Going No Contact – when you’ve estranged from family during the festive season

For many people, the idea of voluntarily cutting off contact from a family member is unimaginable – especially during the holidays.

In this way of thinking, blood ties are immutable and sacred, so making such a decision at this time of year feels doubly taboo. No matter how toxic the home environment, there is pressure to remain in it because ‘it’s family’.

I once wrote a proposal for a non-fiction book about people who estrange from their parents. It was going to have interviews, case histories, advice and self help. I pitched it to several agents – and received bemusement and confusion in response. One sent me a very strongly worded letter telling me that, as a parent herself, she was horrified and could not think why anyone would want to read such a book. (She actually rang me up the next morning to apologise – the subject had clearly affected her very deeply.)

I experienced similar elsewhere. Another agent said that it might help the book if I spent some time with ‘the perfect family’. Apparently, if only the misguided folks I wanted to write about could see that no family is perfect, everything would miraculously be okay again. I had a very strong sense of othering – that this topic really should not be aired publicly and was best quietly put away.

An increasing reality for many

In fact, as I have noted before on this blog, you only have to read the comments below a problem page about going no contact from family to know that there are a number of people who actively want to do this or – especially heartbreaking from older commenters – wish they had but felt it was too late.

While writing this, I felt an increasing sense of taboo, and a strong temptation not to continue. Generally when I feel this, I know something needs to be spoken aloud.

I also found this post getting longer and longer, so now’s the time to make a cup of tea.

Standalone charity survey of estranged adults

The charity Standalone, set up several years ago to offer support to adults who are estranged from their families, in 2015 published a report Hidden Voices – Family Estrangement in Adulthood. Carried out in collaboration with the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge, Hidden Voices is a survey of the estrangement experiences of just over 800 people. Three things stand out from the results:

  1. Emotional abuse, clashes of personality and mismatched expectations were particularly common reasons for going no contact.
  2. Most of those who were estranged from a parent felt strongly that they could never have a functional relationship again.
  3. 90 percent of respondents found the Christmas period ‘challenging’.

Standalone have published their own very thorough festive survival guide which is available here. For more on how to stand back and figure out Christmas the way you want it, try Rewriting the rules of the festive season.

You’ve gone no contact – what now?

What if it’s your first holiday period since the estrangement started? The particular pressures during this time (I’ve written more about this here) mean that you may need to do some extra self care.

Deciding to go no contact is never taken lightly, and may only happen after years of putting up with, but the decision itself can be made in an instant. And now it’s the holidays, and unless you live without an internet connection at all, you will be in some way exposed to advertising that encourages you to connect with people at all cost, especially ‘loved ones’ which generally, in media-speak, means blood family.

The social nature of holiday periods means that unless you spend time in communities who are sensitive to this, you may well have to give an account of yourself. There are a number of issues to reflect on:

Who to tell? Are you prepared for when someone offers you the usual invitation to join them for the festivities, or expects you to offer yours? Are you prepared for the response, and sides being taken?

How to tell them? Are you telling people in person, or by some other means which allows for more distance? (Bearing in mind your own safety when doing so.) Are you taking people aside individually, or contacting them as a group?

How will you deal with questions from others about where/how you are spending the holidays? If a friend has taken you in for the holidays, you may find their relatives (if they have a more traditional mindset) genuinely curious as to why you are there: ‘Why aren’t you with your own family?’ Do you have a story prepared which, while not factually true, may be enough to get you through the day? Do you feel safe enough testify and tell your truth, no matter what the response? I’ve written more here about strategies for getting through this time.

If you are alone, have you got a plan for the day itself? Solo Christmas day can be wonderful if that is what you want. If you’re not sure about that, see who you can round up to share the day with you. Or make plans for the day before and the day after. It’s amazing how many people you will find in a similar situation.

The period after going no contact can be heady, as if a cork has popped, but there can also be a hangover, an exhaustion that may lead to self-questioning and wondering if you did the right thing.

There are a number of stories you might be telling yourself:

‘Should I have waited a bit longer? This time of year is supposed to be about love and closeness, isn’t it?’

Such is the frog-in-a-pot nature of harmful family relationships, it’s far easier to put up with another year of difficult interactions than rock the boat. Perhaps you are wavering about things you have said, and wondering if it would be better if you just shut up and let everything go back to normal for a while. There are many ways to defer a decision like this, all of which can be made to sound entirely legitimate. Maybe you’ve been wondering whether it would be better to apologise to everyone and wait until:

  • After the summer / new year
  • After term starts / ends
  • After you’ve lost weight / given up smoking / had surgery
  • After you’ve moved house
  • After you’ve been in the new job for a while / left the old one
  • After you’ve paid off your debts
  • After the kids (if you have them) are older
  • You’re single / you’re in a stable relationship

A million time markers – like Christmas – can be enlisted in the cause of preventing us being true to ourselves.

‘But family’s family. Am I a terrible person?’

We are socially conditioned to put up with behaviours from blood relations that we would rarely tolerate in friends, colleagues, or partners.

You may be telling yourself that whatever happened wasn’t really that bad, and maybe you should just step back into line and apologise to everyone and let things go back to how they were. In all the cultural fog around this, it is easy to forget to give yourself permission not to live under conditions where you are not treated as an equal.

You may have spoken your intentions out loud, or written an email or letter. You might have ghosted (disappeared without warning), which some find to be an immature and selfish way to behave. ‘Can’t you just talk about it?’ they say. Which is, on the surface, a fair question. But if ‘just talking about it’ actually fixed these sorts of situations, they would not happen in the first place. There is a world of communication beyond talking. And all too often equal communication was never part of the relationship’s culture in the first place. With blood family, the problems are far older and run far deeper.

A large proportion of people who answered the Standalone survey were women who were estranged from mothers. These two posts offer validating thoughts on this: 13 Things No Estranged Child needs to hear on Mother’s Day / Navigating “No-Contact”: When Estrangement from Your Mother is the Healthiest Choice

‘What about the children?’

This is a good question. If you have young children and are estranging from your own parent/s, it’s important to ask yourself about the impact this will have on them, particularly during the holidays. What are you going to tell them? Do they need to be kept away from their grandparents for their own safety? In the future your child may wish to exercise a choice over whether they see that person. Obvious abuse aside, do you want to deprive them of a grandparent? And you may find yourself doing a balancing act – the more you paint the person as a monster, the more curious your children may become. And obvious family secrets can put heat into a situation which can be carried down through generations.

‘Shouldn’t I have been able to sort this out when I was a teenager?’

It might be helpful to think about this in terms of the Attachment Escalator. I find this analogy incredibly useful. (See more on the Relationship Escalator, and the Sex Escalator on this blog.) It’s a really effective way to critique the supposed gold standard of sex and relationships that causes people to put such pressure on themselves – and each other – in the name of socially sanctioned relating.

So we are put on this attachment escalator when we are born and it becomes our default forward movement with those closest to us. For some, this works out fine. But for others this escalator is poorly constructed and frequently malfunctions. Instead of making changes, or even abandoning it, we instead find ourselves staying on it, blaming ourselves for what just keeps on not working, even if we find the situation intolerable, because it is easier to just let ourselves be carried forwards. The longer we stay on it, the more habituated we become to being undermined, bullied, manipulated or threatened (as, of course, can anyone who is the perpetrator of those things). Eventually this will impact your other relationships and ultimately your enjoyment of life.

But not everyone, for a million reasons, finds themselves able to separate from family when young. It can take years, and sometimes years of therapy, to make the necessary connections, and feel ready to do so. So please don’t blame yourself for not having fixed everything before.

If you’re a young person or student: Standalone has a student section. Queen Mary University of London has a useful support guide hereAlbert Kennedy Trust works with homeless LGBT+ youth in the UK. Your Holiday Mom offers online support to LGBT+ youth during the holidays.

‘I’m getting away from a narcissist, so it’s okay isn’t it?’

There is an increasing number of sites devoted to narcissists, or ‘narcs’. Lots of people have apparently become experts at clinical diagnosis and are eager to provide checklists of things to watch out for. I am also wondering about all the personal experiences that get dumped into this category, and about the nature of all the people who are labelled narcissistic.

As a therapist I feel torn here. On one hand, ‘narcissist’ has become a buzzword, a catch-all for anyone who seems to be a bit selfish and self-obsessed. There is a lot of quite objectifying advice on how to spot them, and I wonder how many people suffering from depression or anxiety or another mental illness may have been labelled this way after a difficult interaction.

On the other hand, certain patterns start to emerge in accounts of others’ behaviour, especially lack of empathy and apparently conscience-free cruelty. The Reddit Raised by Narcissists has many powerful stories, as does the Mumsnet Stately Homes thread, and a number of problem page articles at the Guardian.

So I would say that you could see the person you have estranged from as a narcissist if it helps you validate your experience. My concern comes when people feel a need to diagnose the person who was abusive to them. Turning detective can sometimes be a way to rationalise someone’s treatment of you. What if you discover they were abused? Does this make their abuse of you less significant? Sometimes it can help, but sometimes you may gaslight yourself to the point of retreating into self-blame and inaction.

Finding your family of choice

I have noticed an increase in people talking about their Chosen Family, whatever their identity and even if their relationship with blood family is okay. (I have written more about creating Chosen Family here.) Queer communities in particular have a strong tradition of creating safe groups when society and/or family have failed. Many people eventually find themselves creating a parallel existence away from family of origin, even if they eventually remain in touch. Now may be your chance to surround yourself with people who want the best for you.

Seeing a therapist may be helpful. Choose carefully – this subject can stir up even an experienced practitioner (this story contains an example), so it’s important you feel able to ask the right questions at the start.

If this is your first holiday season having gone no contact, I applaud your courage and wish you the best at what may be a challenging time.

If you would like to talk further about what’s going on for you, please contact me here.

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Chosen Family – 10 pitfalls to be aware of when creating one of your own

Autumn leaves arranged on a windowsillAn increasing number of people refer to their  ‘Chosen Family’. These are the close people we’ve gathered around us who we are not related to by blood or by law.

While anyone might create such a group while having a perfectly OK relationship with their Family of Origin, Chosen Family is often about putting distance between yourself and your Family of Origin as the only way to stay sane or safe. For this reason, it is often used in a queer context. 

Whether you are escaping violence, prejudice, sexual abuse, bullying or neglect, you may put a lot of time and energy into gathering specific people around you.

Essentially, Chosen Family is a group of people who you believe will treat you as an equal, who you might rely on in a crisis, and who you hope will stay close to you, even when one of you has a major life change.

This applies on a societal level as well as a personal one – if you are queer, gender non-conforming, kinky or non-monogamous, for example, mainstream society likely sees your relationships as less valid than those enjoyed by the majority. So it makes sense to band together and create something that works for you.

Created over years

I’m aware that my talking about ‘creating a family’ might imply that this is something done quite rapidly, like picking sports teams at school. ‘I’ll take this one and that one… oh and they look nice, but not that one…’ To be clear, we make these choices over years, during which time the desire to bond and create connection with others may override the quieter messages we may be getting that something is not quite working.

Added to this is the fact that we may replicate behaviours that were modelled to us from a very young age. We may, in our eagerness to create the perfect safe zone, forget that it takes two people to form a friendship, and more than two to form a group. We may forget that consent and boundaries here need to be negotiated, as much as in any sexual scenario, and assume unspoken agreements.

Below is a range of issues you may come across when navigating chosen family:

(1) Letting shiny new people in much too quickly

As a young person you may have been told you had to ‘take what you’re given and be grateful’. So it can feel very exciting, even intoxicating, to realise that you have choices – particularly if this realisation has come to you later in life. 

At the same time, it can also feel quite isolating and frightening to reflect on your own situation when ‘everyone’ around you appears to have so much support from blood relatives, partners and an array of incredible people they seem to have known for years. (Social media really doesn’t help here.) 

So when you meet a new person and things seem to click, the temptation can be to grab them and not let go. ‘This person is fun and we have lots in common and we’ve talked so much already – this must mean we’re destined to be really close!’ And there may be a sense of relief that counteracts the feelings of isolation, and you may stop monitoring the situation because at last you’re home safe.

But having some things in common does not mean everything will match up. NRE  (New Relationship Energy) is a phrase usually used to describe the intense feelings at the start of a romantic relationship, but it also serves to describe feelings at the start of any new association. It’s okay to enjoy this feeling – but it’s also good to wait until it dies down and re-evaluate whether this exciting new friend is right for you as a long-term close person. And it’s worth reflecting before jumping in and sharing your deepest darkest self.

(2) Ignoring warning signs

I have long found it to be the case that when you look back after any kind of breakup, you realise you actually saw the seeds of it very early on. It was likely a tiny thing the person said or did, which you ignored because it seemed too minor to be worth saying anything about. And who wants to look mean-spirited or critical with the shiny new person?

It’s those little moments when the Lovely New (or not so new) Friend suddenly looks at you and says something that is – apparently – totally out of character. Or sends a message that makes you go ‘WTF?!’ Something a little bit tactless, jarring or controlling that is out of your comfort zone but you don’t have a rudder to navigate it – and you don’t want to scare them away by questioning them on it. It’s that that feeling where your stomach drops into your shoes and you can’t quite believe what you just heard – so you discount it. 

Don’t ignore these little messages. They are tiny tells and they are important. For an exploration of the more extreme aspects of this, read Gavin de Becker’s excellent The Gift Of Fear.

(3) Getting sucked into other people’s stuff

When other people are friendly to you and invite you into their group, you may quickly lose a sense of yourself, particularly if you were excluded or othered as a child. If you aren’t used to it, it can feel amazing to be included in a ready made group whose members appear to be welcoming you and inviting you to things. Be aware of your feelings around this. You may feel excess gratitude for this inclusion that may eclipse other more realistic – and accurate – feelings.

Reflect on who is really in control in this new group – the person/couple at the centre may not have your best interests at heart once the fun dies down. Are you there to prop up their glory? Are they really trying to recruit you to go to their workshops or parties? Are there lifestyle issues, like drugs or alcohol, where you are not on the same page? Are you being increasingly weighed down by a lot of gossip and expected to take sides?

You might want to ask yourself why you want to come in at the edges of someone else’s group rather than starting with yourself and people you yourself have chosen.

(4) Trying so hard to be acceptable that you hide the real you

If your Family of Origin message was that you are unacceptable in some way, you may attempt to hide aspects of yourself from new people, in case they find you similarly unacceptable. The trouble is, the Real You is going to leak out somewhere. If you sense that your outrageous true self is disapproved of in your chosen group, wonder about it. What exactly is it that you are needing to conceal from your chosen people? Are you actually avoiding the fact that, while they may be lovely, they may just not quite be the right people for you?  

(5) Doing the opposite of whatever people did at home

Remember – your Family of Origin is the first group you know. This may be hard to hear, but it will inevitably influence how you respond to your role in the groups you create or join as you go through life. 

This feels unfair, but until we have sufficiently understood our own dynamics and patterns, we may continue to replicate the harmful structures we are trying to get away from. Simply doing the opposite of whatever a parent did is reactive and may cause harm. If, for example, you vow never to shout at anyone the way you were shouted at, you may go too far the other way and become a quiet doormat who never gets their needs met.

(6) Sacrificing yourself for the sake of the friendship or group

Something’s not working but you’re not going to say anything in case the whole thing falls apart. It’s cold when the fire goes out and you know how that feels. It’s horrible and you’ll do anything not to feel that again. Similarly, when you feel that if you don’t do it, it won’t get done – such as organising meetups, for example. If you couldn’t rely on your childhood family for the reinforcement and validation you needed, you may understandably find yourself seeking this in others, and this is where problems can arise.

One good way to check the temperature of things is to stop initiating. If you are always the one who suggests meeting up, just stop doing it and see how long it takes for others to realise. It can provide a harsh but fruitful lesson. It doesn’t mean the friendship is over – but it means you likely need to state your needs and decide how much more to invest in this person or group. 

(7) Your priorities clashing with the priorities of others

This is where you need to decide how aligned you need to be with your chosen family. About having or not having kids. And about politics. Being of a different political persuasion can be exhausting, no matter how much you feel you can put these things to the side. Endlessly explaining things, or being hooked into debate, is not sustainable.

You may find that some people prioritise romantic partners over friendships, putting you further down a hierarchy than you realised you were. (You may not have realised you were in one.) You may also be sad when you have a child and so few of your Chosen Family are still around a year later. 

(8) Feeling as if you matter less than others

This is hard because there may be so many echoes from childhood here – some of them are your mind playing tricks on you, and some are real. 

Example: when your Friend X mentions their other Friend Y a lot, who perhaps lives abroad and you have never met, and keeps on going on about how amazing this person is. Months or years pass, and you are finally introduced to Friend Y.  You greet them with enthusiasm – ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ – and they look a bit embarrassed and say ‘Oh, um, what did you say your name was? Oh, I don’t think they’ve ever mentioned you.’ This hurts, but is worth knowing.

And sometimes people really love you but cannot prioritise you for a huge and complex number of reasons.

(9)  Guilting yourself into not acting on your feelings

You may have found yourself staying in friendships that are not working any more out of fear. One sure way of telling this is if you find yourself wondering what on earth your life would be like if this person wasn’t in it. If it seems unimaginable, it’s worth wondering why you have come to rely on this person (or group) for so much, even when they are making you unhappy.

You may have been told as a child that you were not allowed to have feelings, or you were ‘mean’ or even ‘selfish’ when you said you didn’t like someone or didn’t want to do something. Perhaps you were told you were inherently defective or just ‘bad’. As a result, you may have found yourself letting others take advantage of you because you just don’t think you have the right to refuse, and you must continually atone for your ‘badness’ by letting people push you around. Needless to say, you are doing all the work here, and this is not healthy.

If it’s not working – it’s not working.

You cannot make something work if it isn’t. You can try, but at some point you will need to find a way to go your separate ways. The relief you feel when this association is broken will be tremendous and tangible.

(10) Not being able to discuss the difficulties in a friendship – or end it

So much public advice is about romantic relationships: getting together and breaking up. We are not encouraged to have much emotional literacy about that, and with friendships even less. Are you able to sit one of your Chosen Family down and explain how things are not working out between you? Do you fear their anger? (Perhaps like that of a parent?) Can you find a way to hold a course with them, or is it time to move on? 

Dealing with ending friendships is a whole post in itself. And while not everyone is into Relationship Anarchy, disrupting the presumed hierarchies among friends, romantic partners, (and bio family too), by treating them all with more equality is something many could benefit from.

 

If any of what you have read feels familiar and challenging and you would like to talk about it in therapy, please contact me here.

Further reading:


When the world has changed forever – self care in a collective crisis

Stages_of_GriefNever the same again

So you’ve woken up and everything’s different. What you thought was true is not true any more. There are many others who feel the same as you – and no one has a clue what to do about it.

Since the results of the UK referendum nearly two weeks ago, a lot of people have reported experiencing distress and confusion on a scale bigger and grander than they have felt before. Some mention 9/11 as having a similar effect, but for many nothing has been even remotely similar.

‘Hold on, this wasn’t a terrorist attack. It was a vote. A VOTE!’

The referendum occurred in the shadow of the murder of MP Jo Cox and the mass murder of young queer people of colour in Orlando, Florida. And the repercussions of the vote started immediately. Within hours of the result, people perceived as ‘foreign’ were being told to ‘go home’, and sometimes physically attacked. People are fearing a return of fascism.

(It’s fair to say that social conservatism, or out and out bigotry, rarely confines itself to one group. So where you see racism or xenophobia, you will eventually find sexism, homophobia, transphobia and many other forms of discrimination.)

Markets are wavering. Employers and investors are changing their behaviour. Funds are being withdrawn or frozen. Many do not know whether they will be allowed to continue living where they may have lived for years or even decades. And people are wondering what on earth this country has got itself into.

This post is inspired by the current situation, but it could apply equally to any overwhelming piece of news or large scale change of circumstances that is shared by many. This post does not address one particular group of people, as the situation is complex (for example: many Remain voters are upset, but so are many Leave voters who wished they had made another choice), but looks at what you might be feeling and how to manage it.

Hanging on to hope

I’ve noticed a lot of hope being expressed in the form of detailed and well-argued constitutional arguments against what has happened and how the decision can be reversed. Some call this denial, a form of post-bereavement bargaining. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Sometimes these are interpreted as a simple linear process, but of course it is far more complex than that. The cartoon above has done the rounds a number of times online. (When I find who did it, I will attribute it.) Grief lurches from rage to fear to blankness and back again, sometimes in the space of a day – or an hour.

I am simultaneously reminded of Camus’s La Peste, (and I hope I have remembered this correctly), where the stressed population of the plague-ridden town of Oran actually feel relief when they see symptoms appear on the victim’s bodies, because it at least means they are fighting the disease.

Many people feel drained, exhausted and panicky

Many versions of democracy have been invoked as reasons to re-vote, or not re-vote. There is a sense of enormous unease. There is also no sign of the uncertainty being put right anytime soon. It is suspected that some, in a drive for power, will eventually capitalise on this waiting game.

The ongoing decline of the collective mental health 

This is a very frightening time for many people, many of whom were already affected by austerity. Current government policy has affected collective wellbeing to the extent that the UN has commented on it. Many people live in a state of barely changing anxiety over housing, health, benefits, and job security, let alone mental health services themselves which are in a state of crisis.

(If you are in London, here is a list of low or no-cost therapy services.)

When you are chronically stressed, you don’t recover well from shocks. If you are already running on empty and ‘just coping’, one more insult to your wellbeing and it could all go over. Small setbacks become large ones, and large ones become disasters. Because your resources are so depleted, you are unlikely to have recovered from one difficulty before the next one hits, so most of the time you are effectively recovering from two things at once, then three, then more.

So how can you feel more in control?

Human beings are incredibly resourceful. This means that you are too.

(1) Turn off the news

You have the right not to look at the news. It is unlikely to help your wellbeing in this moment. News can be addictive. Switching it off is often suggested as an immediate mood lifter if you are depressed.

(2) Reshape your social media

This is harder than turning off the TV or radio because your friends are very likely on there and you may want to reach out to them. But do you have a friend who is posting a lot of angry stuff, even if you agree with it? Do you need to see this? It’s okay to unfollow them for a while.

You may have a friend who is delighted by whatever has happened or is minimising it. If they are gloating and it causes you distress, it may be time to reconsider the friendship, or at least remove them for a while. Feel free to lighten the load. One thing about crisis times is that they can force your hand in terms of what, or who, you can tolerate. Never feel guilty about this.

(3) Don’t feel obliged to debate with anyone

Do you actually want to have debates with the people closest to you? So much of what is called ‘debate’ is really no such thing and advances nothing but the person with the loudest voice.

I am hearing about families being split over what’s happened. Your gentle blackout doesn’t have to be a violent rejection, but you are not under any obligation to argue with anyone. But while you can remove people from social media, you cannot escape a family dinner table so easily. A polite refusal to discuss things  may be enough. If things reach a point where you are actively unsafe, you are within your rights to leave or take evasive action. Parts of my seasonal survival guide may be helpful here.

(4) Look for the helpers

The American children’s TV presenter Mister Rogers was known for quoting his mother on how to deal with something frightening in the news: ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ Someone will be looking out for others, trying to clear up the mess, and finding ways to make life better again.

(5) Action now

In times of distress – I am talking about personal issues, drama, a frightening communication, crisis – one way of feeling more in control is to do something, anything that gets you better informed and helps you feel in control and that you can make choices.

This is all very well, but this is a time of total uncertainty. There is no information because the situation is in a state of flux. Many are offering answers, but few understand and fewer believe them. So what action can you take? You could attend meetings, marches, or join a political party. If public engagement does not suit you, you could read as much as you can to feel more in control, or talk to as many people as possible about what has happened to find out what they are doing.

(6) Be mindful of your own safety

You may be inspired to go out and intervene in racist or xenophobic incidents, or rescue others from aggressors. Always be mindful of your own safety. Don’t let yourself be goaded to heroics by those with greater resources than you – particularly if they are doing it from the safety of a Facebook page.

If someone has suggested that you or your friend ‘go home’ – if you are up to physical intervention, or even just socratic dialogue (where you pretend to be ignorant in order to bring out someone else’s ignorance), you still need to know your own limitations. You may be outnumbered without realising.

The current political situation has empowered a sense of entitlement to question another’s right to exist, and that is experienced as a deep and powerful weapon. Record and report what you see if you can do so safely. Gather supporters – but remember the instructions about oxygen masks on a plane. Put yours on first.

(7) Reach out

One of the greatest things about social media is that when we are in trouble, the oddest range of people reach out to us, from close friends to people who live thousands of miles away and who we may never meet in person. Tell friends how you feel. ‘Can we go for a picnic, for tea, the pub, or my house, or your house?’ Ask a group at once so you can all feel held, and so that one person won’t feel pressured or obliged when they themselves may be out of energy.

If you live with several people, or meet up with a group regularly, think about how you could bring the group closer together. Can you meet once a week to share your feelings, perhaps before breakfast or in the evening? This is a way of bringing people together. Some people cannot bear the idea of small group sharing, but it can be highly beneficial. Can you find a venue once a week, or at someone’s home? Many people have vulnerabilities that they find hard to share in a casual way.

However, reflect on whether your concern is more about you than the the other person. You may have a friend who you perceive to be in more danger of public abuse than you. Be mindful that not everyone wants to focus on this. Not everyone wants to be receive your fear and sometimes these approaches can be more about you than the person you are approaching, however much you care about them.

(8) Reach out to those who are less able to

Someone who is feeling distressed and whose mental health may have got worse at the current time, or someone whose disability or health situation prevents them from going out, may need your support. Can you give them some time just to listen to them? And without him offering to fix them, unless you have resources that would  genuinely help.

If someone has become incapacitated through distress, can you help them out by bringing food around, or doing some some cleaning?

(9) Try to make sense of fear – your own and other people’s

Fear underpins many toxic decisions and behaviours. Fear can be hard to spot because it is so quickly replaced by something else. Fear is a bit like syphilis: it mimics, very convincingly, other states of mind and behaviours – rage, bullying, scorn, contempt, condescension, and physical aggression –and hides behind them.

You might want to talk to people with different view to yours. It may help you understand their choices better and they yours.

If you have kids, now may be the time to try and explain why people turn against each other for no apparent logical reason.

(10) Be mindful of self-harm

You might be drinking more, doing more drugs, smoking more, overeating, spending money. These all have short term benefits, and are a perfectly rational response to stress – but they may cause damage in the long term. In a time of trouble, remember that it’s best to be at your most alert, and to conserve resources where possible.

(11) Accept your own anger

If you consider yourself to be a liberal, or were schooled in not over-expressing yourself publicly, you may be surprised by the helpless, murderous rage you experience about the behaviour of politicians and media/business leaders, and the impact it is having on your life. It is okay to feel this. You may well find that many others feel the same.

(12) Remember what you have

Is there a unit of time in which you can consider yourself to be okay? In which you have a roof over your head, food tonight, work, or someone to talk to at least? Is it a month, a week, a day, an hour? Can you at least exist minute by minute if nothing greater feels possible?

Now is the time to look at what you do have, (even if you have no spare money, you may have social capital), and what you have through your communities. If there are situations (or people) in your life who make you unhappy and you have any power over removing yourself from them, now may be the time to start looking at this. If you don’t feel sufficiently connected to other people, and you would feel safer and more held if you were, now is the time to take steps to change that.

I hope this piece is helpful in some way. If I’ve missed anything important, please tell me. If you are struggling with any of the issues I’ve discussed here and would like to talk further, you can contact me here.

[Re the image above: when I find out who originally created this cartoon, I will attribute them.]


Trying to fix your relationship ? Change does not have to equal loss

Flames

As a therapist working with couples, one of the most persistent issues I see is fear of change.

However challenging things have become for both partners, and however untenable the relationship in its current form, people have an incredibly strong urge to cling to what they know, because the alternative terrifies them.

The will to hold on sometimes feels even stronger than the will to actually fix the relationship and make both partners happy.

I’m repeatedly astounded by people’s drive to remain connected in the way they always have, as if any form of adaptation will destroy everything that came before and erase all the happy memories.

People will stay together even when there is ongoing anxiety, constant sparking off each other, endless transferences and overreactions, and frequently calling the other out over tones of voice, events from the past and other points of conflict, and when sex has been adversely affected or become non-existent.

In other words, constant stress. And yet when I suggest a gentle reframe, and paint a picture of what the relationship might look like if they pushed the structure around a bit, there is panic. Because for so many of us, change automatically equals loss. Even just the thought of adapting to new conditions can put someone into a grief process.

Pre-mourning

You could call this sadness ‘pre-mourning.’ And I well know myself that it’s very hard to accept that change might actually make things better – enabling both parties to preserve the connection and eventually re-create happiness.

Fear of failure

It’s the same mindset that calls the ending of a relationship a ‘failure’. By this standard, all relationships that end have by definition automatically failed. (I wonder what kind of ending would not count as a failure – both partners actually dying?)

I have written before about the cultural primacy of a very particular kind of coupling, and the idea that to be a fully actualised person you must have been publicly chosen by another, and this must be seen to be the case in your family and community. To tell others that your coupling is in fact not working the way the world expects it to is a source of shame. You feel that you will be pitied or laughed at, and are left wondering if people said ‘How long do you give this one then?’ when you first got together.

There are more options than you think

The normative view of relationships that they are both binary and linear. If they are not one thing they must be another, and that they must follow a certain direction and ascent or they are not valid, or just weird. If you are in a heterosexual monogamous relationship, for example, you will find little public support for alternative ways of being together, except what creates lurid headlines: ‘We tried swinging and have never looked back!’

In fact, there are many ways that a relationship can be reframed or rebuilt, but these options are rarely spoken about as viable options. Like so much in society, if you aren’t doing it in a very specific way, there is something wrong, something lesser, about your choices. Needless to say, this is rubbish, but can be very hard to get past without support, whether therapeutic or from your community.

Some ways to reframe a relationship that is struggling

In the early days of relationship conflict, you may well have worked on behaviour and communication skills. Here I am talking about further down the line.

(1) Decide to live apart, if you cohabit. (Needless to say, the more financially you are tied together, the more this will affect your decision-making. But the decision to live together in the first place should not be undertaken lightly, and ideally never for purely financial reasons. If you have children, the issues are multiplied.)

(2) See each other less often but perhaps for longer each time, or varying contact.

(3) See each other less often full stop.

(4) Figure out the sex, if it was part of your relationship previously. (If it’s gone, can it be rekindled? Do you want/need it to be? You need to be realistic about the consequences when you both assert your needs around it.)

(5) Have some time apart with a timescale on it. (This one scares people a lot as there is a lot of conventional wisdom that says ‘break=ending’. Sometimes it does – but you can only find out by trying.)

(6) Open up the relationship up to other people. (This one scares people even more, often with good reason, and it should not be undertaken without a lot of negotiation and research. There has to be mutual consent.)

Love – or helpless attachment?

The tie that binds here is a thread of what is called love, but may be more akin to helpless attachment. I cannot say for sure what is love or what is not, but if the pain and fear are outweighing the good times, you may be closer to the other.

What if it’s really broken?

It hurts when it’s broken. So the feeling of acceptance is often welcome. I am divided over whether true acceptance can really be worked on, or whether you can only invite it in, to appear when you are ready.

If you’re experiencing difficulties in a relationship and would like to explore things with a therapist, you can contact me here.


Seasonal Affective Disorder – in summer?

Cornish beach in black and white

What is summer depression?

I will start with my own experience. I remember the feeling vividly. It came on at the start of the school holidays when I was about 14. After the elaborate goodbye rituals, the end of term (and every end of summer term after that) felt like falling off a high building, but slowly, into a state of emptiness and loss. This feeling was made all the worse by the fact that when the sun’s out and the temperature goes above a certain level, you are supposed to be out there having fun. It is practically the law. ‘But you’ve got to go outside! It’s sunny!’ 

Gradually the feeling bedded in through university and into my twenties. Summer meant other peoples’ lives, not mine. Staying in sometimes helped, sometimes not. Sometimes seeing blue sky through a window made it even worse, because the barrier between me and the world was tangible, something I could touch.

‘Summer SAD’?? But everyone loves summer, don’t they?

‘April is the cruelest month…’ This endlessly quoted line from TS Eliot’s The Waste Land evokes the sense of alienation brought on by this phase of nature. Green shoots, flowers, colours, warmth, baby animals – all these things symbolise the world turning and everything changing and moving on. In human society, it’s Yay! Beach! Shorts! Convertibles! Drink! Sex! And it is precisely those aspects of the spring and summer seasons that fall on some of us like hailstones. The suicide rate is highest in late spring and into the summer.

Summer also makes itself known to us through sound. Windows open. Music, laughter, glasses clinking, beer cans crushed in hand, barbecues – heard from just across the way, just out of reach. And so the sounds and smells of someone else’s new season hang over you. Fresh cut grass and the sound of lawnmowers. And the light is very exposing. We have an obsession with light – unsurprisingly perhaps in the UK’s northern European climate. But this is not always healthy. There is a sense that once the bright light has been on you, you cannot go back. And social media can make all this feel so much worse. As with other holiday periods, you may feel surround by people telling you that you can choose how you feel about this.

What does summer SAD feel like?

In a way it’s like any kind of depression, but it has a particular flavour. Symptoms could include:

  • A desire to withdraw from the world
  • A strong feeling of alienation from culturally defined and enforced notions of happiness due to the temperature going up and there being more light
  • Loneliness
  • Anxiety
  • A sense of exclusion
  • A fear of exposure
  • A sense of being trapped
  • A desire to cover up the body
  • FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out

So what causes it?

I think it’s from the same family of responses brought on by Christmas and other annual festivals. The difference is that summer is more drawn out. (For some more detailed thoughts on why holiday times are so stressful, please go to my blog post here. Although what I’ve written there applies to end of year festivities, I think many issues there apply to summer as well.)

Here I’ve listed some aspects of what may contribute to it:

  • The weather may trigger you into remembering difficult holiday times when you were younger.
  • You may have children and be dreading trying to fill up the long weeks until the autumn term starts.
  • The obligation to look as if you’re having fun, and being singled out and exposed if not.
  • A sense of a vast natural cycle that is leaving you behind. You may be ‘still’ single, ‘still’ unemployed, ‘still’ without a child, or ‘still’ married to the wrong person or living somewhere you have outgrown.
  • As with Christmas and other festival times, you may feel obliged to see relatives or go to places that you dislike. If you are a young person you may have no choice in the matter.
  • Summer can be expensive and you may have fears around money.

The feelings can also be anticipatory. Many people dread summer for reasons which occur at different places on the continuum between practical and emotional.

The fear of being exposed physically

  • You would rather cover up your body because your size or shape attracts attention and this causes you anxiety.
  • You wish to avoid comments in the street/on the beach because of the above.
  • You wish to avoid sexual harassment.
  • There are aspects of your body that others may be more likely to notice and comment on when you are wearing fewer clothes, or doing sporting activities (for example if you have extensive scarring, an ostomy, or are going through gender transition.)
  • You dread fending off the expectation that you will participate in sports.

Summer-related physical health issues

  • Hay fever (many suffer miserably with this for months)
  • Sunburn
  • Rashes (including heat-related, ‘chub rub’ and running/cycling rashes etc)
  • Insect bites (many people have a terrible response to mosquito bites, and there is Blandford Fly, ticks etc)
  • If you cover up in jeans/layers in order to hide your body, excessive sweating can cause problems
  • Sleeping problems due to light and heat, which can contribute to depression
  • Light sensitivity (some people find the bright light makes them physically ill and need to wear sunglasses frequently)

So how did I deal with it?

I was astonishingly lucky. Having spent many years doing self-care (see below) fairly badly, my summer SAD was lifted overnight in 2003 by a kind American hippy I met online. We were members of a support group email list and we chatted quite often. When I explained my feelings to him, he suggested I do a ritual of thanks to the sun for giving me life. I was to write a message to the sun on a piece of paper and throw it in the nearest river and watch it float away on the tide. At the time I was living not far from Westminster Bridge, so the river bit was easy. However, the Iraq war has just begun and there were police everywhere. So he suggested I burn the piece of paper instead.

I did it – and it worked. I woke up the next day and the feelings had gone, never to return.

What was going on there, you might be wondering? I cannot tell you. It seemed to be about personifying my relationship with the sun, and reframing it so that the summer did not feel like enemy territory, or a malign superego, or that something was being taken from me. Also, the previous year had been momentous and life changing in terms of my own survival, and perhaps subconsciously I was ready to let go of my fears.

Strategies for self care

So what to do, short of upping sticks to the antipodes, or very far north, for four months of the year?

  • Choose your clothes and research the best medications well in advance so you feel prepared. Get a good hat and sunglasses.
  • Are there work projects that you can just spend the summer getting on with?
  • Get a good fan or air-con unit for hot days when you don’t want to be outside, so that your home feels like a refuge.
  • If it is not safe for you to be open and honest about how you feel, you are going to need a cover story about why you’re not going swimming, playing ball games or going to the beach. Prepare it carefully. Burn easily? Knee injury? Allergy to XX? Get it straight and stick to it.
  • Suggest activities to family/friends which have an indoor and outdoor aspect, so you can take cover without hiding.
  • Hiding away is not a good long-term strategy overall. Can you share your feelings with some friends and others who are close to you?
  • Don’t feel ashamed to go to the doctor and discuss your options if things feel unmanageable. The same goes for getting therapy.
  • Relish the cloudy days, those grey and green veiled and comforting days when other people are complaining. Even better when there’s a rainstorm!
  • Some people give a lot of significance to solstices and equinoxes and the various festivals that go with them. Even if some of the language and pageantry around neopaganism doesn’t appeal, observing these time markers give a sense of the world turning and impermanence which you may find helpful.
  • Make plans for the autumn and winter so you have something to look forward to.

My second holiday season post also has a number of thoughts on how to prepare for a difficult holiday period.

I hope my article gives you something to work with as the summer approaches.


Surviving the Festive Season Part Three: When it’s all over

Winter tree in snowSo you got through Christmas and you got through New Year. If you put up decorations, you might even be considering taking them down.

What now?

Once the shiny things are tidied away and ordinary life starts slipping back into place, the turn of the calendar can sometimes bring on a sense of helplessness and confusion.

Here are some ways of thinking and feeling that it’s very easy to fall back into at this time of year, with some suggestions on how to start feeling differently. I’ve raided my archives for links I’ve found interesting or inspiring in the last year. Even if they don’t resonate with you immediately, they may spark off an idea. I’ve also listed some links to organisations that offer support in a crisis.

Update: I’ve also added some thoughts further down in response to global events since I first wrote this piece.

SENSATION SEEKING

Sensation-seeking can be another way of stepping out of our daily self and into a more exciting or intense version of ourselves. It might well have got you through the festive period. It’s a way of switching off what may be an over-developed sense of responsibility. You might be tired of wondering if everyone else is okay. Sometimes we give ourselves a boost with drink or drugs. You can get through a hell of a lot if you’re only half conscious and only half looking out for yourself.

You might grab hold of an exciting new person at this time of year and it’s not unusual to have more sex or more extreme sex (whatever that means for you) because it feels like everything is burning and time is running out. New year has passed, but there is always just one more party. Sometimes we add justifications to this, as if we should not act out our own desires without been seen to explain why: ‘I went through so much last year.’ ‘I’ve put up with an enormous amount in my life and it’s time for me now.’ ‘My life has been going nowhere so I may as well have a good time.’

Calming existential restlessness: The very fact of having pushed your own boundaries (assuming nothing terrible happened in the process) might be enough to remind you that it’s okay to slow down and reflect on everything that’s happened. Is it possible to relish your adventures and forgive yourself for mishaps, emotional or physical? You might find comfort in quiet reflection, in lighting candles, going to the park (try Barnes Wetlands Centre or Hampstead Heath if you’re in the London area) or to the countryside, or spending time with animals, whose desire to play and whose need to be cared for can bring you right into the moment. For a time I used to avoid parks because they reminded me of the time when I only went in then when I was feeling down. Then I started to feel a sense of belonging there – parks are, in their own way, a place of community.

Sometimes thinking laterally about the world through art can restore a sense of balance or wonder, or both. See: If white characters were described like people of colour in literatureThe art of science – when popsicles go viral; or Wham’s Last Christmas played eight times slower. (If you can’t take any more Christmas music, try Bela Lugosi’s Dead stretched out to nine hours.) Also, 16th century cosplay versions of modern superheroes.

ULTRA MOTIVATION

You come back from the break feeling as if you’re going into battle. This year I will fix myself.’ ‘This year I will make sure I never get into a situation like that again.’ Making sure certain things never happen again – (being bullied at work, getting into damaging relationships, making poor business decisions) – while important catalysts for change, can put you into combat position from the start and be incredibly draining.

The January klaxon –  ‘New year new you!‘ – is very often directed at women. If we just keep on trying to make newer and better versions of ourselves, (as if the current ones were by default inadequate), perhaps we will deserve good things happening to us. This is a pretty toxic way of looking at life, but it is put in us from a young age. There will always be more to find fault with, because there is always another January on the horizon. Needless to say, never feeling good enough is a major reason for depression and why people end up coming for therapy.

Reducing hypervigilance: What can you do if you sense yourself becoming preoccupied with slipping into old patterns? Sometimes it helps to look at the huge variety of lives that people live, and have lived. What would they have done? Try: Hedy Lamarr – Hollywood actor and inventorIs Daniel Renaud Camden’s last rockstar?; Women scientists you need to knowLeonard Nimoy speaking Yiddish and talking about his childhood; Meet Chris Paradox, the man who gave up his 70K salary to live under a tree in Battersea.

EXHAUSTION AND GUILT

Coming back after a difficult holiday period can leave you feeling as if you need another holiday (if you even had one in the first place). You want to escape somewhere where you will get your needs met and where no one is making demands of you, or expecting you to be someone you can never be. And now you’re back there is pressure and more pressure. Lists! Fitness and thinness, and a fixation on resolutions which have just become yet more ways to make ourselves feel bad.

Stop running to stand still: Now can be an appropriate time to ruthlessly examine your weekly timetable and prune away all the things you don’t really love doing and can safely do away with. This may extend to friends who are not friends any more, and social circles you have grown away from. Many people do social media ‘culls’ (a cruel word perhaps) at this time of year. Try How should you handle outgrowing a friend? for some thoughts around this.

If there is nothing you can get rid of right now, plan to phase it out. Have half an eye (no more than that though) on next Christmas and how you will bring your own needs into it – bearing in mind that your life may have changed hugely by then anyway. If you are in debt, now is a good time to take action.

Physically clearing out your home can also have a lightening effect. Lateral thinking may, again, help: 30 relatively simple things that will make your home extremely awesome, 34 ingenious ways to de-clutter your entire life. So can changing routines. See: The no shampoo experiment, six months later.

DESPAIR AND CRISIS

All the ‘normal people’ are happily getting on with things and you feel like a wreck. Your sense of failure feels ingrained and real. Any success you’ve previously enjoyed was fake, a blip, a lucky break. And you went back on Facebook and there were all the holiday photos, the loved-up couple shots, and the look-what-I-gots and now you feel even worse. Sometimes all the advice in the world doesn’t really make a dent in things. There are people around you and noise, but the empty space in your head feels overpowering.

If you feel yourself sliding into crisis, it may still feel difficult to ask for help. Perhaps you held back over the holidays, because there were other people with ‘real’ problems needing help. Now everyone’s fitting themselves back into daily life and you’re feeling more and more left behind.

Take action right now: Go to your GP. (If you’re not registered with a GP, find one in your area and sign up. Even just doing that can make you feel more in control.) You can contact the Samaritans if you’re in need of urgent support. The mental health charity Mind has a helpline and a lot of advice about what to do in a mental health crisis, for sufferers and carers. CRUSE Bereavement Care has a helpline for people who are bereaved. The NHS website also has a useful list of mental health helplines.

Share your feelings: Sometimes just the act of asking for help can start to have a healing effect. The right therapist can help you find a path through what you’re experiencing. I took part in a group interview a while back in the Telegraph, with several other therapists:

‘And now it’s all died down, it can feel like ages to go until spring. You may want to reset yourself before the warmer weather gets here, and try and figure out why some situations just keep on pushing your buttons. A good therapist will listen without judging. You may feel hugely liberated on starting therapy – and you might also struggle for a time. If you’re feeling helpless, seeking help can be an essential first step towards feeling you’ve taken control of a situation where you previously felt no change was possible.’

You can find a therapist at Pink Therapy, The Counselling Directory, and the BACP. I’ve also recently put up a list of low-cost therapy services.

ALTERNATIVES TO ACTION

I’m aware that a lot of what I’ve written in this post so far involves taking some kind of action, even if it’s just looking at a website. But (with the important exception of getting help in a crisis) there can be other ways of tackling the sense of existential vertigo that can be so pervasive in the early part of the year. There is always doing nothing at all. (See: How to do nothing; Five reasons we should all learn how to do nothing; How to do nothing with nobody all alone by yourself.)

I’m aware that, at worst, such a suggestion can sound like a privileged life hack. [Especially in these political times – see the final section below.] Most of us need to work for a living. Most of us have responsibilities – to someone or something – that shape our lives and prevent us doing exactly what we want to do every minute of the day. But our media can feel like one endless unstoppable call to action, (which will usually involve spending money) and to do nothing whatsoever (whatever that means for you and the way you live) can be a very refreshing, and actually quite radical, antidote to that.

PERSONAL SURVIVAL IN THE SHADOW OF GLOBAL EVENTS

I originally wrote this piece at the beginning of 2015 – so before the UK election of May 2015, the Brexit vote in June 2016, and the US election in November 2016. Also before the what seemed like unusual number of celebrity deaths in 2016 that affected so many people so deeply. Reading it back, I have a sense of something missing, because it feels as if a whole new layer of challenge has entered our lives.

Social media is now filled with calls to action. I have seen many exhortations to man the barricades, turn vegan, engage dialectically with every person you meet whose politics are different from yours, and be prepared to physically defend someone experiencing a hate crime on public transport. There is a hidden message here too, that if you do not do these things, (and are not seen to be encouraging others to do them), you are insufficiently engaged with the world, excessively privileged, or even a bad person.

PUT ON YOUR OXYGEN MASK

Actually, there is a danger of being toxified to the point of inaction by other people’s letting off steam from the comfortable safety of their armchairs. So first of all it may be healthier to put your oxygen mask on first, and keep the greater part of social media (and all media) at a distance while you regroup and re-evaluate. People talk about ‘contact highs’ from both substances and people – I would argue there is a ‘contact low’ from too much reading about others’ fear, as it can just create a sense of helplessness which cam become ingrained.

I’ve written more about this here: When the world has changed forever – self care in a collective crisis

I would like to end on a positive note – I wish you peace, health and happiness for 2017, however you achieve it.


Surviving the Festive Season Part Two: Strategies for getting through it

tg-1-12In part one of this series I looked at all the things that make Christmas and other festival times so stressful. Here in part two I’m offering suggestions on how to make the experience easier to manage.

I’ve been discussing this a lot recently, and several big stressors have emerged: finances, competition with others, and the sense of obligation. Some people prepare for this time of year as if it wasn’t Christmas day coming on 25th December, but a large asteroid. So this piece is my personal take on how you might manage a potentially difficult Christmas.

Further down there are links to various advice and charity sites. (If you’re expecting to have a happy and relaxed time and none of this applies, maybe you know someone who might benefit from something I’ve written here.)

Some of my thoughts here come in the form of questions. They may not have a specific answer, but I hope that reflecting on them will make things feel less overwhelming.

MENTALLY PREPARE

• Can you identify what it is you do and don’t like about this time of year? You might feel more in control if you can identify which aspects you can just about tolerate, and which ones you would avoid/abandon if you could. Are you in a position to act on this?

If you do feel able to act, put your foot down early. One way to think about it is to imagine opening the doors and windows in your life and finally letting a breeze through – ie, saying a great big ‘no’. Practise this.

• If you’re feeling a sense of reluctant obligation, reflect on what you really owe to anyone? Also, do you feel that anyone owes anything to you?

• If your mental state means careful rationing of what you do, honour this if you can by planning in advance. If you find yourself without the energy to do this, can someone else organise things for you?

• Can you arrange something to look forward to after Christmas as a reward? Seeing a person you don’t see often, or a trip somewhere?

• If you know things are going to be difficult, can you ask available friends if they are okay with you texting them during the day if it all gets too much?

• If you cannot drum up any positive feelings at all, can you visualise Christmas as the monstrous birthday party of someone you loathe but must appease? Or perhaps imagine you are in some hideous panto or whodunnit?

SHARE YOUR FEELINGS

• Asking for help, or just sharing how you feel, can seem like a radical and terrifying act. But the chances are you are not alone.

• Can you talk to the others around you about your feelings about this time of year? Do the people closest to you agree with you? You may find that no one else has had the courage to say what they have been feeling all along, and through your words you have potentially rescued them too.

WAYS TO ESCAPE

Travel – Can you leave the country? Flights, especially long haul ones, go up hugely in price over this period, so the cost may well be prohibitive. If a holiday is out of reach, is some kind of physical escape possible? A working holiday, a retreat of some kind, or a house or cat-sit?

Work – Can you hide behind work? Selflessly offer to take others’ shifts? Suddenly take on a big pile of freelance? (If, of course, it’s out there).

Charity work – There are lots of ways to volunteer at Christmas, such as Crisis.  If you’re in London, Londonist has a good list of places where you could offer to help out over the holiday period.

Invented scenarios (ok, lying) – Normally, I would not suggest you engage in dishonesty. However, in this case, if you have to lie to get out of a situation that you absolutely do not want and which may be actively harmful to you, (and you absolutely cannot tell the truth because that would be even more harmful to you), you are in a way being more authentic, so I would not condemn it. Your safety comes first. If you are going to do this, I should remind you that the backstories may take work, as well as getting any collaborators on board, so this is not for the faint hearted.

• Illness – a new one or a flareup of an existing one – or an accident or disaster. (But then you may be fending off offers of help which could take you back to square one. This one is best used when you were going to have to take a long journey.)

• The sudden illness/disaster of someone close to you, who needs your help. Is this ‘wrong’? I return to my points about authenticity and safety.

• Pretending you are away when you are not, and you are in fact staying quietly in your home with the telly. A woman wrote somewhere that if anyone asked her what she was doing for Christmas, she would say, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be the three of us on the sofa,’ neglecting to mention that the other two were in fact her cats.

IF YOU CANNOT GET AWAY

MONEY 

This is the tough bit. Christmas is supposed to be about giving, yes? Perhaps, but not to your own detriment.

• How early can you start preparing? (Some people buy things in the sales for the next Christmas). So a huge January to-do list might make you feel more in control. Can you pay for anything in instalments? (Bearing in mind the increased cost over time and the cost of borrowing in general.)

• Ask people to bring food over instead of providing it all yourself. I’ve noticed that potluck dinners have got a lot more common since the recession. For low-cost recipes, try Jack Monroe, Netmums budget recipes, Gluten Free on a Shoestring. Also, the Gluten free vegan.

• Have a secret santa with strict budget attached. (Depending on the configuration of the people you will be with, you don’t even have to assign a person to give a present to – you could distribute them lucky dip style.)

Here’s a piece from Netmums about benefit dates over Christmas, with lots of advice on budgeting. Money Saving Expert has a Christmas forum where people ask for and give advice. Crafting isn’t for everyone, but (time and everything else allowing) could you make, or cook, something instead? 60 great alternatives to toys has some useful discussion points about presents for children.

• Beware vouchers, sales, and ‘bargains’. Money Saving Expert again has some tips on end of year savings. All sorts of shenanigans goes on with pricing during sale times, and some shops buy things in for sales that they don’t normally sell. Once upon a time I read that this was all illegal, but the goalposts seem to have moved considerably.

• Be proud of what you do make or bring. If there is a financial disparity between you and others, can you talk about it? it’s essential to lay down boundaries early so there are no misunderstandings. This is even more important if you have children. Ditto if you are the one with more money than the rest. If you are in this fortunate position, try to remember the stress people go through when they don’t have enough but are expected to put on a show. If you suggest a restaurant or other activity that costs money, and there is an awkward silence, frozen faces, or ripple of embarrassment, there is your answer. Again, if you are in a fortunate position but don’t want to show off or make others feel awkward, is there anything you could do for anyone in private?

DIFFICULT OR ABUSIVE PEOPLE

• We joke about ‘drunk uncle and racist auntie’ but you may be stuck with them for the day, or the entire week. You could try to imagine bedtime, or going home, as a beautiful forest or beach that you are slowly walking towards. If this sounds too hippy, can you plan something for afterwards that you can look forward to and think about?

• Can you find others in the same boat as you so you feel less alone? The incredibly long-running ‘Stately homes’ thread on Mumsnet, for survivors of dysfunctional families, is a good place to start. When you look online, you might not find someone with your exact problem immediately, but this tends to be the nature of problems. We think our issues are unique and this keeps us isolated.

• There may be people who don’t recognise your gender/sexuality/relationship/lifestyle/work and are either rude to you about it or actively threatening. The Albert Kennedy Trust works to help young (16-25) LGBT people who are homeless or living in a hostile environment. London Friend and London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard (also UK-wide) provide telephone support.

• You may be experiencing, or fearing, domestic violence. Refuge and Women’s Aid charities support women and children experiencing domestic abuse.  ManKind supports male survivors, and Respect supports both men and women, and has a helpline for anyone who is carrying out abuse too. Broken Rainbow is an LGBT domestic violence charity. You can contact them by phone, email or live chat.

ANNIVERSARIES AND LOSSES

• If you have experienced a major loss this year, or are having the anniversary of one, your first duty is to yourself, and then to anyone vulnerable you care for. There is a lot of advice online about dealing with loss, which can be amplified by experiencing the enforced joyfulness around you. Cancer Research UK has some information on coping with grief. Cruse is the main UK bereavement charity. They offer help by phone, email, or in person.

• Distractions can be good – if this feels right, you could fill your home with a manageable number of hand-picked people, (or arrange a number of visits or meet ups) – but let your feelings guide you, and let others take the strain.

• Can a friend or family member take you in? Would you allow them to?

• The loss may not be a person, but a negative change in circumstances (loss of job, home or relationship), or a beloved animal companion. These can all have powerful fallout that needs a grieving process – again, put yourself first.

FAMILY ESTRANGEMENT

• You may be estranged from family. There is a charity, Standalone, that supports people in this situation. They have a detailed festive survival guide.

• Even if you are totally happy about your choice, this time of year may bring on all sorts of concerned and potentially exposing questioning. While ‘none of your business’ may be the appropriate response, this may only inflame the questioner and cause all eyes to be on you if you are in a group. Saying someone is are ‘away’ may be enough. (Again remembering to craft your story – Australia? But where in Australia?) Total honesty may torpedo the conversation, or it may induce a further flood of questioning.

• One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is that whenever an online problem page deals with family estrangement, very few people are judgemental (bucking a trend, it must be said), and many will share similar stories. The Guardian has a good range of articles on family estrangement and going no contact. From all my reading, a fair number of people choose to go no contact, and many more wish they had made that decision long ago.

13 things no estranged child needs to hear on Mother’s Day – this is actually very good advice on what not to say to someone who is estranged from any family member, and could equally apply to Christmas or any other festival.

INTOXICATION

• Alcohol and drugs (over the counter, prescribed or illegal) give and take at the same time. They may be all you have to get you through a challenging day. I would not necessarily recommend someone sober up for its own sake for a difficult Christmas unless you or those around you would be in immediate danger, or unless you need to remain alert and/or are driving. If you want to make a fresh start in the new year, a charity like Addaction can help.

• Bear in mind you say and do things when intoxicated that you would not when sober. Some of it can never be taken back.

• Some people change personality when intoxicated and become incredibly unpleasant, angry or violent. This doubles during festive periods. If this is you, you need to stop. If this feels too hard, you may want to try Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or another 12 step meeting. You will find community there and a great variety of human experience. There are a few events in the AA calendar over Christmas Day (London and midlands) and new year itself. There may well be others.

• If you have given up drinking previously, this is a challenging time and you may wish to refer further back in this article for ways to escape Christmas. If anyone comes at you with ‘Oh, can’t you just have one?’ or rudely interrogates you about why you stopped, keep remembering why you did it.

• If you are presented with the prospect of a Christmas with a relative who has a drink problem that threatens your safety, or the safety of someone else, you are under no obligation to participate. Your duty, again, is to yourself.

SOCIAL MEDIA

• In part one I described the various irritations on social media – other peoples’ photos of festive bounty, and their urge to tell you how blessed they are. Do not feel guilty about muting/unfollowing them for a few days. If it’s a friend who you basically like, you can always just send them a nice message so you don’t feel guilty. These networks are valuable, particularly if you are alone, so a few tweaks will make them bearable until it all blows over.

• You could start a secret group on Facebook, or create a locked Twitter account, so you can share with a few people who feel the same way as you, and let off steam.

SPENDING THE DAY ALONE

• If you’re going to be happily, consensually on your own on December 25th, Christmas day alone can be great. Your time, your choice.

• If you’re reluctantly, non-consensually alone, (and don’t have anywhere to go) it can feel terrible. Perhaps you just want to sleep? That’s okay. Or go on a huge walk. Write. Work. Is there anyone at all you can contact? Ignore the day and do your usual routine and make it a day like any other?

THINGS NOT TO SAY TO SOMEONE WHO IS STRUGGLING

• ‘It’s only one day.’

• ‘X is just insecure.’

• ‘What did you get?’

• ‘Where’s Y?’ or ‘Why aren’t you with Z?’

• ‘Can’t you just deal with it?’

• ‘You’ll be fine.’

If you’re still reading, I hope this was helpful.

  • If you’d like to find out more about how I work, and what I specialise in, please go here.
  • If you’d like to read more of my published work, please go here.

Surviving the Festive Season Part One: What makes it so stressful?

tg-1-7This is the first in a series of posts about getting through the holiday period. Christmas is the festival I grew up with, and the one that is the hardest to miss in the UK as it approaches, but I think much of this could apply to any other celebration where people come together over a holiday period who might not normally spend time with each other.

Needless to say, if you totally and unequivocally love these festive times, and find my question above odd or incongruous, these posts may not be for you. But you may know someone who might find them useful.

So, why does the holiday season affect so many of us so badly? And why do we continue to let it?

Positives
There are lots of potentially enjoyable things about festival periods. I am pro end-of-year (or any other time) coming together in front of fires, candles, dancing and wearing sparkly clothing. I love sitting around, not working (if possible), eating piles of food, and going for walks. As long as I can choose exactly where I am and who I am with. (That last point is crucial.)

Negatives
Those are just the nice bits. The holiday season is also, at its worst, part of the Shopping Industrial Complex, with a hearty dollop of pseudo-religiosity, dubious cultural blackmail, and coercive encouragement to spend money. Many people I know start to express dread as autumn turns to winter. Sometimes they only express it privately because such ‘negativity’ may earn them a telling off from some of their friends.

So, in this piece I am trying to unpack what it is about Christmas and other holidays that makes them so challenging. For sure, every one of the challenges has an opposite number which, for balance, I will name here: happiness, excitement, thrilling anticipation, delight at old favourites being brought out, (whether tree decorations, films, or distant relatives you adore). The joy of giving. The joy of receiving. A wonderful religious (or secular) celebration. Snow (real or artificial). Singing. Community. Hearing about the wonderful time everyone else is having and being happy for them because you are happy too. The delight in sharing your own abundance. Feasting. Love. Family. Connection. But this isn’t why you’re reading this.

 

Nine ways the festive season can make us stressed (Really, more like 99.)

The lead-up

• The long, long lead-up that seems to get longer every year. Those first sleigh bells, those first red, green and white themed designs, the incongruous appearance of seasonal food displays among the discount picnic sets. These chirping canaries are almost impossible to avoid, even if you have no internet, TV or radio.
• Consequent expectations: of the world, of others, of yourself.
• The sense that you must hide any negative feelings about it all.

Money

• Holiday spending was never easy for many people. In the last few years, things have become catastrophic. The pressure to spend a lot, be seen to do so, and the accompanying pressure to receive as much as possible, can put intolerable pressure on people. ‘What did you get?’ is a heartsink of a question. Morale can drop further at its frequent follow-up: ‘I got so much stuff! I’m so blessed!’  (See also birthdays).
• If you have children there will be a lot of added pressure. Ditto, and doubled, if there is financial inequality in your family or peer group.

Relationships

• You may not wish to spend time with blood relatives or in laws who you find challenging or actively abusive.
• You may be struggling to deal with your own immediate family for the same reason.
• The pressure to be in a relationship with someone, anyone, to avoid the shame of singlehood, becomes paramount. Normative relationships are particularly pushed at this time of gift-giving.
• If you have children and have split from the person you were parenting with, you may have to do more stressful negotiation than usual about the time you all spend together.
• If you are single, you may feel obliged to perform acts of charity, such as volunteering, to compensate for your purportedly selfish lifestyle.
• You may have few personal relationships and feel increasingly isolated at this time.

Being geographically trapped

• One of the vagaries of living in the UK/London is that there is no public transport on Christmas day. It makes planning a real headache. Taxis are expensive. Railway companies often use holiday periods as a time to fix their networks as well. (I’m aware it’s a public holiday, but many people do work that day.)
• Situations that you can manage for two or three hours may swiftly become overwhelming if they involve staying the night or relying on the kindness/sobriety of others for a lift home.
• The same goes for people having an expectation of visiting you, in numbers or for lengths of time that are challenging.

Emotional triggers

• Memories of people who we have lost, and happier times long gone.
• Doubled if there is an anniversary of a loss around this time, or the loss is within the last year.
• Overwhelming proximity to people we find anything from challenging to actively abusive.
• Highly charged atmospheres.
• Loneliness.
• Feeling obliged to adopt feelings and behaviours that are alien to you.
• Other peoples’ well meaning but sometimes thoughtless exhortations to enjoy yourself.
• The assumption, often well meaning,  that you must be having a good time, and that you ‘must be’ in the company of large numbers of close friends and loving family.
• The pressure to be happy, measured against a seemingly arbitrary scale that it is almost impossible to achieve.
• Comparison with others’ lives and experiences.
• Noise, flashing lights.
• Lack of money / being conspicuously the one with the least.
• You may find the presence of children triggering. This may be because of your own childhood experiences, or you are having difficulty having children of your own.

 Old behaviours and patterns re-emerging

• Pleasing others.
• Denying your own needs.
• Falling back into emotional blackmail.
• Feeling obliged to pretend or put on a false persona.
• A sense of obligation leading to resentment.
• Buying others’ love, with material gifts, food, etc.
• Bullying.
• Anger.
• Depression.
• Excessive use of alcohol, drugs, or food.
• Exacerbation of existing mental health issues.

Religion

• If you are religious, you may be appalled at the hijacking and/or commercialisation of a very significant time in the calendar.
• If you are not, you may feel that religion is being forced upon you.
• You may attend religious events only at this time of year, and may or may not feel like a hypocrite.

Alcohol and other intoxicants

• Intoxication makes everything seem bigger and louder. This can go both ways.
• Intoxication may lead to verbal and physical fights and abuse.
• It may also lead to no-going-back ‘truth-telling’. This may have a cathartic outcome, or create long rifts.
• It may encourage sexual behaviour beyond our normal boundaries, or non-consensual activity.
• Not consuming intoxicants may cause you to be singled out, whatever your reasons.
• (Paradoxically, intoxication can get us through difficult days and for some, may be the only thing that does.)

The internet

• Wanting to stay in contact with your online communities but without witnessing what might at another time be called ‘showing off’, ie the endless performative sharing of others’ bounty, whether involving holidays, gifts given and received, partners, children etc.

If you’re reading this, nodding, and shouting HELP, one thing’s for sure: you’re not alone. I suspect more people experience elements of the above than don’t. People seem to be very good at pressuring ourselves in to doing things we have never truly consented to.

My next post in the series will offer some strategies for making things go easier, faster, or quieter.

  • If you’d like to find out more about how I work, and what I specialise in, please go here.
  • If you’d like to read more of my published work, please go here.