3 Things to Do When Holidays Aren’t Happy

The first New Year’s Eve after I left, I was alone. Physically separated by hundreds of miles from my family with no money for a plane ticket. Emotionally separated from the person I loved, who lived just a few miles away in what used to be our cozy apartment.

I wanted to be there. On my comfy sofa, big shower with perfect water pressure, wearing snuggly slippers, sipping a warm cup of coffee, and cuddling with the guy I’d married. We'd make promises - probably about how we'd work at our marriage - hold hands, pray, watch the ball drop in NYC (on television, of course), and go to bed. It would be one of our "good" nights. But that wasn’t my reality.

I was sitting on 1990’s green carpet in a room with a stiff full-sized bed and a small TV. I was on my last pack of instant coffee, which was all I could afford at the time. My feet were cold because my landlord didn't like to turn the heat up past 65. The house that I lived in was empty, because the other room renters had gone to be with their families. Two of them were college students and the other was a young, low-wage earning millennial professional like me. Only a few weeks earlier, the trajectory of all I thought I knew about love and marriage shifted. I was utterly alone; and it sucked.

The holidays can be difficult for a survivor. You are alone with your thoughts; tortured by a new reality not of your own preference. And no one seems to understand.

You might stop at a local bar and have a few drinks, pick up a stranger to fill a human void. Your children might not have as many gifts as they had the previous year, when there were two parents. There may not be enough food to eat. There may not be any food to eat.

During the holidays, many survivors return to their abuser. Can’t you understand why? Who chooses the hard path?

I chose the hard path, and it was rough for a long time. The better part of two years, actually. Here are three things I did to make sure I stayed the course.

1. Remind yourself why you left. Constantly.

Once a week, I’d wake up confused. Where was my husband? Why wasn’t he in bed with me? And then it would hit me; I left him. Then, the tears. But after crying about it, I’d remind myself that leaving was the best choice for me. I knew he could kill me if I stayed and I had to remind myself of that, especially when I missed him. What are your reasons for leaving? Remember them. Call them to mind.

2. Feel.

Therapy saved my life (more on that in another post). I joined a therapy group at the local domestic violence shelter. One of the first things our counselor told us to do was feel. Feel everything; acknowledge the pain. Numbing is a coping mechanism. If you choose to feel, you can identify what is hurting. If you can identify what is hurting, you can begin to heal that part of you.

3. Change your perspective.

In his book “Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart”, Mark Epstein writes, “In meditation, I had stumbled upon a new way to be with myself. I did not have to make that disturbing feeling of emptiness disappear. I did not have to run away from my emptiness, or cure it, or eradicate it. In fact, far from being 'empty', I found that emptiness was a rather 'full' feeling. I discovered that emptiness was the canvas, or background, of my being.”

A hole, void, or emptiness can be viewed as a problem, or an opportunity. Paint the canvas of your soul with new experiences. Got a few dollars? Try that new coffee flavor at the local café. Always wanted to ice skate? Do it. Love film scores like me? Join a group and discuss John Williams and Hans Zimmer. Make new, healthy friendships. The kind that don't require you to pretend; the kind that allow you to be authentic in actions and feelings.

One thing I’ve become is a realist. I won’t tell you that it’s easy, but I will tell you that for me, it was worth it.

The holidays may not be so happy this time, but there is hope.

Hopeful Holidays,