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When Christmas is Trauma

The Pain

It is well-known that risks in mental health and substance use/abuse increase during this time of year. We know the different areas of stress and misery, but do we SEE them for what they are?

In the case of the estranged parent or child, it is the excruciating reminder of love lost. For those under pressure to gift the newest thing we’ve been convinced is a “must” it is a money pit. In general, it is the reminder that in order to fully participate in this annual ritual, one must BUY or feel shame. We talk a lot about how commercial the whole thing is, but the expense to consider for this moment is the relationship element. How expensive is it to be lonely? How expensive is it to feel empty? How expensive is it to crave dinner with the teen or adult child who has embedded the custom of pleasing the parent who has the most money to spend? How long does that person control that most expensive penalty for not getting their way?

I remember being told about a family in which the rule about gift giving a Christmas is that any gift MUST cost a minimum of $35. And one had to leave the tag in the package to prove it. Since this was many years ago, I suppose that number would be much larger today, because of inflation and so on. What is the purpose of setting such a rule? Why, even in moderate income families can it be shaming to reveal one shopped at a discount store? Why will someone pick up an additional job to have the money to spend on Christmas but would not do the same thing to create a retirement fund or donate to charity?

There are many bits of advice for setting boundaries, for feeling able to ask for the acknowledgement that can’t be purchased. In the end, when it’s known that folks spend too much shopping, that the uncle who molested multiple children still is invited to the family gathering or that where someone will drink too much and may create a row over old wounds, the best thing is to stand still for one moment to ask oneself, “What would happen if I withdraw?” “What would happen if I tell the person who needs to hear it that I don’t feel seen?” If the answer is some kind of fear, find out what that is based on.

The answer might not be simple.

In my view, dysfunctional marriages and babies that are here of obligation, started as the guilt ball was rolling. (I SHOULD be married/partnered by now. I SHOULD be a parent by now. Staying in a bad marriage/partnership becomes NOW THAT I HAVE CREATED THIS BED, I HAVE TO LIE IN IT.) And by the way, if your self-esteem remains in tact, it’s easier to figure out how to run into the right partner, easier to have a baby or admit that being a parent is of no interest. Is that “should be born child” going to be an extension of someone’s ego, which then becomes the perfect battle ground when divorce comes? In my view, it’s partly what creates the situation where the bad relationship ends on a super-sour note and it’s time to use the kids as a (sometimes unconscious) point of manipulation. In this family that should never have been, it might be that grandpa’s money is the reason anyone tries to stay in his good graces-good presents at Christmas and more . It might be that it’s better to live a double life instead of letting everyone know one is gay. Christmas isn’t so merry when one isn’t comfortable in one’s own skin.

What else?

Don’t get drunk or high instead of relating to people, nor let that emptiness become what we call the process addictions, either: shopping, gambling, porn, internet-instead of true human interaction. That habit of “getting away” usually creates another set of problems that no one really “chooses.”


Instead? Stop talking. Someone has to eventually ask what happened. Leave the ball in their court and stay busy while you wait. Again, stay busy. And maybe it’s time to take yourself to therapy every week til after New Years Day, where we are supposed to have someone to kiss at midnight.

Find the other people who are lonely. Spend on experiences instead of things. From a behavioral standpoint, once a person changes, the rest must adapt. The beginning might be hell. But how will you know how far the rejection will go or what chance there is that the situation can change if you choose to stay in your own jail?

Again, get professional help if that’s what it takes. Don’t hurt yourself in any way. Buy yourself some emotional freedom. Find happiness in peace and quiet. Create a “chosen family.” Make happiness.

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