Giving Thanks, My Way

Emotional residue from the past colors the holidays
Young woman in autumn by lake, Serene young woman alone in nature surrounded by beautiful autumn colors.
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"Thank goodness recovery has taught me not to compare my insides with other people's outsides, because it only leads to despair."

Misti B.

One of the things I remember most about growing up with crazy people during the holidays was being rushed from pillar to post to see otherwise forgotten family members before the holiday was over. This, of course, was immensely enjoyable for an eight year-old.

"Are you done with that, yet?," my mother would say, "you look full," as she grabbed the plate of turkey from me.

"Your father's waiting outside," she'd continue, ushering me out the door. "You can tell him and the dental hygienist Happy Thanksgiving."

From there it was a three-hour drive to another relatives' house where I'd be forced to say what I was thankful for before I could eat. This would include the requisite insults about Grandma's cooking by Grandpa. "I'm thankful that Grandma didn't burn the turkey like last year and the year before," followed by a round of forced laughter, mostly by the dental hygienist. Grandma would then counter with the usual, "And I'm thankful Grandpa has new teeth so he can enjoy the deviled ham sandwich tree and kraut fudge cake I made from scratch."

Then it would be back to Mom's house where I'd be quizzed about my day with "those people" and admonished for having enjoyed myself. When someone is withholding sausage stuffing and pecan pie, you become adept at figuring things out quickly – other people's moods, opinions, likes and dislikes. You learn to navigate the murky waters of strained relationships, and parse out the details to protect others. Most importantly, you figure out which stories you can repeat and which ones are better kept to yourself.

As a result of these experiences and a few more I won't go into, by the time I hit third grade, I'd become skilled at negotiating. From charming my way onto sports teams because I couldn't afford the uniform, to working out my own financial deals—no kidding, I actually got a scholarship to a private middle school just because I kept showing up at the principal's office—I learned how to hustle for what I wanted. The downside to this kind of behavior was that, while other kids were gorging on Thanksgiving turkey and having a fantastic time, I was plotting my escape from my whacked out family.

Even though I'm all grown up, the holidays can be laden with emotional residue from the past. It can seem as if everyone else is the Macy's picture of holiday joy, with lovely homes and perfectly groomed lawns. No one is gossiping or fighting, nobody's wearing off-brand labels and their kids are all well-behaved. And me? Well, I'm just faking my way through it.

Thank goodness recovery has taught me not to compare my insides with other people's outsides, because it only leads to despair. If other people are enjoying the holidays more than I am, it's okay. And if other people are filled with anxiety and stress, I don't have to join in. I get to experience the holidays in my own way. I can dress up like a reindeer, or cover the walls of my condo with silver wrapping paper if I want to. I can even spend a day in bed watching Christmas movies, because I LOVE Christmas movies! Most Christmas movies. I still have a modicum of taste, though, so if it's on Lifetime, I'll take a pass.

There's one thing I'm absolutely sure of when it comes to the holidays, and it is this: I always feel better when I get out of myself and choose to be of service to others, especially when I'm struggling. The antidote for isolation and melancholy is service, because I'm reminded of my blessings. I know, I know—it sounds cliché, but believe me, it works.

Sometimes these acts of service are small, like making the commitment not to yell at other drivers or smiling at three people I don't know. Sometimes it's doing a kind deed for someone else and not telling anyone what I've done. Even when my contributions are small, it becomes easier to be of service as the season goes on. Mostly. There are times when it gets harder to be nice and loving as the season goes on, but that usually only happens when people do stupid things like taking two spots to park their Prius, or stomping on me to get to the cupcake toppers at the craft store.

I may not be living the "perfect" picture of joy and comfort at the holidays, but I have choices about how I will respond to my situation and my feelings. I have a loving God in my life and useful tools that I've gotten through working a program of recovery. So, no matter what's going on around me, I can celebrate the holidays. I can be loud and celebratory, or mellow and serene, it's entirely up to me. But, Lord have mercy, on anyone who tries to take a plate of turkey out of my hands.

Misti B. is the author of If You Leave Me, Can I Come with You: Daily Meditations for Codependents and Al-Anons with a Sense of Humor. She writes humorous books about life in recovery, mainly because no one else is writing them—at least from a witty point of view. Misti's had a successful career in the entertainment industry, having written and directed for stage and live events. She wrote and directed a film called, Exposed, which you've probably not seen, but she highly recommends because it "has an excellent cast!" All of these experiences—from which she is still recovering—combined with her highly dysfunctional upbringing, provide fodder for her gritty, but inspiring stories. She likes to quote Mel Brooks, whom she thinks said, "The only difference between comedy and tragedy is time..."

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