Christmas and Stress

I recently lost a young friend, unexpectedly and in the most shocking of ways. It shook everyone to their core, including those whom never had the pleasure of knowing her. There seemed to be a collective sigh as masks fell, revealing the truth behind the smiling Instagram pics and depictions of lives filled to the brim. Life is part joy, and part sorrow. Social media accounts don’t necessarily lie, but rather they tell the polished version of lives. We don’t want to burden others with the challenges and pain. Throughout the past month, I have had many people apologize for telling me that they are doing it tough, and I have insisted that ‘burden’ be reframed as ‘sharing.’ We have to share. Spells are broken when we speak aloud, and we hear our voice speaking that which was hidden. I came into December feeling that I knew more about my friends. Even strangers on the bus have become more than acquaintances through the act of sharing. What people had once kept hidden astounded me. No wonder the smile slipped on occasion, and indications of anxiety peeped through!

People have told of the challenges of having two separate Christmas celebrations for children, of estranged family members whom they have to see separately. They have told of poverty and housing stress, ill-health and exhaustion. Trying to hold it together when inside, everything is falling apart. I was diagnosed with a neurological condition a short while ago, an extraordinarily painful chronic illness. I can’t even pretend to have it together at the moment, and the relief is palpable! My daughter is in WA with dear friends of mine. The mum and I did IVF together, and we ended up with daughters, who have been best friends since they were babes. I minded this little girl earlier this year, and I had tears when I heard the girls discussing how they knew they were wanted because their mums went through so much to have them. The understanding of how we longed for them shall hold them in good stead, even when the world tries to beat them down. It is a wondrous foundation to have!

My little girl has climbed the tallest tree in Australia; she has been snorkelling and visited Quokkas. In case you don’t know what a quokka is, here is a picture.

Cute, aren’t they?!

I am trying to manage my pain, in the midst of writing a book and organizing Christmas. There is much I have had to let go of for the sake of my sanity. I have ordered a few gifts online, but for the most part, have had to go easy on myself. I won’t be up until midnight, writing out cards for everyone, as much as I would love to. I simply can’t. Events have been planned in advance, and preparations for everything from travel to what I need to bring have been arranged into bullet points on a notepad. Christmas to me is all about connections rather than gifts, and I am hoping to be up to visiting people next week to check in on them. I had been planning to catch up with a group of ladies whom I haven’t managed to see all year, and invited them around for afternoon tea. I bought some fresh fruit and a little platter of cheeses and mineral water. We had a lovely time, and it cost less than $20. Christmas doesn’t have to mean expense and maxed-out credit cards. I have known many homeless folks, and those without family connections, and believe me, being invited to a Christmas lunch is worth more than gold. The best gift is being seen and heard.

One lady apologized for how harried she felt, for complaining about the stress leading up to the main event, and felt bad for her anger. I told her to stop apologizing! “Anger; unadulterated rage, kept me going in the early years after my fall,” I told her. “It can be a way of saying that a situation isn’t right, nor is it fair. It spurred me on, to work hard on my rehabilitation.” We are allowed to be angry, particularly when too much is expected of us. I love the saying, ‘If you present as strong and together all the time, much is expected of you, and then you have nowhere to go.’ People assume you will say yes to their demands, not realizing that you too have a breaking point.  We may want to retreat and that is okay too. I know many folks who take themselves away at Christmas time, to avoid unnecessary stress.  We have this notion that the Christmas season should see us morph into someone larger than life; a version of us on steroids, where we need to find more money, time and energy than in the other eleven months of the year. Not only is this unrealistic, but impossible, without burning ourselves out.

My daughter and I have a tradition of going into Sydney on the last day of November. We walk around, taking in the decorations and sights. We hardly spend anything, just take festive pictures, talk to strangers and listen to pianist’s play on the Grand Piano in the Queen Victoria Building. We come home feeling as though the veil has been lifted between the hum drum of the rest of the year and the heralding of the festive season. We walk around neighbourhoods admiring light shows at night. We sing along to Christmas carols and watch Christmas movies. It is a wonderful season, when you turn down the volume on expectations and what you should do and feel. Open calls to the beach and swimming pools, taking along a picnic hamper and catching up with friends. Reviewing the year past and planning for the fresh year ahead. Allow yourself to feel what is brewing inside your mind and soul. Allow yourself at least five minutes of peace each day. If we are open and honest with one another, we will find it easier to cope. Look for the beauty around at Christmas time. It costs nothing, and brings such joy.

I am honest about the challenges I face regarding this season. There is grief for those lost, sorrow for what has come to pass, and pain for expectations unfulfilled. There is also light; a belief that the best is yet to come. There are friendships and invitations to sit at people’s tables. There is tinsel and pool parties, hugs and carols. There is reflection and gratitude. I own each in equal measure. My fervent wish is that you have a blessed Christmas, and please, be kind to yourself!

Fragile Minds

I was on the bus the other day, when a familiar gentleman boarded. He is usually quiet, his movements steady. On this day, he was swearing and banging his head with his hand. He had a pronounced tic. The bus driver greeted him by name, and warmly invited him to sit down. I was touched by his kindness. For twenty minutes, this fellow pounded his head with his hand. I wondered what had happened to make his condition heighten. Had his medication stop working? Was he taking it at all? I looked out the window at the rain falling, and a memory emerged.

When I was fourteen, and in the clinic, I was sipping a hot chocolate, when I noticed Robert outside. Robert was a cordial fellow, always with a greeting. He had greying ginger hair and beard. I noted him pacing up and down the courtyard in the rain. Suddenly, he went over to a window, and repeatedly banged his head into the frame. As blood gushed out of his head, I ran over, begging him to stop. Finally he did, and I held him as he wept. I was later told that he had been editor of a big city paper in the later stages of his career. Esteemed and well-regarded, until his breakdown.

What causes people to break down? It is usually those who seem to have it altogether that are the first to succumb. It is damned exhausting, keeping up appearances. I once knew a CEO of a large corporation, who was found under her desk, cowering after years of intense pressure got the best of her. When she told me her story, I determined that I needed to deal with stress as it happens. I learnt not to store it away; not to drink or eat until I drowned.

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People have minds that can be drip-fed abuse of every kind. From the workplace to home life. We need to be careful whom we listen to and whom we consider our allies. It is not only our hearts we have to protect, but our precious minds. Think of all those who give you joy, and stick with them. Christmas is a tinderbox of embers, which can either give a comforting glow, or explode. Life is not meant to be played, as if a game, and minds aren’t designed to be toyed with. Seek out the gentle, the kind and affirmative. Your precious mind is designed for dreams, for visionary ideas and to give solutions to pressing problems. It is nigh impossible to achieve any of that if it is being filled with nonsense from people who have no business being in your life. I saw scores of adults (some famous), rescind during stellar careers and lives. I learnt early on how precious a gift our minds are. Be kind to others, but also to yourself.