feels more like Vancouver. As I mentioned in my last article, our massive celebration of over-consumption and over-production is also hard on our exhausted planet. Even if we are not fully conscious of it, we feel that, too, on top of many other stresses.
8.) Now on each page of your Christmas list, quickly scribble, without thinking too much and without worrying about your grammar or spelling — no one is checking this list at all, especially not Santa — how you could alleviate this particular difficulty.
Be creative. Be ridiculous. Write whatever you want to resolve your Christmas trauma/anxiety/sadness. Indulge in some questionable practices — it’s fine to have someone just disappear off the face of the earth — but do not commit violence or enact cruel vengeance on anyone, not even in your mind. Try to let go of that impulse: it’s violent energy which frees no one.
9.) Rather than vengeance or any harsh enactments of justice, go theother way: get spiritual and be able to miraculously forgive (or at least forget and release) all those who’ve hurt you. Act like you are some enlightened being, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, the Angel Gabriel, a beloved Guru, Jesus himself, whatever works for you.
Yes, I know, that may be asking alot, but just try it. You may surprise yourself. I’m not saying what you imagine will come to pass, but we underestimate the power of the imagination to make us FEEL DIFFERENTLY. Even if only for a few moments.
A free and easy meditation: Imagine the burden (see it: a broken chunk of concrete; a heavy board; a pot of sludge or boiling oil; whatever: see a burden in your life in a physical form, on you).
Imagine that this terrible burden begins to lift off your heart, off your body, even away from that particular part of your body that is affected by the burden.
You are able to breathe more freely. Take five deep breaths into your nose all the way down into your belly. And let the breath go out of your mouth.
The burden lifts, lifts, rises away from your body until you can no longer see it. You are able to breathe easily. All that is up above you is clear beautiful blue sky.
You are now free. You can experience Christmas in a completely new way, a way in which you can embrace the most wonderful gift you’ve ever had, the gift you receive every day, the gift you receive even this moment: your life.
This one precious life. It is yours.
10.) Use your imagination and your practical intelligence to liberate some of your pain around Christmas. Use your health to bring you more health. Often we know how to help ourselves — but we don’t.
We could Google up another freeing meditation on the Internet and give ourselves ten minutes to practice it. But instead we obsess on Facebook about an ex-lover or an ex-friend; we welter in old pain and suffering. We can change that. Engage your brain in some Christmas-freedom play when responding to your list. “Go to Havana” is a good solution, or, even better, “Sail effortlessly to Fiji.”
11.) Resolve to not drink too much alcohol during the Christmas season. Give yourself a hard limit for any Christmas occasion. Write your intention down in your notebook. Make a commitment. For those of us with PTSD, alcohol increases our feelings of vulnerability and makes PTSD symptoms more likely to reoccur. Christmas is a time when so many of us feel isolated. (That can be a symptom of PTSD.) Even if you don’t have PTSD, alcohol is a powerful depressant and diuretic: it dehydrates the body.
This is a time when we need to engage our most adult selves (while loving up the child self). Being our most adult selves means taking good care of our bodies, minds, and spirits.
Here are some helpful ideas to help you manage your drinking over the holidays. Everyone is different but hopefully something here works for you.
Though I’ve been writing seriously since I was twelve, I’m only now beginning to write (in prose) about my childhood. My own son just turned twelve. A couple weeks ago, he called me to his room before he fell asleep. I sat down beside his bed, which he’s almost outgrown — he’s two inches taller than me already — and he said in a worried tone, “Ama, I don’t know how to explain this.”
I said, “What’s wrong, honey? What’s the problem?”
“What about Christmas?” I had a vague idea of what he was going to say.
And he said it. “Every Christmas, I feel like something bad is going to happen. It never does, not really. But I always feel like something bad will happen. I don’t know why.”
Inwardly, I felt a huge deflation: like one of those giant lit-up Santas, knifed and rapidly losing air on the front lawn. I’d tried to protect him. We have a tree and lights and Christmas stories and music. We dress the tree together. We enact a happy Christmas; and it often IS happy.
I thought I had protected him from Christmas trauma. He’s never experienced the ideological warfare and fighting that constituted the whole month of December for the child of a Jehovah’s Witness and a Catholic. But he’s absorbed significant traces of my painful Christmas sadness. He’s also had mixed messages from the relatives on his father’s side. He is the only boy cousin amongst girls, which has meant years of watching girls bond, giggle, share experiences, and receive expensive gifts while he has been the odd boy out. So even for him, Christmas can bring up feelings of separation and not-good-enough. (We are also the least wealthy ones among my husband’s brothers, something that we feel keenly only at Christmas time. But that’s another story.)
I gave my beautiful son a hug. “It’s a difficult time of year for a lot of people. There’s so much going on. I think you also pick up a lot of the sadness I feel about how Christmas was when I was a kid.” And I shared more of my own family background with him. Not too much, but enough to help him understand.
My father won the Christmas war: we had a Christmas tree, and we even got presents. But my mother won the battles: we, her children, had to publicly enact the role of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and not sing the lovely songs or colour Rudolph pictures or even open our gifts without deep guilt and confusion. This was a childhood in Calgary, Alberta, in the 1970’s and 80’s. There were no Muslims, two Jews (and they were allowed to sing carols and colour Christmas pictures at school!) and me: I was the only student who was set apart from my classmates during every celebration of the year, including birthdays.
Though my siblings and I were allowed to celebrate Christmas under the dictates of our father (thank God!) I knew in my heart of hearts that getting out the beautiful delicate ornaments and hanging glittery silver tinsel and even wanting the gifts, let alone ripping open the shiny paper and getting them in my hot little hands, was bad. It was all bad, and dangerous.
When the end of the world arrived — it was going to arrive very soon — I would die because I got a new Barbie for Christmas. How was that fair? It made no sense. I knew none of it made sense. My death, when I died, would be senseless. That is a very painful realization for a fully believing six-year-old to have.
But then, historically and recently, the punishments adults inflict on children are often unwitting, senseless, and soul-damaging. We like to think random, stupid, terrifying violence against defenceless children doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but if you work in any public health, welfare, or policing capacity — or if you read the news once in a while — you know that people are still harming their kids, while other supposedly intelligent people are writing and enacting policies that grievously harm other people’s kids. Adults still violate children with impunity all the time. It’s disgusting.
The reasoning might be intellectual or political, rather than religious; an excuse is necessary, at least, for legal child abuse. Dividing thousands of children from their migrant parents at the U.S. border is inhumane and sick, but many people support the decision to do so and other people physically enact the separation policy, pulling small children out of the arms of their mothers and fathers and putting them in foster care, often among people who do not speak their language. Keeping destitute refugee children in the hot-stop refugee camps all across Europe is inhumane and sick: civilized Europeans are doing it and have been doing it for years.
12.) I mention wide-ranging child abuse because developing a wide perspective is a good antidote to self-pity. (Though if you need to indulge in some self-pity pre or post Christmas, go ahead. I understand. Just know how to pull yourself out of the self-pity pit.)
13.)A wide, generous perspective humbles and enriches us at the same time. As a friend often says, Love what you love.
Enough to eat? Lucky. Clean water to drink? So blessed. One trustworthy beloved? Sweet abundance.
That wide perspective I mentioned is just out your front door. The teenager begging for change on the street. The old man sleeping on a heating vent downtown. (FYI: a high number of homeless men suffer a serious brain injury before becoming homeless. So let’s put to bed the callous response, ‘They just like living that way.’) Kids in foster care who have no families coherent enough to create even a traumatic Christmas. My childhood home was often a disaster, but at least I had one; I’ve always been grateful for that. To be a child in state care at Christmas time is to try to celebrate on the site of an open wound.
Unfortunately, and still, Christmas triggers my whole body. For years I’ve approached this time of year like a soldier who’s been assigned a grueling exercise in an underground tunnel (the basement) where some disembodied form of torture takes place. Punishingly loud sounds? Constant screams of a child in a neighboring cell? Ice water spraying from the ceiling for hours at a time?
Then come the two most dangerous days — the day of Christmas Eve and The Day Itself.
On those two days, things get a little tougher. Okay, much tougher. If I’m unprepared, if I haven’t taken care of myself properly, the psychic pain of those two days is so unmanageable— the self-talk so vile, the difficult memories so intrusive — that I have to go away and lie down and be still or stand in the bathroom doing Observed Experiential Integration, which is a neural trauma therapy developed by the gifted therapist Audrey Cook and Dr. Rick Bradshaw.
As a therapist myself who uses this therapy and as a client who still benefits from it, I have to advise people to practice OEI only under the guidance of a skilled therapist. For those with severe dissociative disorders, OEI can be disruptive. It’s a therapy I hope to write much more about in the future because it’s an extraordinary way of managing and healing trauma. I use it when I’m feeling mildly triggered or when I’m in the midst of a full-blown PTSD episode.
OEI helps me manage my traumatized brain by using my eyes. I hold my left hand over my left eye, then switch to hold my right hand over my right eye. First one, then the other: that is the most basic OEI technique. I observe the emotions on each side, spending more ‘seeing’ time on whichever side feels calmer and less reactive.
If I’m feeling especially triggered, I cover my more reactive ‘upset’ eye; this calms me down and helps to engage the more adult-functioning, non-traumatized parts of my brain. I can titrate calmness from one side to the other, back and forth, switching eyes until I return to a balanced, non-reactive state.
Though I don’t have the space to talk about any of the neurological aspects of OEI here, in essence, it helps calm those regions of the brain that have been affected by trauma. It possibly helps the traumatized brain to create new neural pathways through traumatic memory.
I also tap the left and right sides of my body — shoulders, thigh, knee — with the opposite hand. That’s bilateral stimulation — a simple subtle way of getting the brain back online in the present moment.
14.) When we’re feeling triggered and upset, we’re going back to past trauma. To feel better, we need to return to the present: to bring our minds back into our ‘now’ bodies. As I said at the beginning of Part One of this article, Whatever is happening in our current Christmas is probably far less dangerous physically and psychically than what happened when we were small children.
So the goal, with Christmas trauma, is to bring us into a clear present. Any grounding technique will help us do that. Even sitting up straight and putting our feet on the floor. Going for a walk. Brain yoga. These are simple, helpful exercises for balancing both sides of the brain and body. Brain yoga takes just 5 minutes to de-stress and relax you. Share widely as a wonderful Christmas present.
15) We can send our blessings or prayers of peace and comfort to the millions of men, women, and children at all the borders of this world, visible and invisible, victims of war, famine, political turmoil, broken, violent families. It is their birthright, too, to be welcomed and given a safe place to raise their children, to eat, to receive love, to be blessed with gifts.
To have a safe, sturdy place to live on this hurting planet is like winning the lottery. In some ways, it’s completely accidental, like the miracle of our births.
Because of my childhood, contradiction and paradox have always been a part of me. I’ve never been good at polarized (black/white — good/bad — us/them) thinking, even when I wish I could be, because I grew up on both sides of an impossible divide. Many children still grow up like this, simultaneously separated from and conjoined to their parents and their traditional religious upbringings. The original meaning of ‘confuse’ meant ‘to be fused with; to become part of something else.’ Really then, I’ve always been confused. And I continue to be confused. Sometimes a form of wisdom.
When I was a child, my confusion was a source of tremendous suffering. Through years of travel, meditation, loving, losing, and waiting, it has become a multiplicity of belief that has led me to study the world’s major religions. It’s enabled me to learn and embody many forms of healing and sacredness. Ever a carrier of messages, I have made peace between my two angry, early gods.
15.) In Buddhism one of the key benedictions is simple, brave, and limitless, a blessing that extends in every direction.
May all beings be free from suffering.
Including you and me. Including those beings, human and non-human, that we will never meet. Including those who have harmed us. Including those we can forgive and those we cannot (yet) forgive.
If you have a dry erase pen, write it on your mirror and say it every morning and every evening until the end of December, or the end of January, or perhaps until the end of time.
May all beings be free
including you and me.