Christmas can be a tough time of year for many people. There is so much unspoken pressure to be full of, ‘The joy of the Holiday Season’ but often that is the last thing people feel. People struggle at Christmas for many reasons, for being estranged from families, grieving lost loved ones or, as in my case, struggling to come to terms with a mum who has dementia.
Christmas and I have never managed to sustain a successful and healthy relationship. Growing up in a broken family made Christmas a stressful time and then, in my adulthood, it merely became a time to get well and truly smashed. My mental health problems and my addictions have historically made Christmas a bit of a car crash.
Christmas In Recovery From Addiction
Now in recovery from addiction, Christmas can still be hard to deal with because booze is tough to avoid. I have to stay vigilant with my own drinking thoughts, and I also have to be careful what I eat as it seems at Christmas people put booze in everything. Even margarine can’t be guaranteed as safe!
The Impact Of Dementia On Christmas
The main reason I am struggling this year at Christmas though is that my mum has dementia. Mum’s confusion started last year and has progressed rapidly. Then, just before last Christmas, my brother and I had to make the incredibly difficult decision to move her into nursing care. It was clear there was no way mum would manage at home so this really was our only option.
Over this year, mum’s mental cognition has declined at a rapid rate, and she has little idea where she is or who I am. Visiting with her is distressing and exhausting. She doesn’t settle down unless she’s asleep and she is very opposed to being awake! I typically get ten minutes of her being OK and then the next fifty minutes of her shouting her familiar, “Oh come on,” meaning that she just wants to go back to her room and lie down. It is devastating to witness.
Understandably, this makes this Christmas hard. Even more so because Mum and I have only resolved our relationship in the last eight years. I have done a lot of emotional work in recovery and part of that was coming to terms with a complicated past. In letting the past go, mum and I then found a way to connect after years of not managing too.
When I came out as transgender, mum was incredibly supportive and affirming. She would send me a text every day to say, “Good morning my boy, how are you?” Her words meant the world to me. Therefore it is bittersweet to feel so incredibly sad at the loss of Mum, when once upon a time I couldn’t imagine having the depth of love I have for her now.
An Imperfect Christmas
We are a small family, it’s only the three of us. Other family members live on the other side of the world, and others are estranged. Our Dad died many years ago. My Brother lives away too, and so it feels very empty at Christmas, in the family since at least. I see and hear other large families, planning gatherings, spending time together, opening presents, playing games and so on. Watching mum being sucked into the vortex of dementia brings it home that family time will never be that way for me at Christmas.
This is why that, until now, I have been reticent about Christmas! I have slipped into denial about it really. When I find something painful, my default position is to avoid it. It’s not even a conscious decision. My brain just takes over and says, “Nope, we will edit all Christmas info out!”
Coping With Feelings Of Guilt
I feel incredibly guilty for feeling this way because I realise that I am not the only one in the world to not have a typical family Christmas. I especially feel guilty because I do not want to upset my partner. Chris and I have only been together for seven months, and this will be our first Christmas together. I love him so incredibly much, and I want our first Christmas together to be perfect.
However, every time I see mum, the weight of her dementia sucks all the Christmas joy from me. And to add to this, Facebook keeps posting pictures of mum from a couple of years ago, before
Luckily, I have a very understanding partner. My partner has lost loved ones,
The guilt I feel brings a lot of ‘should’s’ with it. I should feel excited, I should feel Christmasy etc. Of course, I am excited to spend my first Christmas with my partner. I’ve been single for a while now, and so it will be wonderful to share this time with someone I love. I realise it is ok to feel both things, sadness for mum and joy for our new love but I do struggle to incorporate the two very contradictory emotions.
At this time of year, it’s vital to remind ourselves that problems do not just go away just because of its Christmas and so it is ok to feel aspects of sadness. A perfect Christmas is not one spent problem free and with an unfaltering smile. A perfect Christmas is one spent with people you love who take you as you are and don’t put any expectations on you. I am so lucky to have a person I love and who loves me, who will sit beside me over Christmas and laugh with me at times and cry with me at others. Realising this makes me understand that this is, in fact, the perfect Christmas after all.
Finlay Games is the founder of The Recovery Writer and the host of Finntheinfinncible. He is a freelance writer and speaker for hire, who advocates, informs and inspires on topics of mental health, recovery, gender transition, and sexuality.