It is my guilty Christmas secret. This year I decided I wanted to spend Christmas Day on my own. I also didn't make it widely known - because suddenly other people feel obligated to invite me to join them in their 'family Christmas'. It's not that I am a Grinch or a Scrooge - I love so many things about Christmas - not least because of my faith which means for me there is more than just the surface hoo-ha about it. My main reason for spending one afternoon and evening on my own was in an effort to manage a period of time which has been triggering for me in the past. In this way I have been trying to be EFFECTIVE in using my DBT skills.
I have to admit managing this feat took a number of skills and no small amount of preparation and forethought, although I will admit not remotely anything akin to the stress inducing mayhem of trying to pack family baggage into one 24 hour intense time period.
1) I tried to manage my EXPECTATIONS. No matter how hard we try the whole of the media machine is ranged against us at this time of year, filling our screens and heads with images of warmly lit family bonhomie. Not least is the imagery of groaning tables with more food than is right for any small group to consider ramming down their throats. Most of my life, Christmas Day was the day when I felt I was given attention in tangible forms. When favourite relatives eased the gap between us and our parents. The problem for me was that just like so many coping strategies this one day did not erase the pain and confusion of all the other days spent with these people. There is a confusion for the child of the invalidating parents. Despite the ongoing lack of interest in our lives, there is a bond which is unbroken. At Christmas I lived in hope that the glow I created around tiny little traditions would magically last for the next year and transform my life and family. Inevitably, usually early in the day, my expectations were disappointed. My post Christmas crashes were epic. Because I had put so much pressure on the ability of one day to transform my life and remove all my emotional pain, the fact that nothing changed would bring sadness crashing in on my head. This year, I decided to recognise that Christmas is a season. We don't have to see all our friends and relatives on one manic day even if we need it to be at Christmas for practical reasons. So, I planned a series of events. Being part of a church at this time allowed me to PARTICIPATE in a number of really enjoyable events.
2) I considered how I could CONTRIBUTE to other's experience of Christmas. Feeling part of something is a great way to counteract the sense of failure I often feel when I am tempted to ruminate on failed relationships and friendships - and my own lack of current relationships. This year I was asked to help with the script of the Nativity at church and had a part which was absorbing, right up my street and needed a great costume. I really enjoyed channelling my inner Victoria Wood! It is interesting that this invitation to take part would not have happened if I had not taken smaller, manageable steps early in the year to contribute to drama in the church, as well as stepping in to run Sunday Club during the summer break. It was great to help out with the children's work, without feeling the pressure of responsibility. It also helped that I am up to date with my CRB (or whatever the letters are now) status. Preparation for Christmas then, has meant a continuation of the involvement I have tried to develop as part of my DBT ACCEPT skills.
3) I didn't try to pack my enjoyment of Christmas into just one day, I decided to be MINDFUL of all the small things I enjoy about the Christmas Season. I identified cinnamon and winter spices as the smell I wanted to focus on. I have returned to enjoying cooking and, latterly baking. I found the processes of preparing, baking then eating my produce allowed me to practice focusing on ONE THING AT A TIME. The effect of this aspect of mindfulness is to stop me thinking myself into either a state of anxiety or of unsustainable excitement, which is generally followed by an almighty crash in mood. I managed to bake some presents for some people who have helped me throughout this past year. I also spread out the events and socials I was involved in over the whole Christmas and New Year period. So, I started with the script and practices for the Nativity, the Nativity itself. I was invited out for coffees by a number of friends, some old, some I have made in the last year. For the first time in years I planned a Mulled Wine party, and enjoyed the preparation for it. I kept the numbers down and held it in the house of a good friend which was bigger than my own and therefore able to hold the gathering comfortably. I was assured that I am a good hostess and I was able to show off my newly developed baking skills - I even pulled off some of the lightest, yummiest mince pies EVER!! My Christmas season is not over, I and my brother looked at our diaries and have planned a lovely family 'chill' day on 2nd January - so we get to exchange presents and chill out at the end of the holidays too. New Year's Eve I usually lock myself away and hide because I find it harder than Christmas - this is when I feel the lack of an intimate relationship the most in the year. With some very good friends, I am planning a Cowboy evening to introduce their children to classic westerns - of course the menu will include beans.
Throughout all of this I have made a conscious decision not to overspend. This is hard for me, because the only validation available to me as a child from my parents was in the form of material things. In the past one symptom of the emotional hangover from Christmas was debt which usually took me until April to clear. Through my baking and spending time with people I have learned a new way of feeling good about giving. Because I have spaced my time with people out, I have been able to be sociable from emotionally recharged batteries, rather than feeling completely drained by Christmas Eve.
POSTSCRIPT: I have found it interesting to see the discomfort of people who suddenly realise, 'Oh no, Alma's going to be on her on ON CHRISTMAS DAY!!' The thing is I live alone 365 days a year. I am lucky I have caring friends and my brother's family with whom I feel comfortable. Yet, for me there are many times when I feel alone. Weekends throughout the year are hard. It is so difficult in summer when I think 'I'd love to just pop out to the Lakes for the day', but it's not safe to do that on your own. I have learned to enjoy drinking a coffee on my own in a cafe. I am a long way, though from being able to go to the cinema or theatre or a restaurant on my own. How come the people who have invited me with such concern to 'join them and their family' for Christmas lunch never think to invite me at other times? I know that I am lucky to have the choice. I didn't mind my close friends who checked with me in the summer about my Christmas plans, I mean the folk on Christmas Eve who suddenly notice too late. Why should it matter to them simply because it is one 24 hour period? I am doing well socially, what about the other people who maybe didn't appear at any events over Christmas because it is too hard to be among people? They probably didn't even get the last minute, panic invite. Life is lived everyday, not just on Christmas!