Handling the Holidays by Author Annie Highwater

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Handling the Holidays

Regardless the holidays or traditions you observe, this time of year can be trying, triggering and even traumatic.

From what I know personally and have listened to others openly share in “the rooms,” holidays tend to bring on some of the most emotionally charged situations.

I’ve compiled helpful suggestions and tips for handling this time based on difficult holiday seasons I’ve experienced myself, along with wisdom offered by therapists and expert family advocates.


Difficult Decisions 


If a Loved One is in active use do we include them in gatherings? This is a tough decision as relationships have often been fractured and trust destroyed.  In my experience it is best to go with what makes you feel most at peace.

What if their presence causes agitation in others? Not every one has understanding and compassion when it comes to the condition of addiction or excessive alcohol use.  There are occasions when decisions must be made for the greater good of a situation, such as shielding children from reckless or inappropriate behaviors.

Possibly stagger times and locations so that those who are at odds or children who need to be spared from potential flare ups, won’t encounter whomever you choose to spend time with.

Should we offer alcoholic beverages around someone pursuing sobriety? Those who are working on recovery are responsible to know their triggers.  However if they are going to be in a setting that involves alcohol, having a safe, honest conversation in order for them to prepare is helpful.  Out of respect, I personally don’t prefer settings that have alcohol around friends or family who have had struggles with substances.

What gifts do we give someone who has broken trust? Some great suggestions I have heard are giving things like a gym membership, recovery literature such as the Big Book of AA, framed pictures of them with family and friends during happy times, a wallet or change purse filled with names and resources should they decide to pursue treatment and recovery…and so on.

What if they are unable to buy gifts? People sometimes feel deep shame over not being able to buy for others if they are having financial problems.  Even being reassured, “We just want to give gifts to you, it doesn’t matter if you give us any!” sometimes doesn’t take away from the fact that they might feel less than for what they lack.  Awareness, compassion and mindfulness goes a long way when it comes to making everyone feel comfortable and included.

Note – Making these decisions comes down to what you are at peace with.  No one can tell us the right or wrong way to handle such sensitive subjects.  Nor will anyone else live with the outcome of your decisions.  It’s a learning process to be kind and loving, yet also careful and wise.


Nostalgia and Exaggerations


Memories can be blurry.  Believing holidays should be as they were growing up can be a trap.  Especially if we are more nostalgic than realistic.

Some of us remember childhood holidays as much grander than those who were shopping for gifts, preparing lavish meals and entertaining guests and in-laws experienced them.

When we were little, we were probably unaware of the problems, dysfunction or disappointment going on with the adults. We were usually sitting at the kids table.

It’s also worth mentioning that in the age of social media, sometimes we perceive the lives of others as appearing perfect.  Or at least, better than our own.

It’s important to remember, most folks post their highlight reel versus showcasing times that are miserable or mundane.

If we think back to the age of photo albums, it was really no different. Families gathered to pose as someone held the camera, the picture taker would instruct everyone to say “Cheese!” so all would appear smiling in the picture.

The message being that you are one big, smiling, happy family.

And which were the pictures we kept in albums and frames?  The ones that presented the best appearance of the family.

In lieu of shouting “cheese,” and appearing happy, families weren’t likely to say:

“Dad yells and becomes violent when he drinks”

“Mom takes too many pills”

“Brother gets in fist fights and bullies our Mom”

“Sister is angry, her moods poison the atmosphere”

“Aunt battles depression”

“Uncle has multiple affairs”

“Cousins look down their nose at us, but they have dark sides too”

“I’m scared, sad, afraid, confused, feeling left out, angry, alone.”

No one was normally saying out loud what they felt.  Most didn’t know how to advance out of family cycles of jealousy, conflict and dysfunction. So instead, together everyone said, “Cheese” and showed the world how a family appears.

That still rings true today.

While it’s true that not everyone had traumatic experiences, one thing is certain; no one has it easy, happy or great all the time. Everybody deals with something.

So don’t let your heart sink when you see how great others have it. It’s not healthy to compare.  Everyone goes through good and hard times alike.  Just not usually at the same time.





We’re assaulted with high hopes during the holidays. The fact is, we are going to have expectations, it’s how fixed we are on specific outcomes that causes pain.

Expectations are human, it’s when they multiply and grow into obsessions consuming our thoughts that they become a problem.



Loneliness and sorrow  

Dark, heavy feelings are a part of life.  Though bitter and miserable at times, the waves of sorrow and pain are due to visit us all, especially in times of grief and loss.

Resistance to these feelings makes life harder.

Sometimes we have to lean in to the hard moments in order to get through them and move forward in breaths when it comes to suffering and deep grief.

Pain has taught me that the way out, is through.



Move through these days moment by moment Whether it’s a situation, a setting or the entire holiday season.  Move through it a step at a time. During a particularly miserable time I was advised to “Do the next right thing for the next ten minutes, over and over again.” And that was exactly how I got through it.

Three hour rule A counselor told me when it pertains to uncomfortable settings within his own stressful family, he gives himself a set length of time to spend with them.  He gives all of his attention and personality to the setting in that frame of time, but leaves guilt free after three hours.  Sooner if chaos erupts.

Be your own advocate Be aware of your feelings and needs and tend to them. Give yourself an out if it becomes too difficult to be around those you don’t feel at ease with.  Pay attention to things like your heart sinking, and your energy darkening, etc. Honor those feelings within, they are cues that you feel off about something.  When things feel intense, if possible, step away to a quiet room or hallway and deeply breathe for two or three minutes and then return to the group. It’s also okay to leave if you prefer to return to the safety of your own space.  It’s not selfish to look out for yourself, it’s healthy.

Don’t lose heart! Things can change, in fact – they will.  Change is one of the only certainties of life. There’s a saying: “Nothing happens and nothing happens and nothing happens…and then everything happens.”  This is as true for crisis and chaos as it is for good news and breakthroughs. Seasons of life are radically impermanent. If this is a tough year, it can get better.  You never know what can happen in a day.

Look for signs of love and hope I love signs in nature, one of my favorites is a Cardinal sighting. The male Cardinal with his bright red coloring symbolizes that passion, warmth and vibrancy are available to us even in under the cloak of winter’s grey clouds.   Many believe when a Cardinal appears it’s a sign of comfort from someone they love who has died.

For all mourning a loss, may the Cardinal appear unexpected and bright in your dreariest moments.  A vibrant symbol of hope in the midst of a cold winter to serve as a reminder that your Loved One lives on.

For those enduring harsh circumstances, possibly hoping a Loved One will come to their senses, may the Cardinal appear to you as well, offering a sign of encouragement that no matter how desperate things may seem, they can change.


If things are difficult for you this year, remember this too shall pass…next year might exceed expectations and be a little easier.

If this year is a happier one, remember next year may be challenging.  Pay attention to those not doing so well, there are some who may need a boost of comfort or kindness.

Overall, let’s try to embrace what is, face what aches, hope for the best, cultivate compassion and kindness, and be grateful for all we see, or remember, that is loving and beautiful.

Hope lights the way.

“Do not lose hope, please believe that there are a thousand beautiful things waiting for you.  Sunshine comes to all who feel rain.” ~R.M. Drake

Seasons Greetings,


Author of Unhooked

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