Holidays in recoveryThe holidays can be difficult and there are a lot of emails and social media posts flying around on how to get through them. There are a lot of “Top 5 Ways to Stay Sober at Christmas” or “How to Say No to Partying” and “How to Deal with Triggering Relatives and Avoid Relapse or a Manslaughter Charge”. There are a lot of great ideas and tools in these pieces and, for anyone doing the holidays in recovery, I would highly recommend reading everything you can get your hands on to help you through.

That being said, this is my eighth time navigating this season and I’m starting to wonder if some of the issues I’ve been experiencing at this time of year actually have anything to do with how effective my boundaries are or how often I use the tools I’ve learned. I struggle, off and on, all year with depression, anxiety, self-esteem and self-worth issues. Why should the month of December be so much harder?

Last year, I ran a little experiment and decided to forgo all the usual holiday craziness in an effort to alleviate the pressure I felt to do Christmas “properly” and reduce this extra sadness I tend to feel at this time of year. My family weren’t very happy with some of my choices, but I felt pretty good about it all.  It was an emotional Mari Kondo-ing of all the things I thought I should be doing.

First out the window was baking. Easy enough, I barely do it and there’s always enough of Mom’s shortbread to go around.  Second was shopping before mid-December and my bank account thanked me. There was no last-minute panic shopping caused by feelings of “I haven’t bought everyone enough stuff!”. Third on the chopping block was that I wasn’t cooking a turkey dinner. This damn near got me kicked out of the family for a couple weeks but, in the end, everyone survived.

This year I decided that I would only do the things that brought me joy and this, like last year, it has felt good so far and yet…there’s still this underlying thing going on and it’s been dogging me for weeks. It’s a sad and restless feeling, it’s a feeling of not quite belonging or fitting in even though I’ve done a ton of work on who I spend my time and energy on. I no longer have the desire to drink and have found way better coping skills for whatever life throws at me, but I haven’t quite figured this one out. I started to wonder if the intensity of these feelings at this time of year, don’t have anything to do with me per se but, may be more about my emotional reaction to being told to feel something that I’m not.

The holidays start seeping into our consciousness and our social feeds right after Hallowe’en. The full onslaught of “holiday magic” really gets going on Black Friday and from there on it’s a constant barrage of messaging about good will, holiday joy and Christmas spirit. There’s nothing wrong with these sentiments, it’s just that…well…what if I’m not feeling it? For me, this inevitably turns into a “what’s wrong with me?” question and there it is. Holiday gaslighting.

Gaslighting usually refers to an individual manipulating their target by planting seeds of uncertainty and self-doubt to the point that their victim starts questioning their own perceptions and sanity. In this case, the entire holiday season tends to make me question mine. When this happens I tend to start an internal argument that sees me questioning myself with the fervour of a Spanish Inquisition.

Whenever the question “what’s wrong with me?” rears its ugly head, that’s my cue to step back and ask myself, “Why are you asking yourself this?”. Usually it’s a result of being triggered by another person’s behaviour revealing something in myself I need to work on. However, it’s a challenge identifying the wounds and the work that needs to be done when the messaging from a huge part of western society is that everything is, not only “just fine”, it’s better than fine; it’s merry and good. If you are a person who questions these cheery sentiments because they aren’t ringing true, or you aren’t feeling that way, there’s the risk of being labeled “Scrooge” or “Grinch”. This is another discrediting of valid feelings and, again, another example of gaslighting.

My point is this, if you’re feeling extra sad around this time it might just be that you’re noticing your sadness more because the rest of society has collectively decided that now is the time to be happy and cheerful because it’s December. So, what’s the answer to this? It’s a top 5 list that makes sense to me (betcha didn’t see that coming!). It’s the same list that I use all year to help me get through the harder times and, for anyone who uses essential oils as a tool, I’ve listed the ones that I’ve found helpful.

  1. Awareness – When I find myself in a reactive state, asking myself that questions of “what’s wrong with me?” I reach for things that remind me I’m safe; a phone-call to someone I trust and a journal to write it all out. Oils: birch, frankincense and lavender.
  2. Permission – I tell myself that whatever I’m feeling in the moment is completely valid, there are no “wrong” feelings. Oils: peppermint, vetiver, rosemary
  3. Self-acceptance – I remind myself that there isn’t actually anything wrong with me, that these feelings I’m having are informed by something older within me that I need to work on, maybe not right now, but at some point. Oils: grapefruit, patchouli, spearmint
  4. Self-protection – I make conscious decisions around my emotional safety and limit my exposure to the things that drain me. Oils: teatree, clove, sandalwood
  5. Curiosity – When I’m ready, I start examining what’s actually going without attachment to any old narrative or story I have about myself or the situation at hand. This is where the healing starts. Oils: rose, spikenard, myrrh

For those of you who didn’t resonate with any of this, I wish you well. For those of you who did, I wish you strength and courage to keep going. We’re almost there and I, for one, am looking forward to getting back to our regularly scheduled programming.