Surviving Christmas

Like many people I’ve never found Christmas easy to bear, yet I still find it strangely odd to admit to that. After all, it is so eagerly anticipated by many, especially the young. I make very little preparation and only do a little shopping at the last minute. I send few cards and hardly receive any now. I try and pretend Christmas day is ‘just like any other day’ except I have to cook a ‘traditional’ dinner, and every other year I cook for my mother in law too, which can be stressful. We watch a lot of television, and then, by halfway through Boxing Day, I simply cannot wait for it to be over. I want normal life just to begin again.

In the out-patient clinic, I would spend quite a bit of time before Christmas discussing with each person what their plans were for Christmas, especially those who were facing it on their own. What was he or she going to spend their time doing? Who could they contact if they needed to talk to anyone for support? What were our plans if there was a crisis? Then in the few days before New Year I would catch up with those people who needed urgent review or support and repeat the task for New Year’s Eve. Sometimes people would ask me if I was looking forward to the holiday and I would usually tell a little white lie, and say that I was, if only for the ‘rest from work and the chance to spend some time at home’.

I guess my problems with Christmas stem from unhappy memories of time spent in close quarters with a family who wanted to be able to enjoy themselves, but somehow, whether due to lack of money or simple intolerance of each other’s failings, never managed to get along. My father would take away the only lifeline we had on a day of enforced closeness by insisting on switching off the television and listening to ‘his’ music (twenties and thirties jazz- which I kind of appreciate now, but didn’t then) on the radiogram with the rest of us keeping him company in silence. I never really understood why he did this. It seemed to be a way of making a point about who was in control of the household, but in retrospect it seemed a peculiarly passive aggressive act. This would trigger an almighty argument between everyone, which generally continued until bedtime. By early afternoon on Boxing Day I was able to excuse myself from the misery without any further ire. By my teenaged years I was in the pub that evening and everything was, to my relief, almost back to normal. I just had to listen to how other people spent their Christmases. As a child you always imagine every else’s family is just like your own. Then you find out they are not. They are just strange in different ways.

The first time I realised I was going to spend Christmas on my own I felt quite ashamed to tell anyone. What does it say about me, I thought, that there was no-one who wanted to spend the ‘happiest’ time of the year with me? (I’m a miserable sod?) Yet I know now I was neither particularly abnormal nor very unusual. I was estranged from my family. The man my mother took up with after my father’s death was even more difficult to spend Christmas with. He would sit beside the fire in silence brooding over his broken marriage. There wasn’t even the relief of Fats Waller singing Aint Misbehavin’. I stopped going home altogether. Then I got divorced…and depressed again. And then I was completely alone.

What I learned was that there are ways to manage Christmas on your own, but you need to be prepared. I refused offers to go to friend’s houses as I didn’t want to be part of someone else’s celebrations, or to accept invitations out of what I, possibly wrongly, perceived as pity. I wanted to have my own special time for me…just for it not to be particularly Christmassy. Apart from a perverse enjoyment in belting out certain Christmas carols I don’t do ‘festive’ at all.

So the first year alone, I took myself to Paris for 4 days, and ate a Parisian Christmas meal alone in a Greek Restaurant on the Left Bank, which was open on Christmas Eve. Finding food on Christmas day was much harder, so it was fresh bread from the bakers, which at least open every day in France, in my little hotel room. One of those with faded wallpaper that goes all the way over the ceiling. I didn’t have any TV in English, but I had the streets of Paris to walk. It was ideal for occupying my mind.

The following year I decided I really must go somewhere where food would be easier to obtain over the holiday so I returned to France, driving all the way there in an old mini. I hadn’t had my licence very long, and it was scary. At one point I found myself trying to negotiate the roundabout at Hyde Park Corner as I didn’t want to go on the M25 to get to Newhaven where I took the ferry to Dieppe; but it was an adventure. I had a puncture and had to seek help at a garage. My schoolgirl French wasn’t really up to the task, and half a dozen men stood around looking at me quizzically. Yet when I said I was from Manchester someone said’ ah Manchester United!’ (apologies to City fans) and my little red car was whisked away and speedily repaired. I ate and drank well, and again walked for miles, this time around the small town of Honfleur, in Normandy. I found the grave of a relative who died just after D-Day and left flowers for him. I sat on the seawall at Deauville looking out to sea, watching Parisians trouping down the boardwalk with their dogs, and felt relieved of the burden of my expectations of Christmas.

I spent three Christmases alone, in succession. I was fortunate I could afford to travel away; it made it easier to bear for me, but many do not have this luxury. I don’t think I could have easily tolerated watching everyone else enjoying Christmas around me while I sat within my four walls. So I was really pleased to see there is recognition that many people, especially those who, like me, were and are estranged from their families of origin, will spend Christmas alone, in their own homes, and that there is advice available to help them cope with it.

I wish I’d had it then. I eventually perfected the art of eating alone in restaurants without drawing attention to myself, feeling conspicuous to the other guests or being openly pitied by either them or the waiting staff.

However that is probably another story.


Winter sunshine, Orkney

I’m back in Orkney after six weeks away. I’ve been busy, teaching and working, as far afield as Bangladesh. I’ve also found it impossible to sit down and write even when I’ve not been occupied.

One of the things I’ve had to learn as an adult is how ‘be’ with myself. When I was a child, I was often very solitary. I enjoyed reading and spending time alone. I’m one of those introverted people who needs to recover from a stressful day, with people who never seem to stop talking, by being on my own; rather than, as some people relax, by heading out to a noisy party. Extended time interacting with others without a break is for me a peculiar form of torture, although I strangely never experienced this much in the company of my patients and closest colleagues.

Unfortunately the world is full of extroverts who cannot understand the needs of someone like me. As Anneli Rufus commented in her book Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto, its not easy to be a loner in a world obsessed with ‘team-building’; in a society where the very word ‘loner’ has connotations of being odd, crazy, secretive and strange.
However, being alone brings it’s own challenges. Living inside your own head is all very well if it’s fairly pleasant in there. But if it’s rather a mess and full of the rubbish left over from past relationships and conflicts, it’s not a peaceful place to be. Its tempting to spend more time in the company of others, not necessarily because you want to be with them, but in order to drown out your troublesome inner dialogue.

It is true that spending time on your own can be a way of escaping from dealing with things you have to tackle in the ‘real world’, but its really important not to assume that is always the case. I’ve seen too many people forced out of their protective shell by extroverts who think they should ‘socialise’ more. It happens in mental health because of the belief that those who are on their own mustn’t feel lonely. Some people need time alone to feel safe.

Looking back over my adult life, I’ve spent hours, days and weeks in the company of others trying to avoid feelings of loneliness and unworthiness, while at the same time resenting the time I’ve wasted not doing all the things I wanted to be able to spend time on. Something changed for me in adolescence. I started to hear the self-critical voices in my head (and my mother too- a born extrovert) telling me to ‘get out and mix more’. Its also hard to meet a partner too if you never leave the house, though social media is changing the way we view dating and our other interactions with the world to a degree that mental health workers haven’t quite caught up with yet. The on-line world can seem more real to you than the jungle out there…and can be just as threatening.

I find it difficult to be creative in the company of others, or when there is too much ‘going on’ in my life. Virginia Wolff was so right about needing a Room of Your Own. I’m on an island. As Anthony Storr wrote in his now classic text Solitude we need time and space to discover what we are capable of achieving. Being alone is a necessary step to learning about your self. The difficulty of course is that you may not like what you find. There may be a great deal of ‘stuff’ reverberating around your head. Being alone forces you to begin to sort out the packed store cupboards of your mind and throw out the junk. When I am on my own with my thoughts I have to find ways of dealing with them, going out for a walk or having a sleep. Not by seeking out others who will then make more demands on ‘me’. It sounds a little selfish as I write about it. But its self-care.

An increasing number of people live alone, including many who are depressed. Loneliness is viewed as a growing problem in our society, yet there remains a real stigma to being on your own, which I suspect prevents some people from embracing their solitude and learning to live with it as they fear becoming even more lonely. I can see now that I felt lonelier in a failing marriage, making meaningless conversation at corporate parties, than I did when I really began to come to terms with being on my own on a prolonged stay in a remote Scottish cottage.

I am not completely alone now. I have a husband to whom I speak to every day, but from whom I spend quite long periods away. He is a person who needs his own space too. Each of us needs to find, what is for us, the right balance of intimacy of aloneness to be able to function.

There now….I’ve started writing this blog again.