Christmas 2017: A series of blog posts on the impact of the season on our mental health
I'm starting a short series of blog posts focusing on how this time of year - while often a source of great joy for many - can cause extra problems and issues for those living with difficult circumstances or experiences. The first in this series focuses on a selection of examples of addiction:
For many, Christmas can be a time for the coming together of far flung family and friends. For reconnecting with those whom we lose touch with while we throw ourselves into work and living for the remaining 12 months. But for some it can present issues and concerns. Issues that might be avoidable for much of that time - but that the expectations and traditions of the season (that may have brought about addiction or vulnerability in the first place) present to us once more.
And I'm not just talking about alcohol - yes Christmas and New Year are a time of year when we traditionally consume far more alcoholic drink than others - be that at work Christmas parties, gatherings with friends or finding ourselves invited to a succession of celebrations with groups of whom we are a member - or just indulging at home with our favourite wines or spirits. However as much as alcohol can be a tool for escapism, to enhance experience and lower inhibitions, it can even serve as the glue in our social groups giving us the impression that we are closer to others than we really are. The more sinister side of alcohol use is how it can very easily become something that we start to use to change how we feel. As a tool to distance ourselves from uncomfortable feelings like loneliness, grief, heartbreak or disappointment.
My view of addiction - an issue which is close to my heart and that I have trained extensively in the understanding of - is that in our addictions we find a way to manage the unmanageable. That we seek to change how we feel within ourselves with the use of something or someone outside of us.
Take for example gambling addiction - where the addict participates in gambling as a means of finding a subtle high (gambling is considered a leisure pursuit after all) or of trying to improve their economic situation. Some of those struggling with financial commitments see gambling as a faint glimmer of hope in an impossible scenario. And who among us has not considered how they might spend a lottery win? Also let us bear in mind that the way that gambling is designed is by its very nature to be addictive, be that online or in a betting shop, despite the ubiquitous phrase "the house always wins".
At Christmas we can find ourselves wanting to spend money on family and friends that we can ill afford. Be that by buying presents that are beyond our fiscal means, or by wanting to put on the "perfect" christmas for our children. To give them something that we might not have experienced in childhood - or we might struggle with the ramifications of the season - finding it hard to stay warm in cold temperatures and being unable to put our heating on without some kind of cash injection.
These circumstances can combine to create the perfect storm leading someone to lapse in their recovery and clutch on to that glimmer of hope that gambling can provide - or that moment of oblivion that alcohol can give us in a moment of distress. However the key here is not to view relapse as an ultimate failure - but rather as another opportunity to truly learn the specific lesson that recovery has to teach in that experience.
If you, or someone you know, are struggling with addiction it could be useful to discuss these issues with a therapist. I have extensive experience working with various addictive behaviours - and it is extremely important to remember that if you are struggling with these problems then you do not have to do so alone.
I can be contacted via email on email@example.com - or you can find more information on my website www.harleycounselling.com.
The second part of this blog series will cover grief and bereavement over the festive season, and will follow over the next few days.
There is no better time than now to be a brutally soft person.
I know how it is to be in your shoes. To be in the position of deciding whether or not we go and speak to someone about our problems. To search "counsellor near me" or "therapist nearby", then close the browser screen. To repeatedly type out an email and ultimately save it to our draft folder. To hover our fingers over the last digit of the contact number and then not press call. To tell ourselves that tomorrow will be better and we couldn't possibly tell a stranger all of the thoughts we have and describe just how low we have been feeling. How lonely we feel.
It then seems like a gargantuan task to finally press send, to call, to make contact with this person whom we have never met. That we know little about, that we don't yet trust. We ask "How can I be vulnerable with this stranger?"
I know that this is a difficult time of year for some people. If we are struggling with low mood and depression then the dark nights and gloomy days can wring out from usthat last bit of optimism - the bit that had been keeping us going through the weeks leading up to winter.
It's the time of year where conversations with friends and family members whom some of us have spent the year avoiding suddenly loom into view. We might have to socialise with someone who has hurt us in the past - perhaps physically or emotionally - and we were never able to share just how much damage they did - or how they really shouldn't be in our lives.
It's a time of year where money can be tight - even if throughout year we have managed to get by in this time of economic uncertainty - tradition often demands that we buy gifts for others - often people we don't really "know". That we spend money on nights out, drinks and dinner, not a cheap prospect in Bristol I know.
Sometimes we have to arrange stressful visits to far flung family and friends, accommodating the unreasonable demands of people who have issues with others and cannot overcome their grudges. We might have children who are ill, or are struggling in other ways, and our friends don't understand how we can't drop everything and join in their exciting new year's eve plans - then take offense when we make the hard decision to say no.
I know how hard it is. I'm a therapist, and I am a human being. And I say this to reinforce the idea that the issues and problems that many of us have are not always unique to us. That many others share or burdens. I might even share some of your experiences. Sometimes that can be really useful. Sometimes it has little bearing.
So when I hear people say "how on earth can I go and talk to a therapist? I can't be that vulnerable". I think "and that's exactly the reason that person really should go". We are taught as children to be strong, brave and to package ourselves up so that the inevitable knocks of life don't hurt us. That we can cope, manage, get by. I don't know about you but my aspiration in life is not to merely "cope".
I want to thrive. I want to experience everything - and in doing so that includes the good and the bad. We cannot be selective in how we experience life. We can't filter for only the good, or only the things that we know won't harm us. I'm not saying here that we should seek hurt - far from it - we need to be prudent and aware that we do not put ourselves into situations which will knowingly damage us. But should we run away from vulnerability? Absolutely not.
To be vulnerable in this sense is not to lay ourselves open to those who might take advantage of us - instead it is to show our true selves to another - someone whom we deem to have our best interests at heart - be that a doctor, a therapist, a lover whom we trust, a sibling - to show someone who we really are with all of our hurt and flaws (be reassured, we all have them - thankfully) and to share how we have come to be the person that we are today - with all of our problems and fears - that is the best kind of vulnerability.
And in my opinion vulnerability can be learned. We can undo some of the lessons of our early lives where we focused on presenting only the best of us to the world, the filtered, curated best side of our face. Those kind of barriers are never going to allow us to feel truly loved. How can we expect someone to fully know us (and love us) if we only show them a selection of what we have to offer them?
The work which I do with my clients encourages vulnerability when the time is right, when trust is built and it is directly in service of your development as a person. If the idea of showing yourself to the world - flaws and all - is scary, then may I gently encourage you to lean into this discomfort. It's the space where growth can really take place - and there is no better time than now to do it.
You can contact me to work through any of the issues which I mention above - or anything else which is giving you cause to be here reading this, be emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org or submitting a contact form on my homepage.
I look forward to working with you. The real you.
Laura is an online talking therapist and writer specialising in working with millennials and the LGBTQI+ community.