I became estranged from my family in my early 20s. Right around the time I moved away to college, I started to unpack the toxic relationship I had with my mother.
I grew up as my mom’s caretaker and substitute partner. I’ve heard different terms used to describe my mom’s emotional condition — Munchausen Syndrome, Borderline Personality Disorder, chronic victimhood. Official diagnosis aside, as I matured into my 20s, I was left with all the gusto and ambition of a young adult, and all of the symptoms of a childhood abuse survivor.
When I decided it was no longer healthy to be in communication with my mom because of the crippling depression that would follow our talks, it sent a shockwave through my whole family, and eventually, both my immediate family and close family friends shunned me.
I’ve spent the last five holiday seasons alone as a result, making this season feel like something to be survived rather than celebrated. The holidays bring up feelings of loss, loneliness, and longing for me. Not having close family to celebrate with makes me keenly aware of my abnormal situation and forces me to face the past.
However, my unusual situation means I’ve also experienced unexpected warmth during the holidays, and found meaning in unexpected places. Here’s what I’ve done to make it through the time of year when family is at the forefront:
Studies show that volunteering provides both psychological and physical benefits, including lowering the risk for high blood pressure, depression, and anxiety. Soup kitchens tend to have an abundance of volunteers on holidays, so check in with the coordinator to see if there’s a better time to come a day or two leading up to the actual holiday.
I’ve also found myself offering time to those in my circle. A close friend of mine is a single mom. Whenever I offer to lend a hand, she has a million things she needs help with, from carpooling the baby to and from preschool, to cleaning or organizing parts of the house that get neglected. Volunteering my time to help others takes the focus off my own emotional struggle and can offer much needed perspective about what I do have in my life.
Travel imbues me with a sense of wonder and hope for the future, thereby lessening my focus on the past. Consider traveling to a place with different religious or cultural practices from you. That way, when everyone you know is tied up with family on the holidays, you can be in a more neutral setting doing something personally enriching.
I went to Puerto Rico for Christmas once, and was swallowed into other people’s families like one of the original members. The warmth of the strangers I met gave me a true sense of the holiday spirit.
House or pet sit
I recently house-sat for a colleague over Thanksgiving break. Not only did the new digs in an adjacent town make me feel like I was on a mini-vacation, but helping a friend with something they really needed gave me sense of purpose. It was also a great excuse when others asked me how I was spending the holidays. I offered up that I was busy housesitting rather than the awkward, “I’ll be alone this Thanksgiving.”
Take on a short-term project
When I’m really upset about something, mental distraction goes a long way toward bringing me back into balance. Taking on a side-gig provides the perfect distraction from the holidays. I’ve tried personal organizing, gift wrapping, holiday catering, and short-term assistant roles, all of which abound during the Christmas season. The extra work gave me something to think about other than my solitude.
Find other people in your shoes
You know the saying “misery loves company?” Well, that’s not what I’m talking about. Rather than wallowing with a friend, take the opportunity to bond and empathize with them over your shared emotional state. You don’t even need to talk about your lack of family. Instead, be grateful that your circumstances brought you together. Just be sure to pick someone who will be kind to you, as you may be feeling more vulnerable than usual during this time.
While everyone around you enjoys family meals and receives presents, you may feel left out. Treat yourself to a nice meal, buy yourself a gift, or invest in a short trip. I am a huge food-lover, and even post-estrangement, on birthdays and holidays I still make my favorite family recipes. Just because you don’t have others showering you with affection, doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of the experience.
Start a new ritual
The holidays abound with ritual. Now is the perfect time to begin a new hobby, and it doesn’t necessarily need to be holiday-themed. Use your time off to start a new book, go on a hike, or cook a meal from a different culture. Personally, I’m very fond of day trips to a spa or hot springs. Who knows, some day you may be able to share your new talents with those close to you.
While the holidays can be particularly stressful for those of us with strained family ties, it’s also helpful to realize that even people with a family experience heightened anxiety and stress during the holiday season, particularly from navigating their own family dynamics. Listen to some of your friends talk about how they deal with holiday stress, and you may be grateful for the peace and solitude you get to experience during this time.