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.


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.

Can you really choose how you feel?

Sunrise North London‘It’s Tuesday. I call it ‘Choose-Day’ – because I can CHOOSE how I feel today!’

Never mind that’s it’s actually Friday. I see this kind of attitude lurking around online just a bit more than I’m comfortable with and, given that we are now entering a very challenging time of year for mental health and emotions generally, I thought I’d look a bit harder at it.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think this is the worst ‘inspirational saying’ I have ever seen. If you know a more florid example of the genre, please send it over. I ought to have a Christmas competition, but you’d have to try very hard to beat that one. I suspect it’ll be me getting the Quality Street, but I remain open.

I am, for the moment, being lighthearted. And I should emphasise that I’m not knocking every just-for-today expression that’s ever been. In crisis, sometimes they’re all you have to cling to.

But – you can choose how you feel? Really? Others clearly subscribe to this view, as evidenced by articles with names like ‘10 Habits of Highly Unhappy People.’ There are quite a few of them around and they’re not difficult to find.

Great! You might think. We all fall into negative thinking and need a bit of a push out of it, don’t we? And actually, these articles often contain reasonable advice and appear on the surface to be well-intentioned. In a nutshell: don’t criticise or gossip, stop comparing yourself with others, don’t ruminate on the past, stop worrying about the future, stop feeling afraid, let go of your anger, look after your body, learn to trust people, stop focusing on the negatives, stop blaming others, express gratitude more, relax, and just be happy.

I can’t argue with any of this. In many ways, these lists are factually, existentially, correct.

But, as someone working in mental health, I experience increasing concern as I read through them.

They imply, or state directly, that feelings about your life and your place in the world are entirely your own choice. In different ways they flag the person’s apparent inner negativity as a reason for their problems, and how they may even be enjoying their misery.

Worst of all, not a single one that I’ve seen contains references to difficulties external to the individual: anything from abuse as a child, to poverty, to physical or mental illness, to violence, to relationship breakdown, to having no work, to experiencing discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, body type or anything else, and to experiencing a downturn in circumstances because of the recession we have all been experiencing for the last five years. Not a whisper.

I’ve seen too many depressed and anxious people fighting feelings like these, whatever their circumstances. I have, once upon a time, been there myself.

And the trouble with telling someone that they have chosen their feelings, is that if you bothered to look deeper into the individual person, you might actually see the pain and trauma they have suffered. I would then challenge you to tell them they had chosen their sacking, eviction, cancer or rape, because deep down, they wanted it.

Am I being a bit melodramatic here? Human motivations are complex. Sometimes we use problems as a form of defence when life gets too hard. We retreat into illness, or hide in the past, or paralyse ourselves with fear. There will be an old script at work in here, but it is way more complex than mere choice. You cannot moralise or shame negative feelings away.

So what do we have choice over? We can choose how we outwardly react. Perhaps not in the moment, but after some reflection. We can decide what we are going to work on to make a situation different. We can be mindful of our words and actions and their impact on others. We can see if there is any possibility of acceptance of any of our difficulties, just to remove the charge from them. (All that I have just said assumes our mental health is strong enough to do this.)

There is lots we can do, but choosing our feelings, I think, is not one of them.


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.