Winter Holidays: Are You Hiding Your Misery Behind A Mask?
The holiday season is upon us. Look carefully at those around you. Can you tell which ones are really happy and who is wearing a mask? You can if you try.
For most of my life, I was the proverbial little kid during the holiday season. I loved the excitement of shopping for those perfect gifts, the sounds of the bells and Ho-ho-ho’s from the mall Santa Claus. The aroma of hot spiced cider on the stove and a live pine in the house are memories that take me back to wonderfully happy memories of my childhood. The holidays were wonderful back then.
Traditions Change, Fires Happen, Alcohol Consumes
Like most my age, I’ve also had years when the holidays were a little less wonderful. Lean financial times made it impossible to give as much as the heart would like to. My brother and I grew up, had families of our own, and traditions changed as we shared or divided our time between biological families and in-laws. One year I lost my home to fire and started over with nothing. The holidays weren’t so wonderful that year.
There were times (years really) when alcohol disrupted the joy of the season. We had our usual fights over the tree, decorating, and what to buy, how much money to spend, and yes, sometimes there were arguments over nothing at all. I was married to an alcoholic and if there is one thing you can count on it is that you can’t count on an alcoholic during the holidays. He was a good man, but over time, alcohol consumed his life, and ultimately, mine. Until you have lived with substance abuse, you cannot understand why a spouse must tiptoe through the holidays, trying not to do anything to cause a fight. That fight will ruin your holiday and that of your extended family too. Alcohol successfully destroyed many of our holidays and eventually, our marriage too. But, I survived and became stronger.
Single again, I began to create new traditions that were not attached to those painful memories. I put on the mask of holiday cheer and pretended to find joy in the holiday season again. It wasn’t easy but I made myself decorate the house. I started small and put up the smallest tree I could find. Then, I baked sweet treats to give away. I was obsessed. Christmas cards were sent to everyone I knew or had ever known. I made myself participate in the season again. After a while, I didn't need the mask anymore. Life with my new traditions was good.
But something nagged at me. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the holidays were still sad and lonely for a lot of others. I began thinking about those who, just as I had done, were still wearing a mask during the holidays. I knew they were out there, suffering silently behind the mask of the holiday cheer. Life was not so wonderful for a lot of folks but a stroll through the mall could fool one into thinking the world was a happy place. I began listening to what wasn’t being said. I heard the young woman in front of me at the return counter as she concluded her transaction and offered an empty “Merry Christmas” to the clerk. The sadness in her face defied her message, if you took the time to look.
In the grocery store, I listened as the young couple argued over how much money they had to spend to feed both of their parents a Christmas meal. They barely had enough money to feed their children and now, they were threatening divorce over the price of a meal they couldn’t afford.
In my office, I listened as a co-worker whispered into the telephone that she wished she could just go away until the holiday was over. I heard the pain in her voice as she wondered how she could make it through the season without the son that had walked out of her life in a moment of paranoid schizophrenia and never returned.
Holidays Are Not Exempt From Loss and Grief
As the holidays drew closer, I began to notice the growing number of obituaries in the newspaper. Why does it seem that more people die during the holidays than on regular days? I had learned earlier in my healthcare career to prepare for the children who would die from cancer during the holidays. It happened every year and even though I expected it, it was still sad, horribly sad. As I held the hands of the parents, I wondered, how do they get through the holidays when they have just lost a child? Eventually I came to understand that when you are told that your child has cancer, suffering through a few days called “holiday” is nothing.
The older I got, the more I realized that the holidays are not happy times for everyone. I have not become desensitized to the sadness. It is part of being an empath and I have learned to cope with it. Thank God for the ability to feel but not let it suck the life out of me. In fact, I am grateful for the awareness and hope that I never stop caring about people. I hope I am never so detached that I don't feel their pain and recognize their emotions.
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Time and Love Heals
I am a student of life; a student who strives to be present in the moment and a student who wants to experience all the emotions of living, both the good and the bad. I want to be sensitive to the pain of others and still celebrate the joy of living. It took a while, but I’ve learned to cry without shame for the child waiting to be adopted and to share a hug with the soldier’s wife wondering if he’ll make it home. I don’t have to like it that the young girl won’t leave the husband that beats her but I have learned to accept that it’s her choice as long as she knows there are other options. My heart has been broken by a crack addict but I can’t let it stop me from trying to help another. Isn’t that what it means to be human? Aren’t we supposed to have compassion and understanding, patience and tolerance? Aren’t we supposed to love each other and offer a hug or a hand up when life seems almost unbearable?
This is the season, the holiday season for people of many traditions and religions. Our celebrations are as individual and unique as we are. While some have so much to celebrate, some will still wear the masks of bravery, determined to survive the holiday season. They may be missing someone, worrying about something, or fighting to live. Watch for them. Remember them in your prayers and in your day-to-day activities. Your kindness may be the force that helps them move through the darkness to face another holiday season with joy. Time and love heals all.