It is possible to create new traditions when family wellness means shifting your approach to the holiday season. Here are a few tips our family learned about celebrating the holidays after my daughter went to treatment and our family started our own recovery journey:
Put it in perspective.
It is normal to pin so much hope and excitement on that one specific celebration. However, one can be sorely disappointed when the actual day does not measure up. Honestly, there is no such thing as a perfect day. It is up to each one of us to make the day what it is.
My family would alternate the hosting of holiday dinners; for example, this year at my parents’ house, next year at ours, and the following year at my brother’s. As each holiday came close, I became crazy “in my head” about plans, creating stress not just for me, but for everyone in my life. In recovery, I realize I must let go and enjoy what I have now and have faith in the future. That means accepting the idea that this holiday is just one day and one meal, and there will be another day when the extended family can get together.
Smaller can be better.
Our family gatherings turned into big command-performance holidays; no matter whose house hosted; we would hang around the dinner table all day. Initially, when my daughter was in recovery, I was anxious that the day would turn out to be a crazy scene with lots of alcohol flowing. I knew that was not the ideal setting for my daughter or for me. We scaled back, so our celebration included only my husband and me, our children, and our grandchildren.
In many ways, smaller is better. We miss seeing all the extended family, but more people tend to create chaos and a clash of personalities. Our smaller celebration is much more intimate, and we get to spend quality time with the grandchildren. This translates to less stress for me, less anxiety for my daughter, and more quality time for everyone else; so, we can all relax. Nor do we feel the need to sit at the table all day – we can get moving – which is even healthier! Shortening the all-day affairs to a few hours is also advantageous.
Connection is meaningful – even when it’s online.
The truth is that the holidays for me are a chance to connect with my children and grandchildren. I have learned that connection does not have to occur only on that day; it can happen any time. My daughter is easy going – she loves family and being around people – but for her to have a day off and stay at home with her family is a gift. She cares more about connection than presence at the Thanksgiving table and feels it is more important to be healthy and safe, as long as the family makes time to connect. Holiday celebrations do not have to happen in-person. Talking on the phone or virtually through Zoom or Facetime can be just as much of an opportunity for celebration and connection.
I have learned about the power of connection during our family’s journey with recovery. Caron taught me that connection is key to your health, to your happiness. I learned through Al Anon that I need to do my own work on myself, separate and apart from my recovering child. I keep up with my sponsor remotely, through the phone and on Zoom. For me, keeping that connection with my sponsor and other members of my support group makes a significant difference in my positive approach to life – even when the unexpected occurs.
Let go of perfectionism and embrace gratefulness.
There is no such thing as a perfect day, and if I want everything to be “perfect” for the holiday, I am bound to be disappointed. Instead, I encourage everyone to embrace gratefulness. Our extended family may not be with us in person, but the goal is that they are all safe and healthy.
In recovery, I have learned to be grateful for the time our family spends together. For example, I have learned to focus and build my relationships with my grandchildren and not worry about other family dynamics. Life is messy. Sometimes, children have tantrums or present behavioral challenges – but I accept that and focus on our quality time together.
Ultimately, I think you learn more about yourself and the world when you must cope with challenges. It is a good time to reflect on yourself and how you are going to grow from these situations.
One of the reasons our family stopped going to the large holiday gatherings is that I knew there would be alcohol. At our house, we choose not to serve alcohol during family get togethers. I did not feel I could stop the rest of the family from having alcohol in their homes, but it was important to set that boundary in my home once my daughter began her recovery. By hosting at my home, I could help create a healthier environment.
Boundaries have never been more important than this holiday season. This is the time to protect yourself and your family. Just as we do in recovery, I encourage you not to go to a place or be with people that make you feel unsafe. You have every right to put yourself and your immediate family first for your own peace and well-being.
Find your faith.
One must have faith, even if the holiday is not a great day for you, that tomorrow is another day, and it is going to be okay. What happens today is not going to dictate what happens tomorrow or two years from now.
I was never a very spiritual person. I was just out there spinning, living vicariously through my daughter, wanting her to do the things I did not have faith in myself to do. Today, I realize I was nowhere near grounded, and that my lack of faith contributed to my daughter having her own self-esteem issues.
Finding my connection to spirituality has been life-changing for me. My daughter’s ups and downs would once have paralyzed me with fear and anxiety. Now I am open to the changes and challenges of life, and much more aware of my place in the world, because I have faith.
One must remain flexible. It’s important to learn that it’s okay to adjust our plans. Think of it as an opportunity to stretch yourself. It may hurt a bit at first, but you may end up being more flexible about life and relationships.
For this holiday season, we will each find our unique way to experience the holidays. For my part, I will focus on giving back and reminding myself of where I have been and how far I have come.
By Maggie Tipton, Psy.D.