This month, there are a lot of “service pieces” in magazines and newspapers with helpful advice about how to not be sad at the holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah. These well-meaning columns have suggestions on how to change our moods and move away from sadness. However, I have a theory that having feelings that match reality is mental health, not mental illness.
Slamming doors. Broken dishes. Arguments that the neighbors could hear clearly. Tears. Unkind words. And, conversely the resonant sound of hostile silence. The disease of alcoholism had wedged itself into the middle of our marriage.
Watching someone you love struggle with addiction or alcoholism is extremely painful. I often liken it to watching someone dig a deep hole.
“With dignity we will stand for ourselves, but not against our fellows.”
-“From Survival to Recovery”
Oh, the holidays! When we think of them, so many thoughts and images pop into our heads! Snow! Family! Food! Togetherness! Traditions, old and new! Excitement is in the air, and we start planning how and when our ideal holiday will come together. Unfortunately, for those who have a loved one struggling with alcoholism or addiction, an additional level of stress typically accompanies the holidays: worry that our imagined holiday will turn into our worst-case scenario.
The first time I went with my husband to his side of the family for the holidays, I struggled. Although my family was far from perfect, the holidays were something that I felt we did really well.
Even in my adult years, my mom always waited until everyone was asleep on Christmas Eve to put gifts under the tree. We would awake to magic. We would open stockings, and have a little breakfast, and then start a leisurely unwrapping of the presents. Gifts would be opened one at a time, and everyone would have an opportunity to see what everyone else was receiving. If a little one opened something that they wanted to play with for a while, we allowed for that. After all of the gifts were open, we would start cooking the big family meal. It smelled divine! We would eat, basking in the abundance, and then clean up, have dessert, and sit around the table for hours having conversation and playing games.
On a recent trip home I got to join my family for their weekly breakfast. The waitress took everyone’s order, and then looked to me for mine. I had no idea what my order would be, as I didn’t have a menu. Everyone else knew everything on the menu! So, when I asked her for one, and she brought it back, I jokingly apologized for being the “problem child” this morning. This was immediately met with another family member stating “I hate to tell you, dear, but you always have been.” Of course, I said I already knew this.
There was a period in my life where I spent most of my time doing one of two things: I was either worrying to extremes, or praying about what I was worrying about. My prayers were desperate. I often prayed “Please let him come home safely.” Sometimes I prayed for something to change. At other times, I would make bargains. I would plea for resolution, and make promises in exchange.
Step 11: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.”
When I started attending recovery meetings for family members affected by someone else’s addiction, something became clear to me pretty quickly: I had no idea how to communicate in a healthy manner.
The communication that had taken place in my marriage when alcoholism was present ran through three phases. Phase 1 was to talk to him about his drinking and use whenever I could, and however I could, in the hope of making him stop. Phase 2 was not talking about his drinking and use at all, with the hope that if I ignored it would go away. Phase 3 was letting the frustration of this situation take over, and not talking about anything – otherwise known as the silent treatment. Of course, staring at someone else and thinking at them until they figure out what’s wrong is not the most effective communication tool…