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Surviving Alone on the Holidays When You Experienced Childhood Trauma

The holidays are really difficult for me. I’m not sure I would have acknowledged that before or been aware of how difficult they are, and I certainly dissociated from why they were difficult for a long time. I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while and was worried that, if I write that the holidays are hard or why they are hard, people will think I’m “pathetic,” I’m trying to get attention or pity, I hate the holidays or a list of other negative things that my brain says about me.

Truth is, people are going to think whatever they choose and I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is be authentic and speak up. I’m writing about this because I know I’m not alone. I know there are other people who, like me, have a hard time with the holidays, who may be alone, who may have trauma memories, who feel a deep sadness, etc. I want people to know that yes, it can be awful, but you can get through it. It might take years but you can transform the holidays into something nurturing for yourself, and make it a time where you can connect with others and yourself. I’ve been working on this for several years and it’s a slow but steady process.

My memories of the holidays are all over a place. They are a mass of memories that feel heavy and dense but also go up like smoke when I try to grab hold of one and dissect it. My memories hold contradictory images and feelings.

I have memories of large gatherings, fresh snow, beautiful lights, a bustling kitchen, new clothes, a playful kitten, cousins, choirs and so much more. I even struggle with the “good ones” now because when I think back, I can feel the fear I lived under. I can sense how alone I was, and I’m aware I operated as though I was prey; at the time, I guess it makes sense.

Growing up, I experienced holidays that, on the surface, seemed worthy of a card or holiday special. Some years there were times of abundance. There were times when things were somewhat safer because certain people weren’t around.

There were times when we had very little food and no place to really go. Holidays when I was homeless, where my mom and I shuffled from one relative’s place to another, to bed-and-breakfasts, cheap hotels and women’s shelters, often sleeping on floors and waking up at the break of dawn to be out of everyone’s way. People are always surprised that I live in the same apartment in NYC that I did when I moved here in 2012 because it’s typical for people to move a lot in this city. I’ve been searching for stability my whole life and I want to stay still for as long as I can.

When I think of the holidays, I think of alcohol. Mostly, I think of what a dangerous time it was, when my father was off the ships and had access to what seemed like unlimited alcohol thanks to gifts from the company he worked for, parties, his friends, his parents and his own funds. I remember going with my mom to return full bottles to the store, hoping it would lessen some of what we would face and knowing the rage he would fly into if he knew what we had done.

I remember being in Newfoundland for Christmas the first year I moved there and feeling so isolated. All my roommates had gone home. I felt like I had no home to go to, I was in an abusive on-again-off-again relationship (that I didn’t realize until years later was a re-enactment of so much early trauma), I was drinking too much (doing anything to numb the pain) and I was struggling badly with an eating disorder.

So many other memories cut through the years. Some are memories I can’t even voice to myself and others are just tangled up and attached to strings of other memories that all connect somehow.

I haven’t seen or spoken (even through email) with my father for several years now and I don’t intend to for the rest of my life. I haven’t seen my mother since 2014 but I still talk to her by phone on occasion. The distance makes it feel healthy and safer to me and although it’s painful, I think the universe is helping me to heal. And sometimes, I sense from my mom that she is healing too, despite being stuck in a less-than-ideal situation.

As far as recovery goes, I’m in a place where I’m starting to break free and opening up to connections. It’s like I’m just starting out and I’m organically finding my people, community. My therapist commented that it is like I’m starting from scratch and acknowledged the anger, frustration and sadness in that. It’s not an overnight thing. For me, the holidays now also mean my therapist and the rest of my treatment team go away for a bit, a reality that I find much harder to deal with than I did when I was using behaviors to manage.

So now, the holidays are a time when I’m trying to learn to be OK alone, realizing I’m safe and no longer in the past, seeing that I do have stability in my life now, taking care of myself no matter what emotions or memories might come up. It means spending time with friends, making new memories, being open to what the season might bring. I have a tendency to distract and dissociate when things feel too painful and now I find myself sitting with the pain more, rather than pushing it aside, but also trying to let myself know it is also OK to give myself a break. It’s not an easy process but it’s one that is lined with hope.

To anyone struggling through the holidays or who just feel they are hard, know you are not alone and that you have the power to make things a little easier on yourself. Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful:

1. Eat consistently and stay hydrated.

It can be easy to use food to manage emotions either by restricting from it or binging, but that won’t help your emotional state. Allow yourself to eat. Do not deprive yourself. Be gentle. Listen to what your body needs.

2. Create.

I love writing and making things, so I always know I have those outlets to express myself. They make me feel less alone.

3. Clean and organize your space.

It feels really good to be in a space that is well cared for. My apartment isn’t perfect by any means, and there are lots of things I’d change if I could, but having things clean and organized makes me feel better. Fresh sheets and pajamas from the laundry are the best.

4. Get sleep.

Try not to use sleep to avoid life but do try to get a good night’s sleep. Develop bedtime rituals to help improve your sleep. I take a melatonin sleep aid, drink non-caffeinated herbal tea and use eucalyptus oil to help me fall asleep.

5. Get outside.

Find things to see and do that inspire you and feed your soul, like an art exhibition, a play, a concert, a certain walk or hike or anything else that interests you.

6. Let yourself feel good.

It’s a good time of year to go to the salon, have acupuncture or try a new soothing body lotion.

7. Connect with others.

Take part in experiences you’re able to and reach out to people.

8. Set healthy boundaries.

It’s OK to say no and do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

9. Don’t give the holidays power over you.

Think of them as just another day and see the as-of-yet unknown possibilities ahead.

If the holidays are hard for you, know that you will be OK. You are not alone, there is nothing wrong with you and you are not unworthy or incapable of love. Take good care of yourself. It’s not always easy but if you allow yourself to heal, I know only good can come from it. Sending love.

Photo by Taisiia Stupak on Unsplash