My mom calls Thanksgiving a “family day”. But like many American families, the family I’m hanging out with over the long weekend has members that suffer from addiction and alcohol abuse.
Some members have recovery, some don’t need it, some need it and refuse it. As a healthcare professional, I try to view substance abuse through the lens of disease. But as a family member, I find myself slipping into judgement. I find myself resenting how much slack I have to pick up for incapacitated members. How I have to keep my temper around their bad behavior. Even though I didn’t cause the situation, can’t control it, and can’t cure it, I have to manage myself and so much else because of it, instead of being able to relax.
The Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, asks us “Would you add to the aggression?” I would really like to answer, “No.” So I ask myself, “Would I be so resentful if they suffered from Multiple Sclerosis or Alzheimers?” But despite all my training in the disease model of addiction, I still find myself snappish and tense and unpleasant when it comes to substance abuse.
So clearly it is my job to work through my resentments. After all, the users aren’t going to change on my account. So if I want peace in my life, I need to make it. First, I need to accept my feelings of resentment. Once I really sit with that uncomfortability, I can see the grief and loneliness underneath the judgement. The sadness that I don’t have a relationship with X, because X has a relationship with alcohol instead. The loneliness that comes when I can’t connect with Y because Y is drunk or hungover.
Gratitude is supposed to be an antidote to resentments. I make gratitude lists in this tiny beautiful notebook that was given to me by a friend in a similar situation. Thanksgiving is supposed to be all about gratitude. But this holiday I am struggling.
When I struggle emotionally, I retreat to intellectualization. I find it interesting how the universe provides endless versions of the same lesson. Right now the political situation mirrors my personal life. I am resentful about choices other people have made, and I have to do more work to ameliorate those choices that other people have made, and I resent that. But I can’t change this situation to suit me, so I must work with my discomfort and find a way to be okay anyhow.
I am grateful that my mother is alive and healthy and with my kids and me on this holiday weekend. I am grateful there was no traffic, no accidents, no car issues. I am grateful to have such luxury problems: I’m not running for the border in Syria while bombs are dropping, I have a home, I have too much food, I have clothes, a job, health…I have made so many gratitude lists it’s easy to rattle the blessings off without feeling them. But at least the exercise makes me realize my problems, in the scheme of things, are small. I’m whining because I’m not having a Norman Rockwell holiday. Well, who does?
But I can’t belittle my grief and loneliness either. They deserve a place at my holiday table because they are real, and if I simply say, “Nope, you’re just evidence of my spoiled First-World whining, out you go!” and show them the door, they creep back in anyhow. So I’ve got a lot of work to do. I haven’t figured it out. I can’t wrap this up with a homily.
How do you handle the holidays?