Your mental health: Surviving the holidays
by Eric Albert, Brandon Browne, Jonathan Mohr
PGN-The Philadelphia Gay News
The holidays can be a stressful time for LGBTQ people and their families, but there are several strategies you can use to help reduce stress and create a happy holiday this year.
Before heading home for the holidays, make a decision about being “out” to each family member. If you are bringing a partner, discuss in advance how you will talk about your relationship and show affection with one another (and plan your sleeping arrangements in advance!). Have alternate plans if the situation becomes difficult at home. If you’re traveling, find out about local LGBT resources. And if you plan to “come out,” have support available, including PFLAG materials and the number of a local PFLAG chapter.
Don’t assume you know how somebody will react to news of your sexual orientation or gender identity — you may be surprised. Realize that your family’s reaction to you may not be because you are LGBTQ; the hectic holiday pace may simply be taking its toll on family members. Remember that “coming out” is a continuous process. Don’t wait for your family’s attitude to change to have a special holiday. Remember that it took you time to come to terms with who you are; now it is your family’s turn. Let your family’s judgments be theirs to work on, as long as they are kind to you. If you are transgender, be gentle with your family’s pronoun “slips.” Let them know you know how difficult it is.
During your visit focus on common interests and reassure family members you are still the same person they’ve always known. If you are partnered, be sensitive to his or her needs as well as your own. Be wary of the possible desire to shock your family — and at the same time, remember that you don’t need your family’s approval. It may help to connect with someone else who is LGBTQ — by phone or in person — who understands what you are going through.
If it’s too difficult to be with your family, create your own holiday gathering with friends and loved ones.
While we like to think of this season as a time of joy, festive parties, warm family gatherings and optimistic hopes for the new year, sometimes our idealized expectations are not met and we end up feeling anxious, let down, disillusioned, alienated and/or stretched to emotional limits.
— Keep your expectations for the holiday season manageable.
— Remember the holiday season does not supercede reasons for feeling sad or lonely.
— Limit predictable sources of stress: shopping, decorating, traffic, your Aunt Nancy, etc.
— Don’t fall prey to commercial hype.
— Spend time with supportive and caring people.
— Attend holiday community events.
— Engage in volunteer activity.
— Don’t abandon healthful habits.
— Make time to get physical exercise.
Staying sober over the holidays
For some in recovery, the holiday season is a particularly trying time. Financial pressures, family stress and the dramatic increase in social gatherings can tempt even the most resolute individuals. Though everyone has specific strategies that enable them to pursue lifelong sobriety, the following are a few common-sense tips that can help you remain alcohol-free throughout the holiday season:
— Plan for success. Knowing you might be tempted, it’s a good idea to plan ahead, and limit the likelihood that you’ll encounter situations that strain your commitment to sobriety. For example, inviting a dependable friend or a member of your 12-step group to accompany you to a gathering where you know alcohol will be present can provide you with the support you need to stay sober. Consider inviting a dependable friend or a member of your 12-step group to join you at a gathering where you know alcohol will be served, for some added support. You may want to schedule an extra session or two with your therapist or plan to attend more 12-step meetings than you normally do. Also, make sure that you continue to eat healthy and exercise regularly.
— Identify your triggers. If your family members traditionally follow Thanksgiving dinner with a football game and a few beers, consider making alternate post-dinner plans, or enlisting your family’s assistance to get you through those potentially tempting hours. If the stress and arguments that accompany your family’s get-togethers threaten to push you back toward the bottle, you may have to make the difficult — but ultimately healthy — decision to skip these events, or limit your attendance to an hour or two until you have a firmer grip on your sobriety. Don’t put your health at risk by exposing yourself unnecessarily or without proper preparation.
— Create new traditions. If you’ve always welcomed the New Year with a quiet evening at home, highlighted by a champagne toast at midnight, substitute sparkling grape juice and keep everything else the same. But if you’re used to celebrating at a local bar or nightclub, it would probably be wise to find another way to mark the year’s passing, such as hosting an alcohol-free party, attending a concert or some other event that won’t include or revolve around drinking. A great tradition to start this season is writing a letter to at least one person who has touched your life in a particularly meaningful way during the previous year. In addition to giving this person the gift of knowing they have made a positive difference in your life, writing a letter like this will strengthen your connection with an important source of support and remind you how far you have progressed in your recovery.
— Ask for help. When you were mired in the depths of addiction, you may have felt you were alone in your misery. But as you began to walk the path of recovery, you found there were many others who understood what you were going through, and were more than willing to lend whatever support they could to help you regain control over your life. During the holiday season, make an extra effort to connect with the members of your support network.
— Reach out to others. There will likely never be a shortage of people in need of some assistance. People who will be experiencing their first sober holidays, underprivileged youth, hospital patients and residents of homeless shelters are just a few of the many folks who could benefit from your volunteer time, your advice or simply your company. Volunteering to serve others is a fantastic way to take your mind off your own worries and problems, to give back to the community and to remind yourself how rewarding life can be every day that you resist the urge to drink or to use.
In general it’s important to remember that life brings changes: as individual lives change, as families evolve and grow, traditions often need to adapt to the new configurations. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by comparing this year’s holiday season with the nostalgia of past holidays. Each holiday season is different and can be enjoyed in its own way.
Eric Albert, Brandon Browne and Jonathan Mohr are peer-engagement specialists at Mazzoni Center, the region’s only LGBT-specific health center. For a detailed holiday survival guide and a list of community holiday activities, visit www.mazzonicenter.org and click “resources.” Thanks to Anita Gooding, Jennifer Greenman and Kira Manser for contributions to the article, and to Hugh McBride for providing source material.