Do You Need Inspiration for a Hopeful Holiday Season?
The holidays are before us and several of my clients are already anticipating a negative experience. Some are afraid of relapsing, others fear that relatives will make comments about their addictive histories, and some are planning to avoid family as they hold grudges from past interactions when they felt misunderstood.
Don’t predict and return to the negativity of the past. Try to incorporate the insights from the real stories below, and decide to make a change for yourself with hope, forgiveness and empathy.
This is Mary’s Story
A few years ago I worked with a woman, Mary*, in early recovery who feared being with her family during the holidays. She felt ashamed of the pain she had caused her family. She was not able to forgive herself and couldn’t imagine that they would forgive her actions. She had made a suicide attempt after her husband had reached his limit with her drinking and left her. At the insistence of her family, she entered a detox center and had been sober for six months. She still struggled with depression and a fear of drinking.
Mary attended AA meetings daily, and talked with her sponsor frequently. Nevertheless she desperately wanted something to hold onto as the holidays approached.
…I am doing everything I can to survive and make amends, but I need something to give my life meaning. I have been so selfish, I don’t think anyone would miss me if I was gone.-Mary
Several weeks before Christmas she asked me for a favor. “I know I am doing everything I can to survive and make amends, but I need something to give my life meaning. I have been so selfish, I don’t think anyone would miss me if I was gone.” I reminded Mary that she had been a nurse for over 20 years, and I knew for a fact that she had meant a great deal to many patients. I worked in a hospital where Mary also managed a medical floor, and over the years I had heard numerous people comment on her compassion, kindness and competence. Despite her tendency to binge drink when life became difficult, she still managed to function on a very high level throughout her career.
I asked Mary if she had ever watched my favorite movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. She had seen a few clips as a child but never watched enough to understand the story. I asked Mary to watch the movie and pay very close attention to what Clarence, the angel who is trying to earn his wings, says to George Bailey. Then I asked her to think as objectively as possible what her life has meant to the people she has treated.
On Christmas Eve I was checking my email and I received this gift: “Dr. C I am watching the movie, crying and remarkably I am beginning to feel like my life has had some meaning. I realize I am self-critical and lost myself in all my mistakes, and I forgot to take notice of what I have done right. Thank you – you are my own Clarence.”
…the heart of forgiveness is the ability to forgive yourself.-Arthur P. Ciaramicoli
When we think of forgiveness we often imagine it is something we give to others. But the heart of forgiveness is the ability to forgive yourself. My clients who have suffered with addictions know they have hurt the people close to them. How can a person possibly forgive him or her self after causing so much pain? Forgiving yourself does not mean a complete relief from grief and pain and unanswered questions. But you don’t need to torment yourself with what you have done or should have done.
If you live your life today with meaning, giving to others who have also struggled, you turn your suffering into worthwhile wisdom. Many people will surely appreciate your hard-earned knowledge. Those who have felt as hopeless as you, will value the path you have traveled to reach a balanced life. Every day offers a new opportunity, a very real chance to pass on what you have learned. Don’t ever underestimate the value of your suffering. The greatest insights often come from the depths of our worst days, and the greatest meaning comes when you give your knowledge and compassion to those who have lost hope.
Empathy is the capacity to understand and respond to the unique aspects of another person’s experience. Empathy widens our view of the world and from that expanded viewpoint, we discover forgiveness for ourselves and others. Forgiveness comes slowly, as we continue to learn from the tragedies of the past in an ongoing effort to transcend them. As you continue to grow emotionally, your efforts will allow you to move forward, building on the past rather than repeating it.
When we abandon resentment, anger and blame, our hearts open, and the soft part of us, where empathy resides, will emerge. As time goes on we all have many holiday memories, good and bad. Many addicts have made holidays miserable for their families. You can’t go back in time, but you can let empathy guide you to know what will make a significant difference to those you love this year. Giving in a genuine way, in a manner that speaks to the uniqueness of those you love, is a step toward reconciliation.
Personal Tip: Write something very personal to those closest to you in each card you give for Hanukkah or Christmas. Take time to purchase holiday cards that speak to the uniqueness of the person you are addressing, a card that will let him or her know that you understand who they are, and what they mean to you. Let your inhibitions go and touch the emotions within you that speak to the depth of how you feel toward each person you are trying to reach. Those close to you are unlikely to forget your words, even though you have hurt them in the past.
This is Laura’s Story
This holiday season you are starting a new chapter – a sober, authentic giving of yourself.
[Laura] asked me what she should do when she sees her brothers on Christmas Eve, knowing they are still very angry with her…-Arthur P. Ciaramicoli
Last week one of my clients asked me what she should do when she sees her brothers on Christmas Eve, knowing they are still very angry with her for hurting their parents during her drinking days. I commented that is is important to let them speak their minds without defending, as Laura* has been known for getting upset and protecting herself when criticized by her brothers.
Laura has been a member of one of my group therapy sessions for several months. She has grown tremendously in that her old defensive way of coping with criticism has been replaced with thoughtful, empathic reactions. She has worked hard to shore up her sense of self through sobriety, in addition to improving her relational style.
Laura realizes that reacting to group members who understand alcoholism is different than responding to her emotional brothers. I have encouraged her to expand her empathy for family. To her credit, Laura has given up her anger toward them and replaced her blaming with understanding how she has affected them, and how they might have perceived her when she was drinking.
Time has passed, and Laura is able to begin the process of self-forgiveness, with the hope that her family will forgive her as well. She is in a position to tolerate anger, and see beyond the surface of her brother’s upset to the love they have for her.
As we discussed It’s a Wonderful Life in a recent group session, Laura decided to send her older brothers a card, asking them to watch the movie together as a family on Christmas Eve. They have all agreed.
If there is conflict in your family, maybe you could do the same. It’s a Wonderful Life is a movie that prompts awareness of the true meaning of each life. It’s a movie that goes beyond the surface of our mistakes to the goodness that lies within each of us.
Whether you follow Laura’s idea to connect with family or create your own, make a conscious effort to use your empathy to reach inside the soul of those you truly love. Regardless of your family’s response you will know you uncovered the goodness within you, and gave it away freely with a clear, sober mind.
Photo Source: pixabay
*Names and identifying details have been changed for client anonymity.