This post is a part of Nicole Carman’s mental health-related holiday post series, “Taking Care of your Mental Health during the Holiday Season.” It was written and contributed to this post series by Samuel Moore-Sobel of Holding on to Hope Today.” He is nearing publication of a memoir focusing on his experiences revolving around both trauma and recovery. A syndicated columnist, his work has been featured in numerous publications.
To see the post line-up for the previous and remaining posts in this series, please visit this page on Nicole’s blog, Navigating Darkness. If you enjoy this post, please comment and consider sharing it on social media!
Are you haunted by the past during the holidays?
For some, the holiday season dredges up painful memories. A death in the family, or a painful divorce. The memory of a long-lost love, or a fractured relationship with a child once held dear. The holidays seemingly have a way of amplifying our deepest longings, forcing us to confront demons long assumed conquered.
A Trip Down Memory Lane
“There are certain moments in life that you will never forget,” Gloria Delgado-Pritchett (played by actress Sofia Vergara) tells us in an episode of ABC’s Modern Family.
Sometimes, that isn’t such a good thing.
When I reflect upon the holidays comprising my childhood, I cannot help but think about the negative aspects of such experiences. The stress my parents felt to live up to the expectations of demanding family members, eagerly making accommodations they believed would finally secure the love they both so greatly desired from their respective families. I think about the pressure I felt as a child to behave – sit up straight, remain quiet unless spoken to – all in an effort to please.
I cannot recall most of the gifts I received, but I can tell you about the Thanksgiving an extended family member put his hands around my neck because I wasn’t readily agreeing to his false assertion in the middle of what had seemed to be a mild discussion up to that point. The fear felt, offset only by my screams. The humiliation inherent in the moment, compounded by the efforts made by other extended family members to ignore this startling sequence of events.
These painful memories, among many others, return with a vengeance during this time of year, appearing seemingly out of nowhere. For years, these recollections inspired a feeling of dread at the thought of attending a large family gathering, or in anticipation of the run-up to a season I simply wanted to ignore. A feeling echoed by so many as the holidays approach.
Leading one to wonder – isn’t there a better way?
It’s Time for a Change
Each year, the holiday season seems to arrive a bit sooner. Decorations go on sale, while people talk eagerly of the presents they plan on purchasing. Arrangements are made, many traveling far and wide to visit family members. In theory, the season should be a time of reflection, offering a respite from the busyness of life. Providing ample opportunity to spend precious moments with those we love the most.
Yet it is all too easy to become bogged down in the minutiae surrounding this season.
The rush to purchase the most expensive and sparkling gifts. Caving to the desires of family members, rather than advocating for what it is we need during this time. Giving up our individual voice, in favor of satisfying the unreasonable demands of another. Step by step, the holidays transform into a list of musts instead of a celebration of all that we have. A perceived lack of control seemingly enabling the past to secure an unwanted foothold.
Part of stemming the tide of memory is changing the routine. Choosing to engage in a redefinition of the holiday season. Assuming an active role in the creation of new memories with the people you love; and, the people that love you. For hiding behind the word “family” should never be used as an excuse to inflict harm or engage in acts of abuse.
As I reached adulthood, my parents, brother, sister and I were emerging from some of the most harrowing experiences of our lives. An accident leaving me with facial scarring. The stress of which caused my mother’s health to falter. The shots kept piling up, so much so that changing course seemed like the only way to preserve both health and sanity.
After lengthy discussions, we collectively decided that the holidays were better spent among the five of us. Eagerly creating new memories by establishing rather unique traditions. On Thanksgiving, forsaking turkey in favor of delectable lobster. On Christmas, giving gifts of meaning instead of rushing out to buy the latest version of the iPhone. I’ll never forget the compass my mother gave me in the wake of a particularly painful breakup – a token meant to communicate that she knew that I was more than capable of finding my way.
To be clear, it is important to dedicate much time and effort to the act of working through the pain of the past. Confronting those who have inflicted harm upon you, while making efforts to distance yourself from situations that will likely lead to the formation of further wounds, are important first steps. Yet after all is said and done, it’s important to combat the resurrection of painful memories by turning towards the present.
The Choice is Yours
The intervening years have taught me that reaching a place of peace involves making a conscious choice. To be grateful for the gifts experienced in daily life. Gratefulness is an attitude, one that can permeate our existence regardless of whether we find ourselves in the middle of tragedy or a wonderful celebration.
For, there are always things to be grateful for, even in the worst of circumstances. Just like there will always be things to long for, even in the best of circumstances. A key element in experiencing happiness is espousing an attitude of gratefulness.
As the holiday season gets underway, we can choose to focus on all that has been lost. To be nearly entirely overcome by memories of the past, unable to press forward in our efforts to inject new life into the present. Perhaps, instead of focusing on the pain, we can choose to catalog the things for which we are most grateful. Delighting in all that we have, while letting go of all the things we cannot change.
There is no sure-fire prescription for overcoming the holiday blues. Inevitably, memories will return. You will be tempted to indulge your mind in replaying a scene from the past, allowing such events to steal away your joy in the present. Just know that as you ponder such thoughts, you are not alone. There are countless others doing the same.
Yet just when it seems as if all joy is lost, you can choose to see it on the faces of those you love the most. You can look around and view all that you have for which you are grateful, smiling weakly as you remember the beauty inherent in the human experience. You can choose to view pain from the perspective of how far you have come. Reflecting upon the battles that have been waged and conquered. After all, isn’t progress, no matter how small, always worth celebrating?