The Iceman hath indeed cometh to my neighborhood. I woke up in the wee hours of the morning to the sound of snowplows clearing snow and scraping concrete. I had grand plans to “get shit done” yesterday until my car got stuck in the alley in a mound of snow. Well, three inches of snow that had somehow become a mound that my totally hip minivan couldn’t overcome. I see now why all the locals drive SUVs. Nothing seems to stop them. Not snow, ice, flash floods. Pedestrians.
Hanukkah begins tonight, and I have a To Do list that needs attention before that first candle is lit. This weekend, however, feels a million times less stressful than last weekend. You know, Thanksgiving weekend–the first Thanksgiving weekend my mother and stepfather have come to my house in years.
About 11 years ago I had an epiphany. Our family holiday get-togethers had become so emotionally tumultuous and stressful that I wondered why we even bothered to celebrate them. What was the point? I tried taking Xanax once just to get through Thanksgiving, and that was a mistake! I took one Xanax in the morning and fell asleep standing up while cooking. Suddenly, I woke up on the kitchen floor an hour and half later with no memory of how I got there.
The thought occurred to me to just tell my mother, “No, you cannot come over on Thanksgiving. Celebrate with your husband’s family,” but my mother has borderline personality disorder. The last time I told her ‘no’ I was a small child. She slapped me so hard across the face that I nearly sustained a whiplash injury. Over the years, I’d seen people tell my mother ‘no’. It never went well for them. Violence always ensued in one way or another, but eleven years ago I was willing to take that risk. Either give up celebrating altogether or tell my mother ‘no’.
So, I found some courage, and I told her that we wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving by ourselves in a way that was meaningful to us. She had in-laws. Celebrate with them (I wasn’t that blunt). That was probably one of the reasons my mother stopped speaking to me. For five years.
So, last weekend, my mother and stepfather drove in from out-of-state to join us for Thanksgiving, and I had a feeling that it would be a less than pleasurable evening. Over the years, we’ve crafted a certain kind of holiday. We eat in the evening. We stay at the table. We enjoy drinks and desserts. And then the games come out. Sometimes we’ve played until early into the next morning, but my mother doesn’t know how to have fun. She doesn’t have great social skills, and part of that is due to how she was raised. My mother has also spent far too much time alone as she has aged, and her ability to socialize has slipped. As her daughter, I observed this, and, as a host, I kept this in mind.
By six o’clock in the evening on Thanksgiving, I knew it was just going to be about getting through the night. It wasn’t fun. It felt like playing a social game of Tetris. People around the table were, at times, acting inappropriately, and I, as the host, had to somehow make the remarks and behaviors fit together to keep the evening flowing smoothly. I was glad when it ended. As I cleaned up, I distinctly remembered why I disliked holiday celebrations.
Why do we do it? I ask it honestly. Why do we put ourselves through the meat grinder that is Holiday Celebrations with Friends and Family if we feel so drained afterwards?
Ah yes, tradition. How many awful things have been tolerated in the name of Tradition? Sure, sure, we get to eat some great traditional food like Great Aunt Vera’s dessert bars and Auntie Esther’s bread, but then three of your cousins show up two hours late completely shit-faced and high, your sister-in-law starts talking politics during dinner and refuses to change the subject, your brother starts discussing religion and offends a co-worker you invited, your father is passive-aggressive and upsets your mother-in-law, and then a family argument ensues in the middle of dinner about that thing that happened that one time. Just like last year. And the year before that! It’s like a holiday template that must be followed every year, or it isn’t the holidays.
I’m not suggesting that my idea to un-invite my mother to Thanksgiving was the “right” thing to do, but it was a different thing to do. I wondered what life during the holiday season might feel like if I said, “No one can come over until they stop acting badly. You want to come over? Then deal with your issues. I’m not having bad holidays anymore. Can we please start a new tradition?” You know that you have a real problem on your hands when you start dreading December in June, and that was me. I wanted to know what an honestly pleasant celebration free of drama, enabling codependency, crippling anxiety, and pandering to pathologically self-centered people felt like.
What does it feel like? It feels wonderful. There are no more obligatory visits with family members who actually don’t approve of us and actively look down on us for not thinking like they do. I can spend the month of December making positive plans rather than making plans to decompress from excessive stress. I don’t have to come up with strategies to avoid my cousin’s husband who likes to secretly grope me when he hugs me, and I don’t have to think of ways to sidestep political and religious discussions that always end in fiery judgment and unkindness.
One key thing I learned from this Thanksgiving is that I don’t have the distress tolerance for “misbehaviors” when the circumstances are already stressful, and this I would suggest is likely true for many people.
This is the most important takeaway. Somatic complaints are very common during the holidays for this very reason. Our bodies cannot adequately process the overload of stress which comes in the form of a cortisol assault on your body. Cortisol is a hormone produced by your adrenal glands. When you are stressed, your body produces it. One of the key things that cortisol does is suppress your immune system’s response. Have you ever had a very stressful week at work or school like completing a big presentation or studying for exams? You’re doing fine and then once the project or exams are over, you suddenly get sick. Or, if you get migraines, you are migraine-free during the stressful work week, but come Saturday, you’re down with a terrible migraine event. Why is this?
The symptoms of illness like a runny nose, sore throat, body aches, or nausea are not caused by a virus. Those are signs of inflammation which are caused by your immune system engaging in a response to fight off a pathogen. In other words, that’s how you know that you caught a bug. In the stressful days prior to your symptoms when you were neck-deep in exam prep (or Holiday Apocalypse Family Fun Time), you were already infected with a virus. Your body’s stress-induced production of cortisol, however, was suppressing your immune system’s response to that pathogen. So, you had no symptoms of the infection, but you had an infection. You merely experienced the symptoms of the infection after your stress decreased along with your cortisol production. The stress causes the spike in cortisol production, but it is likely the lifestyle changes that puts you at risk for viral infection like poor dietary habits and sleep deprivation. We all eat more poorly and get less sleep during “crunch time”, and that is what invites viral infection. We simply stop taking care of ourselves particularly when we feel like something is on the line like our jobs, grades, or our sense of self. And the holidays certainly have a way of doing that to us.
Not managing our stress contributes to cortisol dysregulation which can result in a number of health problems and negatively impact your immune system. Bottom line: take care of yourself and invest in your own level of happiness and well-being even if it proves to be very difficult. Why? Because you’re worth it and you deserve a meaningful holiday experience–even if you have a family who disagrees with you.
With that, I bid you a meaningful and healthy December.