Even when she was a little girl, Gina could sense that Christmas wasn’t a time when the needs and longings of children would come first in her home. On the contrary, as she got older, she could see that her mother was consumed by a need to protect a holiday fantasy--a picture of family togetherness that was shattered year after year by her father’s drinking. So Gina did what she could to help create a festive atmosphere in a home filled with tension, anger and disappointment.
Her father would leave the house about 11 a.m. Christmas day and not return until late afternoon.
“We wouldn’t know until he came home how drunk he’d be or what kind of mood he’d be in,” Gina, now 39, recalled.
While her father was gone, she and her sister would help their mother prepare Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. Then he’d come home and promptly fall asleep, and Gina’s mother would pretend nothing was wrong.
“I’d spend the day worrying with mom, who always hid her feelings,” Gina said. “My dad’s drinking problem was never talked about openly.”
Later, grief was added to the tension that always made Christmas an ordeal for Gina. Shortly before Christmas nine years ago, her sister’s two teen-aged sons, ages 16 and 14, and a friend of theirs were killed in an auto accident caused by the 16-year-old, who had been drinking. Her family feels that loss intensely every holiday season, but the habit of feigning holiday cheer persists, Gina says.
This year, she won’t have to pretend because she’s not going East to be with her parents, and her 7-year-old son will be with her ex-husband. But now she faces Christmas alone, and she’s terrified that she’ll be tormented by painful memories.
That fear led Gina and about 25 others with painful holiday memories to attend a recent “holiday survival” seminar at the Adult Children Center in Orange, which offers therapy for adult children of alcoholics.
The participants, who started passing around a box of tissue early in the evening, react to the lights, songs and scents of the season with dread rather than joyful anticipation.
“I always hated Christmas, even though our family had the best tree in town,” one man said. “I hated it because I knew it wouldn’t last.”
He and Gina and the others came to the seminar looking for ways to “get through” the holidays, and they left with a number of practical suggestions from seminar leader Louis Stoetzer, a therapist who is executive director of the Adult Children Center.
Just acknowledging that the holiday season is going to be difficult helps ease the headaches, depression and anxiety people experience when they are overwhelmed with painful memories that seem to be on “automatic replay” at this time of year, Stoetzer said.
“Being able to say ‘I didn’t have it so good, and I’m still troubled’ is a major step toward recovery,” he explained. “It empowers you. It’s a courageous effort to break the rule of silence so many men and women were raised with. It frees up a lot of energy that has been pushed down a long time.”
And that energy is needed at this time of year because many still spend the holidays with the relatives who ruined their childhood Christmases, and it takes a lot of strength to resist falling into the same traps that robbed them of joyful holiday memories.
Stoetzer said one way to avoid perpetuating painful holiday traditions is to start new rituals. For example, if afternoon drinking is the problem, invite the family to brunch instead of Christmas dinner. If it helps to be able to exit gracefully without breaking up the gathering, have the meal in a restaurant and sit near the door. “You may not use it, but you’ll feel better,” Stoetzer said.
If the gathering is at home, spouses can be asked to take over the role of host.
“You can work in the kitchen,” Stoetzer pointed out. “As long as you’re busy and on your feet, you’ll be OK.”
The holiday season is a good time to use a phone machine to screen calls from relatives who make demands that create stress. You might even let a supportive spouse help by taking the calls for you.
Before answering the phone yourself, rehearse responses to familiar arguments, Stoetzer suggested. You might even put some thoughts down on paper and keep them near the phone so you have something to refer to when you’re too angry to think clearly.
Don’t pick up the phone if an alcoholic parent calls late at night when you are most vulnerable, Stoetzer advised. If you do, make sure you’re standing rather than lying in bed. “Then you can feel your power,” he explained. “At 11 at night when you’re talking with someone who’s going to hurt you, that helps.”
Setting limits such as not answering the phone after a certain hour puts you in control, Stoetzer noted. And when you insist that your family observe your rules, “you gain that inner sense that they are seeing you as an independent adult. It’s a wonderful feeling,” he added.
Gina, who recently began therapy to deal with the trauma of growing up with an alcoholic father, spends Christmas back East with her parents and sister every other year. She’d feel guilty if she didn’t go at all, she said, but those visits are still an ordeal for her.
“The years I stay here are easier than the years I go back East, even if I’m alone,” she said.
She’s relieved that she won’t be going this year, but she’s worried that it will be depressing to spend Christmas with her single friends, most of whom are also struggling with painful holiday memories.
“There’s so much pain, it’s hard to know whether people will be there for me or not. They have their own demons. But I definitely don’t want to be alone,” she said.
For people like Gina, who will be grieving for her nephews as well as coping with her childhood memories this Christmas, Stoetzer said it’s important not to hold back the tears that come naturally in the midst of sentimental holiday rituals.
He suggested taking flowers to the cemetery Christmas morning because that’s a “safe place” to cry. But, he stressed, there’s nothing wrong with breaking down among a group of friends, though most people are reluctant to allow that because they don’t want to burden others with their grief.
“It’s terribly important to allow those moments of sadness into the picture,” Stoetzer said. “When we let it out, the people around us who care about us will accept it.”
Eventually, you will be able to enjoy the holidays if you begin taking small steps to change the patterns that have caused you pain, Stoetzer said.
Believe it or not, shopping might even become part of the fun for you. Stoetzer opened his seminar by describing two kinds of holiday shoppers. First, there are the ones with long lists of what everyone needs who check off each item meticulously without considering any frivolous purchases. They never even think of stopping to enjoy the music and decorations over a holiday snack along the way.
They’re the ones who grew up in troubled families for whom holidays were traumatic, he said. “They’re consumed by the quest to be perfect shoppers and the apprehension of what Christmas will bring in terms of bad memories and unpleasant contact with families.”
Then there are the ones who were raised in families where “joy and goodwill and mutual regard for each other” prevailed.
“They’ll be thinking about the spirit of the season,” Stoetzer said. And if they see something they like for themselves as they shop, they’ll buy it without feeling guilty.
If there’s a gift you always wanted as a child and never received, it’s not too late to buy it for yourself, Stoetzer said. Put it out where your family can see it and say, “This is for me.”
“This is healing,” Stoetzer explained, “because you’re honoring that inner image of yourself--the younger self who was hurt in Christmas past.”