I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure
the darkness for it shows me the stars.
We are in a dark time of the year. There is a reason why there has always been a light-in-the-darkness time, and not just for those needing light in recovering from depression. Historically, in an agricultural society, December was a time when the harvest was done and therefore it was a time to rest, turn inward and reflect. With the days being darker, and Winter Solstice being the shortest day of the year, bringing and celebrating light is a natural response to, well, not going mad in the darkness. We need light. Not only does the vitamin D literally stave off depression, but symbolically we need to know there is light in the dark.
One theory of the origins of December 25 as the date chosen for the birth of Jesus is that it was originally the pagan festival in Rome celebrating “the birth of the unconquered sun,” celebrating the sun-god and the solstice. Hanukkah is also known as “the Festival of Lights,” Kwanzaa ritual include lighting special candle holders called kinaras, and in the December Hindu festival Pancha Ganapati, a shrine with Ganesha (the Hindu elephant god who clears away obstacles) is lit. Shabe Yaldā or Shabe Chelle, held on the Winter solstice, isan Iranian festival celebrating the victory of light and goodness over darkness and evil, and Chahar Shanbeh Sure, the Iranian “festival of Fire” celebrates light over darkness on the last Tuesday night of the year.
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”
-Elizabeth Kubler Ross
For recovering people, this can be particularly challenging to remember the light: the light of hope, the light of “this too, shall pass,” the light of love. It can be difficult to remember you have an inner light to which you can listen.
There is a lot to be concerned with in the world right now. So much suffering. Holding the light of hope can be hard. So many religions and cultures have this light in the darkness in their symbolism for this very reason. It is a human need; an archetypal commonality we share. Remember that you are only responsible for your light, your candle in the darkness. Light your candle. Revisit, hold onto, re-light this light. In the words of Anne Frank,
“Look at how a single candle can both defy and define the darkness.”
Light your candle. The world needs it. The world needs you.
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
The intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
“The body holds meaning…when we probe beneath the surface of our obsession with weight, we will find that a woman obsessed with her body is also obsessed with the limitations of her emotional life. Through her concern with her body she is expressing a serious concern about the star of her soul.
-Kim Chernin, Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness
The holidays can be hard. Disordered eating, binge drinking, and depression are all common during this time. Here are some ways that recovering women – whether it be from disordered eating, alcohol, anxiety, or depression – can tend to themselves during this time.
- Do a daily spiritual practice, no matter how small
This can be a daily reader or affirmation, journal-ling, sitting meditation, a walk. 1 small daily action that connects you with the-part-of-you-that-knows, or your soul self. (Please insert the word or phrase that works for you.) One definition of soul self, from Carolyn Costin (8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder, W.W. Norton and Company, 2012), is:
Your soul self is your essence…connected to the essence of all others and the world. Your soul self practices…pay(ing) attention to what is meaningful, has no judgement, and is not attached to results…Your Soul is the ‘being’ part of human being.
Do your spiritual practice religiously (pun intended) to stay connected with your soul self. Don’t worry about if you feel like it or not- most days you probably won’t. Do it anyway. Do it for all the times over the years that you didn’t listen to your soul-self, that other people didn’t listen to it, or for all the times it got run over with busy-ness, disordered eating, alcohol, criticism or judgement. Just make a space daily- however small- so your soul self can know and trust it is welcome.
2. Approach each day, 1 day at a time, with radical acceptance.
Approach each day as both miraculous, and just another day. By all means enjoy Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year’s…but try not to make it better or worse than any other. Do not elevate it; do not de-value it. Greet each day with equanimity, another 24 hours of darkness and light revolving and rotating around the sun. There will be aspects you like, aspects you don’t like. There will be pain and joy. It is what it is and just like every other day it will pass.
3. Connect with right kind of support.
Sometimes our families of origin are helpful recovery support, sometimes they are not helpful, and often they are some of both. It can be supportive to have a recovery buddy or team that you talk/email/text with throughout holiday times to help provide the empathy of someone who has “been there” or “is there” with you on the same journey. Set up support phone calls with each other, go for walks together, text each other before and after Christmas dinner, or whatever event you foresee might be challenging for you. It’s ok to need help and support. Treat yourself and your recovery as if you are a new little baby. Be a good parent to this baby and her needs. Stay with her and surround her with others that are kind and supportive. Protect her as best you can from your and other’s critical voices. Let her know you are here to support her in any and all feelings she is having, unconditionally.
4. Create rituals that have meaning for you
What makes YOU happy? Twenty years ago, when I was in the first few years of my recovery, one of my best friends was from England. Being English, she didn’t even celebrate Thanksgiving 🙂 We both lived in San Francisco, far from our families and didn’t really want to celebrate Thanksgiving with a “culturally acceptable” binge. We decided that we would have a yearly ritual: every Thanksgiving we would have dinner and go see a movie together. And we did!
I have a friend in recovery that does gratitude jars with her family- filling them with papers of what each of them are grateful for.
Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery.com), recovered from “food, booze, and drugs” and now a mother of three, uses this poem to guide her holiday shopping. We ask each kiddo to make a list of:
Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.
5. Be curious about difference, look for underlying similarities, and take action.
Many years ago when I was dating my husband, I expressed concern to a mentor of mine about how important spirituality was to me and how he is an atheist. She said to me something that has always stayed with me: What do his actions reflect about his values? Do you feel a connection there? There was no doubt in my mind about his integrity, the generosity of his heart, his commitment to being of service. I saw that in his actions every day, with me, with his friends, with his colleagues, and in his community. I looked to spirituality to find guidance on being of service, ethics, and finding peace amidst fear. He found this guidance other ways. But his actions reflected values in which I believed.
As one spiritual teacher put it,
“The test of faith is’t what you believe- it’s what you DO because of what you believe.”
The implications of this are as small as valuing yourself and your recovery in your breakfast choices, to helping a person in your daily life such as returning a grocery cart for a mom who is trying to get her baby into the car seat, to as global as treating someone from a different belief system (whether it be 12-step spirituality, Atheism and Empiricism, Catholicism, Judism, or Islam) with the same kindness and respect that you would a friend.
6. Help Thanks Wow
Anne Lamott (author of Help, Thanks, Wow, The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Penguin, 2012) inspirational recovery author, writes how these three prayers- Ask for assistance, Appreciate the good, and Experience awe in the world- make up the foundation of staying spiritually connected.
She has a lovely sense of humor about “God”:
“Let’s not get bogged down on whom or what we pray to. Let’s just say prayer is communication from our hearts to the great mystery, or Goodness, or Howard; to the animating energy of love…something unimaginably big, and not us. We could call this force Not Me, or Not Preachers Onstage with a choir of 800. Or for convenience we could just say ‘God.'”
Last but not least, she speaks to the importance of genuine, authenticity when talking to God:
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, ‘I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,’ that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, ‘It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,’ it would bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real- really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table.
AMEN. And Women. Definitely Us Too.
Most Moms have a story about how their toddler killed their phone or dropped it in the toilet. Recently, I lost my phone. I was heading out to the car with my little one after church and I realized I couldn’t find it in my purse. I went back into church and several people tried to help me find it. My little one and I looked all over the (kid cracker covered) floor in the car. Nope. One lady from church offered to “pray to St Anthony- the saint of lost and stolen things” for me. Bless her. However, my phone was still missing, so I kept looking. Another woman offered to call my phone to see if we could locate it- to no avail. Before long, a whole group of people were helping my (very patient) little one and I look. Another woman offered this reframe:
“When I lost my phone, I just had this feeling it was a blessing in disguise. I went to the apple store and I met a very attractive woman…who is now my life partner!”
I have to admit, though grateful to hear her story, I was still mostly just pissed off to not have a phone. However, at this point, little one was melting down so it was time to move on and let it go.That evening our family went to a dinner hosted by another family with two kids. During the course of the evening, the mother told me that their house was screen-free. I clarified:
“So you mean no tv, no (educational? PBS?) videos, no (learning letters and words? interactive?) apps, no screen-time in any way at any time for the kids…ever? No checking your Texts/Facebook/Instagram or whatever-you-do-to-avoid-feeling-uncomfortable-feelings?”
She replied: “Nope. We’re the screens.”
She shared about how she had noticed that her older child became aggressive toward the younger one whenever they watched a video, even if the content was PBS kids, so they stopped all screens.
“Wow,” I thought.
I had the sinking feeling in my stomach that I get when I know it is time to change and the last strand of resistance is being ripped away.
Rachel Macy Stafford, author of Hands Free Mama: A Guide To Putting Down The Phone, Burning the To Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters, writes:
If technology is the new addiction, then multi-tasking is the new marching order. We check our email while cooking dinner, send a text while bathing the kids, and spend more time looking into electronic screens than into the eyes of our loved ones. With our never-ending to-do lists and jam-packed schedules, it’s no wonder we’re distracted.
We all know what out “drug of choice” is in terms of daily distractions, whether it be texting, social media, readers, or other devices. However, she also includes the following as “sabotaging factors:”
- to-do lists
- excessive feelings of worry, guilt, inadequacy, perfection, or self-doubt
- and pressure to act or look a certain way.
So basically you could just substitute “from Thanksgiving until December 31st every year” for the above list and they would be interchangeable for many people.
And now I’d like to say I have let go of my to-do lists, phone, apps, videos, no longer have any feelings of worry, guilt, or anxiety, have hand made all of my holiday gifts (in a non-overcommitted fashion), started my own organic garden, and live off the land happily ever after with our (gun free) neighbors, who are doing work to correct the ozone layer so no children will have to deal with the devastation of global warming.
However, I live in reality. What really happened was that I spent 3 days without a phone noticing what that experience was like while I waited for a new one to arrive in the mail. Also, I noticed how many people rose to the task of helping when they knew my phone was lost. People want to help and be of service. I noticed my gratitude for this. I noticed my desire and actions to pass this service forward. My phone-free time was enlightening. I was a little bit more present, in lots of areas: in being with my little one, in the quality of my attention throughout my day as a mom, clinician, and partner. My mind was less “multitasking” and more in the moment. The present became more available and the tasks I chose to do were more thoughtful and less frenzied. There was more space.
Though I am not Catholic nor do I work from a particular denomination as a parent or Psychologist, I did find inspiration from this quote about St Anthony, who symbolically represents the space for what being hands-free opened up for me to drop into:
St. Anthony life is what every… life is meant to be; a steady courage to face the ups and downs of life, the call to love and forgive, to be concerned for the needs of others, to deal with crisis great and small, and to have our feet solidly on the ground of total trusting love.
This holiday season, may you find steady courage in your recovery, in your parenting, and your relationship with God as you understand God. What I mean when I say God is the-part-of-you-that-knows: that still, quiet place of knowing that we each have within us. May your hands be free-er to be of service and less attached to checking Facebook. (You would be surprised how often comparing-and-despairing through Facebook shows up in therapy.) May your feet be grounded in Love, compassion for yourself, and compassion for others. May your heart grow larger than fear. May you live in the reality of life, as it is, rather than as it appears on Facebook. It IS possible. What are YOU willing to do to connect with this place during the holiday season? I send you Blessings on the journey and I am right beside you on the path.
Thank you to the following for inspiration in this blog:
St Anthony information: stanthony.org
Hands Free Mama: A Guide To Putting Down The Phone, Burning the To Do List, and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters By Rachel Macy Stafford handsfreemama.com