Doing “Single” over the Holidays, can it be done with grace?

When I first left my long marriage one of the things I immediately noticed was a decline in invitations especially where couples and women were concerned. I could see a bit of why the couples might stop inviting me since we had all socialized as a foursome and there was a hole in the works that could not be stopped.  What shocked me was the number of women and a couple of men friends who just dropped away, no calls, no invites, no making sure I was not alone on special occasions as I had done with all of them when they were single over the years.

While I can think of no plausible explanation for those adults who behaved in less than graceful ways, I can tell you what it is like to be single over the holidays as in recent years I, myself, spent solo.

  1. Mark your calendar. Know that you will have more time on your hands and make plans for it. Plan to see the free events in your area, choirs singing, holiday displays, Christmas plays at the schools, parades or musical events. Every community has some of these and you may think going alone sad but I can tell you from doing so that it was far from sad. The singers gladdened my heart and nobody was there to chatter my ear off or otherwise interrupt these magical moments of mine and mine alone.
  2. Give back. I know, I know, everyone says this and the last thing you may feel like doing when you are lonely over the holidays is giving anyone anything. Even if you are flat broke, you can find a way to give to others less fortunate. A friend of mine serves dinner in the local men’s shelter on Christmas Day. When I had it, I spent $20 on grab bags at a local women’s store. These grab bags each contained four or five sets of jewelry suited to teens along with socks, hairbands and other little items that translated to 15 or 20 gifts I donated to a local charity Christmas Drive. I know teens are the hardest to find gifts for at Christmas from working in the non-profit sector and this was, to me, just a great thing to be able to do. But you don’t need to have new items. I have a friend who collects clothing and donations for the local animal shelter, a place often abandoned over Christmas but the needs are high all year round. A friend’s daughter buys 50 or 100 hamburgers at McDonald’s and passes them out to hungry strangers on the street. Pass a street person a coat you no longer wear, the ideas are endless and unlimited for finding ways to help those less fortunate. And somehow, in the midst of the giving, we receive an “afterglow” of our good deeds that translates to a little more joy for ourselves.
  3. Indulge yourself. Whether it is a marathon of watching your favorite series on Netflix, spending a whole day in your pj’s or having some treats you normally don’t allow yourself, or all three, just pamper yourself.  Because, alone or not, you are so worth it. And this is the sort of thing we tell one another in times of needing comfort so why not apply it to ourselves.
  4. Mingle. You may feel like a fifth wheel when invited to holiday gatherings and simply decline. That may be what you are most comfortable doing and that’s okay, too. If you accept (which I did because, hey, why not?), don’t focus on being alone, focus on being “together” and make a point of asking polite questions of people you don’t even know. You may make a new life long friend or find yourself with a terrific job offer, you just never know what may come of a simple gracious connection over the holidays. I once ran into a woman who had interviewed me for a job I didn’t get despite making it through every level of the screening process. I asked her why she didn’t hire me and she replied, “Because I knew being a 911 operator would hurt you.” She was right. I am a highly sensitive person or HSP as Elaine Aron’s book states. Imagine. The years spent wondering why I didn’t make the cut wound up being a gift to me. A gift I would not have been given had I just stayed home.
  5. Gift yourself. This is an open season deal where you decide what you would most like to get and give that to yourself. The year after my mother died was tough. A lot of “firsts” without her, first Christmas, birthdays, Mother’s Day and so on. Near Christmas I was browsing in a shoe store and found a pair of all leather knee high boots by a very high end company. I never had a pair of knee high boots since I was 11 years old in Ontario winters and thought what the hey, I’ll try them on. They fit perfectly and looked great but I could not bring myself to buy them even though they were, I learned, last year’s stock on clearance for less than 1/4 of the original price. I phoned a sister and told her about them. She said, “Go back and get them, those are YOUR boots.” I decided these boots were a gift from my mother and would take me places I could never dream of going. On the walk home with boots in hand, I glanced down at my parcel to find the name/model of the boot on the box. It was “Hope.” My mother was giving me hope from the heavens is how I saw it and still love my boots which will likely outlast me. It doesn’t have to be expensive as long as your gift is something you love, a book, a sale cologne, a thrift store treasure or a promise to shop the boxing day clearances for a sweater you can’t afford right now. It’s your gift to make yours in whatever way feels best for you.
  6. Honor loved ones. You can do this by hand making and sending a card for those you cannot be with this year or setting up a time for a “visit” phone call where you catch up, hear familiar voices. Again, the ways to do this are endless and it can even be loved ones who passed before us. When I was single and very, very broke, I took my last twenty dollars and decided that Christmas to stop avoiding the hospice tree in the local mall in the usual wide arc I made around it after my mother died. That year I went and put the names of my mother and mum-in-law on the Christmas tree and received a handmade bird (every donation receives a gift back). I thought I would cry. I didn’t. Instead I felt a sense of peace and calm that lasted a very long time.
  7. Phone a friend. Nothing can cheer us faster than hearing the voice of a friend who loves us unconditionally and gives us a safe place to just be ourselves. It’s like plugging in a lamp that has a new bulb. Everything “shines” brighter under the light of love and having a good friend or two is among these gifts. If you can get together, great, but if you are geographically or holiday commitment distanced, the phone is a wonderful tool to employ for a little holiday warmth.
  8. Volunteer. Not everyone has the energy or desire to do this and that’s okay. We can’t all be good at doing things all the time. But there are many organizations, especially during the holidays, that require a helping hand. Maybe you could help unload and organize the donations for a local thrift store. Or maybe you could deliver meals to those shut in alone over the holidays. Perhaps the local animal shelter could use an extra “walker” this year. Again, the possibilities are endless and most of your local newspapers or community pages will list organizations you might like to volunteer for. As a former volunteer manager for the city I reside in, I can tell you this: Volunteers do what they want to do and finding something you want to do that benefits others as well as yourself is a double gift.
  9. Start early. This does not mean start shopping early. This means starting early to prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for being alone or even possibly being alone over the holidays. One of the things I did was to sit and contemplate all who were working right through the holidays. From nurses to paramedics, from doctors to doggy sitters, from police to prison guards and all in between. My heart filled with gratitude that someone would be there if I needed to call 911 which I did not but it felt good to know I could, thanks to some dedicated professionals who work complaint free right through the holidays.
  10. Appreciate what you do have however humble. Most of us have had parents who, in an effort to get us to eat food we don’t really like, tell us there are starving children on the other side of the world who would be glad to eat what’s on your plate. The thing the parents don’t grasp is that means nothing to us because we can’t see those children, they are not in our daily radar especially as children ourselves. Yet, as an adult, I will use this to remind myself that whatever is on my plate at the moment, there are many elsewhere who would be glad for what my “life plate” holds today.

These are some of the things I did when single and longing to make the holidays more meaningful. Some of my best holiday memories are from those times when I stood listening to a local children’s choir or knew that some teen-aged girls would get a little something for Christmas. Believe me when I say I indulged myself in a few tears, too, they just couldn’t be stopped. But even that was bittersweet and not entirely awful. There are many ways to make the holidays “yours,” just start thinking of what pleases your soul and go from there. And if you have any ideas you would like to share, please do, as always I welcome your thoughts and comments here. Wishing you every good thing, good health, good home and good memory making even if only for yourself.

"What fills the heart becomes us." ~ Janni Styles

(this is a "re-run" first published November 30, 2016 and in the photo is the "bird" ornament I speak of in number 6 above)
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Snow Squalls

the drifts blow high

smarting eyes cannot see

all those years of memories

connecting you to me

sharp winds breathe life

into weary fallen leaves

whipping hearts about

sorrows hard to relieve

at night you are so gone

the stars hardly shine

morning takes far too long

for these old memories of mine

snow angels we once made

oh why oh why you did you go

all I have left here are

your wings in frozen snow

(c) Janni Styles

 

Surviving Difficult Times: PTSD and Trauma

Many of you already know what I went through these past few years so I will not repeat my entire story. Let me just share with you what I have learned about surviving difficult times including this very recent period of losing my brother in October and my sister in November and the ensuing grief that often chokes me because it is so hard to get used to the world knowing they are no longer in it. Initially I was thrust into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from a physical assault in 2012 (though many believe I was suffering from it long before I walked out of my more than three decades marriage due to the shocks I endured in that relationship). What happens with me since the onset of PTSD is that I can easily be triggered back into the full blown symptoms by life events, losses and abrupt changes to name just a few. Still, I am at a place where I hope to help others with what worked for me as I clawed my way out of the darkness to where I am today. While I still have PTSD it is not as severe as it once was and hinders me less because I have found a few ways to help myself survive difficult times. You or someone you know may appreciate what I have to share with you today.

Surviving Difficult Times:

  1. If you have any people in your life who are negative, critical or even in any small way unfair or abusive, avoid them. If you are struggling to get through a difficult time these types of people can only add to the burdens we are already packing. Yes, we may love or even be related to some of those people but tolerating any criticism or negativity from people we love is often more hurtful than from those we don’t know as well. This only exacerbates the situation we are in. Someone unfairly chastised me royally on a social site for posting a “funny” she obviously disliked. This triggered me and I did answer her but she blocked me. Clearly she is neither safe nor compassionate and blocking me was probably the best favor she could do though at that moment in time it just felt like more abuse. We need safe, loving, healthy, kind-hearted people around us when we are experiencing difficult times. This doesn’t mean you have to end the relationship(s), only that you may need to avoid those insensitive, cantankerous types until you are through the rough patch you find yourself in. Avoidance worked well for me and is still working well for me.
  2. Surround yourself with loving, healthy people wherever possible. From your health care providers to your social circles, clean house as often as need be to ensure that you are being supported by only those who are “safe” with good and kind intentions. Nobody needs ill intending people in their worlds at the best of times but at the worst of times those people can just feel like one more source of aggravation and abuse we simply do not need or deserve. They are also extremely draining, the last thing you need when trying to build yourself back up.
  3. Find your happy place or space. This can look like your own cozy bedroom, a favorite park or an activity you enjoy from reading to running. You choose what it is that makes you feel better and if that is music, baking, camping out, visiting a friend, doing yoga or escaping into a good movie or a book, whatever, it doesn’t matter as long as you have a few moments or, perhaps, hours, away from what is constantly overwhelming you. Retreat as often as you need to into your happy place or happy space. Friends, books and long walks or writing are my go to’s for a break from my personal life challenges. I found it helpful to keep adding to my “safe” go to list as I went along and discovered things that were helpful for me. Often I still prefer to have no stimulation, no noise, no light, and just being still with myself. Somehow it re-energizes me and I am able to get back on the bike of life and pedal my way forward. When everything and everyone “hurts,” finding our happy place or space can take a little time but that’s okay too. Just go gentle on yourself as you find what works best for you.
  4. Tell people what you need. This was the hardest of all for me. Learning to be my own best advocate was fraught with challenges I could not foresee. Once when the bank overcharged me for something I panicked because I did not have enough money for my rent (this was all reversed by the bank and I did have enough for my rent in the end).  Meanwhile, the talks-too-fast clerk kept repeating herself and would not hear any of my questions. I started to cry and the bank manager and security people all came over which made me cry harder. Finally, stuttering severely as I do when PTSD triggered, I was able to tell them I have PTSD and requested a note be put on my file (I wrote the note which said: I have PTSD. Please be kind and patient with me. Sometimes English sounds like gibberish to me if my PTSD is triggered. Please speak slowly and please repeat yourself if I need you to. Thank you.) Nearly five years later that note is still there and the service I get at the bank is impeccable, very considerate and caring. With others I may decline an outing or a visit at the last minute because I just can’t take any stimulation that day. Knowing what we need is half the battle. I spent a lot of time asking myself what do I need because there were moments when I truly did not know. If you can figure out what your needs are, asking others to honor those needs is the best way to take care of ourselves in my opinion. They may not understand why we need what we need but that does not matter. They may never understand. What matters is we know how to take care of our needs to avoid being triggered or overwhelmed by all the things in the world that are out of our control.
  5. Seek professional help. If you have an emotional or mental condition that needs attention don’t try to manage it all by yourself. Talk to your doctor and if you don’t have a doctor, try to tap into your local community services to see if there is a Health Unit or other source of support or help they can guide you to. Trying to manage it all by yourself is not advisable. I do not know where I would be if I had not sought and availed myself of professional help. Going to trauma counselling for two years after I was assaulted not only gave me a safe place and professional people to help me heal but it also gave me many skills I learned from one trauma counselor. Simple exercises like counting my breath or counting the items in a room, anything to distract me from feeling panicked, overwhelmed and unable to cope still help me to this day. Luckily for me, where I live we have some terrific community services and I was able to get help for the legal process of court which took three years and also a lot of emotional support and guidance. Without the help I received I know for sure I would not even be here. Seeking professional help is always wise.
  6. Believe. Believe there is help available for you and don’t give up on trying to find it. Believe there will be better days because as black as this moment may feel, there will be better days eventually. I didn’t think there would ever be better days when I was in the midst of just trying to cope but there were and those then rare days helped me believe there would be more. Believe you deserve the help. None of us deserves to be hurt, lied to, criticized, abused or assaulted in any way, shape or form. When we have been good people and always done the right things in life it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to be so cruel to us for any reason. But some people just are as recently happened to me online and in the real world when I shared the loss of my brother and sister. However much it hurt us, this is not as important as changing what we can for ourselves. We can block/delete online and in person we can leave, move away from or distance ourselves from harmful people and situations that are not good for us. It just takes time, professional help and focused effort to reach the place that is best for ourselves. Believe you deserve the best in life because you do.

These are just a few little things I share today as I work on grieving two of my siblings in three weeks. Of course the loss of my brother and my sister has triggered my PTSD, the panic, the shaking, the loss of sleep, the general sense of being in an unsafe world with unsafe people everywhere. I know if I can lean on my supports and do the six steps above as often as necessary, I will weather this storm of emotional tests, eventually. There is so much more I could add but this is plenty for a blog post, I think.  Please note this list of what worked for me may not work for everyone and that is okay too. I am not a doctor or a professional in the field of trauma. I am just one survivor voice who could not find much that wasn’t academically written on the subject of trauma and PTSD. To that end, I hope to help others who need to hear from someone who has been there and shares her findings, not so much experience as findings because this is what I wanted for myself when surviving my difficult time in life. I wanted to talk to other trauma survivors, hear how they coped, learn coping techniques and I just couldn’t find that kind of basic easy to digest material out there. There was much on how the brain works but it didn’t help me one whit to cope or realize that I would survive this. So far so good, I am here, breathing and sharing.

Questions and your thoughts are always welcome here.

See you next time.

(c) Janni Styles

Gee, Elinor, I think you’re swell!

Recently I lost my littlest brother. It was shocking because he was so young and had no known health issues, grew a garden and lived a pretty ordinary life of hard work and spending time with friends and loved ones.

Two and a half weeks after losing him, in the first week of November I lost my older sister. By today’s standards she was not old either, still in her sixties. The shock of both of these losses has completely numbed me. I feel as if I am living in a bad movie and hope soon I will wake up.

I wrote my brother a poem I published here and would write one for my sister but her poetry (which I have as well as her letters and cards to me over the years) outshines mine in my opinion.

When this song (see link below) was released, I thought it was about my sister and really, for me, it still is. I have much to say about what I have learned about how cruel, abusive and self centered human beings can be in the face of such devastating losses. There is also much good to say about those who “get it” and how no matter the few words they say, it is very comforting to my fractured heart. That will all be in another post. Just not up to writing it at the moment. More about my dear sister will be published here, too, but again just not up for it at the moment either.

Sorry for my absence here, will be back more as soon as I am up to it. For now, enjoy this song about my dear sister up in heaven. She really was swell.

Small Comforts

At first there is a pang in your heart, a pang so wrenching you believe it will never go away. You look around and everything reminds you of her. A sea shell she gave you, a note she wrote, a tote bag with angels flying on the sides in a beautiful tan and blue tapestry of olde she completed just for you. You hope she is flying high with the angels but you wish she was still here. Being reminded hurts so much you pack up all the pretty triggers in cardboard boxes. Then you move and rediscover everything she ever gave you as you unpack the boxes in your new apartment. Somehow, in the time that has passed, the hurting has diminished. Looking at her gifts no longer hurts so much. Instead, they become a comfort. You even start saying good morning to them and when you have your bed time camomile tea, she is there with you, surrounding you with her small comforts before you sleep and, perhaps, get lucky enough to be gifted with another dream time visit from her.

(c) Janni Styles