Tuesday 11 October 2016

The holidays are hard

"When's your birthday?", I ask my patient. (A standard hospital question to make sure we x-ray the correct person.)
"May 28, 1972. And still single, if you can believe it. Just throwing it out there."
I look at him more closely. Is he flirting with me? No, I don't think so. I'm getting a distinctive gay vibe from this nice, sad looking man. 
"Sometimes it's better to be single than being with the wrong person", I say carefully. 
"Maybe. But it's hard on days like today, you know, it being Thanksgiving."

I know. Oh, how I know. 
I have been working at the hospital for seven years, and I work most holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's - I prefer working to being at home. Because the people that come in on holidays are my people. Not everyone who comes in on Christmas Day needs medical attention. Some come to flee their houses for a few hours, to get away from tension and family fights. 
Others, particularly the confused elderly, are being dropped off by their family members, to be picked up after the busy season. 
The patients you see on the major holidays are often sad, lonely people. And I like to be there, to try to cheer them up, and to let them know that they are not alone. 

During the past three days, our Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, I worked the day shift. The hospital was buzzing with activity, like every year. Patients with chronic illnesses have flare-ups, more people than usual are coming in who punched something/someone, and there is a general strain in people's faces. Because let's face it: Holidays are stressful. 

The first problem is: You can't avoid them. Even if you'd like to skip the festivities, it's impossible. The media is bombarding us with images of large family gatherings, everybody being happy, happy, happy. People start wishing each other Happy Thanksgiving/Christmas days or weeks in advance. The water cooler talk is about where you will have your dinner (not if - it's assumed that everybody has a place to go to and people to celebrate with), who will be there, and to what lengths you will go to impress everybody. 

Social media is best avoided during those days, because there is an explosion of pictures showing happy families, and everyone and their dog gushes how blessed they are and how awesome their life is. 
Even though I know for a fact that you can't stand your sister-in-law, and why are you now hugging her and hashtagging #family #loveher #BFF?

Because it's a competition. We have to make sure that the world knows that we are normal, that we have people who loves us, because if not, what does that say about us?
I'm all for living a life of gratitude and counting one's blessings. Appreciating everything good you have is the best way to be truly happy.

What I don't like is forced gratitude. When I am being dictated when to be thankful, and judged by a jury of my peers if I'm doing it well enough, my inner rebel comes out. 
The thing is: Families are flawed. Every family has their secrets, skeletons in the closet, and problems. 
And we may be fine with that fact, except for the last three months of the year. Suddenly, we have to pretend that we are looking forward to spending time with people we may not like very much. Everybody else seems to love the holidays, which must mean that something is wrong with us. We feel inadequate, not as good as everyone else. It's an unwelcome reminder of  how much better our lives should be. 

But working at the hospital, I know that I'm not alone. There are many of us for whom the holidays are hard. Maybe we are even in the majority? 
Over the years I have talked to a lot of people about this. And it's astonishing what you can learn when you drop the facade of Hallmark-card perfection.

I will never forget the first time I realized I wasn't the only one who was supremely stressed out by the holidays. 
We were in the lunch room at work. Two of my co-workers were chatting about their Thanksgiving dinners the night before. 
"How was yours?"
"Oh, so nice. The kids came and the grandkids, and we had a lovely time. Yours?"
"Beautiful. We were 16 people, and everybody brought a dish. We had so much food! It was a delicious meal. I love the holidays!"

They both turned around and looked at me expectantly. We, too had had our family dinner the night before. My first instinct was to tell them something along the same lines: The kids were all there, it was wonderful, everything was perfect. 
But something made me tell the truth instead.
"I'm glad it's over. You know, I'm the one who does everything, and I was so exhausted last night, I actually sat down and cried."

One of them looked at me startled, taken aback by what I'd said. 
The other one got it. "Oh Miriam, I was close to tears, too!" She then embarked on her own tale of plans changed at the last minute, how she and her husband were supposed to go to one of their kids for dinner and were looking forward to not having to do anything, but how it fell apart at the last moment. "I had to do it at our house, or we wouldn't have had a Thanksgiving at all! So I ran around all day, cleaning, cooking, and getting it all ready, and then they were bickering throughout the entire meal and left early because the baby was cranky."

We looked at each other, and burst out laughing. I felt like a huge, heavy burden had been lifted off my shoulders. 
Not because my sweet co-worker had a stressful night. But because I suddenly realized: We are all just doing the best we can. None of our lives are perfect. Families aren't perfect. 
And just because it looks like everybody else has their shit together, it doesn't mean that they actually do.

I need to remind myself of that fact frequently. It's too easy to believe everything you see and hear. 
But remember: Under the shiny facade, we all have layers and layers of mess that we don't like the world to see. 
But maybe, when you open up to someone, they will return the favour and give you a glimpse at their own messy life. 
Don't forget: We are all in this together. 
Also: Stay away from Facebook during the holidays. 

Lots of love,



  1. You are right, the holidays can be very hard. It is easy to assume that everyone has somewhere to be and people to celebrate with, but not everyone does. I'm glad you are able to be there for people who come in to the hospital during these days! I really do love spending time with my family, so the holidays in particular are special and we have so much fun together. That of course doesn't mean we get along all the time or never get annoyed or have fights, but we also laugh so much together and I do feel blessed to have them in my life. It's very sad to me that some people just want to get away from their families and dread family time. I know there's some of that with my extended family because my grandpa in his old age (and since my grandma's passing) has gotten really cranky and hard to be around. It's sad!

    1. I think all emotions are intensified during the holidays: If you have a loving and close family, you feel extra-grateful for them, but if you don't, your loneliness or unhappiness will be more pronounced as well.
      It can feel like the entire world goes nuts for the holidays, but some of us don't. And that's okay!

  2. The holidays are so hard. I could go on and on about the many different ways and reasons, but I think we all understand what those are or could be for everyone. It breaks my heart to think of those who don't have anyone to be with for the holidays, though. Even if it is chaos and stressful, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

    1. I'd like the option to participate when you want, and to skip it if you don't feel like it. Unfortunately, that's hard - so I guess if you can't fight them, join them! I try to focus on the good parts, like the food and decorations, and stay away from social media on days where there will be an overload of photos that make me feel like I'm not as good as anyone else.

  3. I like this a lot. The holidays are beautiful in what they stand for, but they are hard. Weird family dynamics, social pressure, financial stress. I'm always kind of relieved when they're over. And I think I will give up Facebook from about Thanksgiving until my birthday (January 4).

    1. That's a great idea, you and me both sister!
      And I know what you mean about the relief when it's all over, I have that too! I actually really enjoy the pre-Christmas time,late November/early December, when the tree is just up and the first Christmas cookies are baked and eaten. It's the quiet before the storm, and I love it!

  4. I hate the holidays too! Sure there are lovely aspects....but overall I hate them !

    1. You know what makes it more bearable? Knowing that there are other people who feel the same way. It can seem like everybody loves them, and you feel like an outsider for not being able to have the same feelings towards them - but we are not alone. Thanks for letting me know that!


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