Retreating from reality is no escape

The reality of Christmas is often different from the Christmas we dream of. My dream involves family and friends, food, snow, board games, presents, reading a Christmas murder mystery in a comfy chair by a roaring fire, and carol singing. It’s a dream shared by many across the globe, I suspect. But it’s a reality for only a few.

There seems to be an ever widening discrepancy between the reality of Christmas and our desire for a perfect experience. Interestingly, the Samaritans have launched a #RealChristmas campaign. They explain: “When you’re surrounded by images of the ‘perfect Christmas’, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s really going on in our own and other’s lives. By being honest about our #RealChristmas we can encourage a healthier attitude towards mental health both at Christmas and all year round”.

During the last few weeks, I experienced a challenging flare-up of symptoms. I know that stressful circumstances exacerbated my symptoms and that I had not paced myself well during the busyness of the build up to Christmas. However, with the tools that I have developed over the last couple of years to manage, I was able to turn around the situation within a month and am now, once again, experiencing more good days than bad. At one event, in the middle of my flare-up, someone (who knows me quite well) asked me how I was and I replied (not out of self-pity but as a statement of fact): “A bit urgh, to be honest”. They looked quite uneasy and replied: “You can’t be urgh! It’s the party season!”This is a normally kind, generous, and supportive person so the disconnect between the person I know, the reality of my situation and their socially artificial banter struck me rather forcefully.

A couple of Christmases ago, when I was at my worst prior to having my diagnosis confirmed, I declined all social activities and retreated into my head. I can fully understand how, if the social whirl of Christmas jars, or if the reality of your experience doesn’t match your expectations or the expectations of others, the idea of retreat would be tempting. But is this not just as much an escape from reality as the tinseltown portrayal of Christmas found in movies like Love Actually and The Holiday? Earlier this year, I participated in a four day Mindfulness, yoga and meditation retreat at the beautiful Sharpham House in Devon. When we were getting ready to leave, many of the participants voiced their concern about how they were going to carry forward the principles and teachings we had learnt during our time there into the reality of their every-day lives. One young Mum said: “I feel completely relaxed here and it’s been wonderful to focus on me for a change. But how am I going to pause and reflect each morning when I have to make breakfast and packed-lunches for my two kids, get them washed, dressed and to school within the hour?”

It is a fair point! The criticism most often leveraged at Mindfulness is that it does not translate to the real world. How do you expect me to reach a Zen-like state whilst driving to spend Christmas with hostile in-laws coupled with screaming children in the back of the car and a stationary traffic jam in-front? The answer: you won’t. There is no magic bullet that will transform that moment into a Winter Wonderland dreamland. But you can choose whether to sit in the car brimming with resentment, anticipating your in-laws’ hostility, screaming at your screaming children, and cursing the stationary driver in-front or… you could choose an alternative: perhaps avoid peak-travel times, make sure your children have plenty of things to entertain them on the car journey, listen to soothing music, and accept that family relationships are often messy. My Aunt once told me that she invested in ear plugs for journeys when her children were toddlers and that this literally transformed her experience of driving with them!

Learning to choose how to respond rather than react to a situation beyond my control has been an enlightening discovery for me. Trite and obvious, perhaps, but true and definitely easier said than done. Initially, for many months after my diagnosis, I was constantly searching for a definitive answer to resolve my health problems: “But I’m doing the yoga, doing the meditation, taking the medicine, eating the right food so why don’t I feel better?” Because reality is an imperfect work in progress. It would have been easy, during my recent flare up, to drastically alter my diet or start searching frantically once again for a non-existent solution. Instead, I stuck to what I know works for me 90% of the time and focused on managing each day. And it worked!

Let me know what works for you. The following has helped me:

  • Scaling down: it’s quality, not quantity, that is important. Invest time, energy and money into things that are real priorities for you. True for relationships, work, food, drink and…Christmas!
  • Social media: there is a time and place and it is not Christmas. Why post a photo of your turkey lunch or presents when you could actually be enjoying them? Moreover, why, especially at this time of year, are you looking at the pictures of your virtual friends when you could be enjoying the company of your real ones? Taking Facebook off my phone and reducing my list of friends by almost half to only include those I wanted to connect with was a personal revelation!
  • Be generous to others: check-in with friends or family alone this Christmas, don’t fit people into your busy schedule – make time for them and, if you can’t, find a time in the future when you can, think about how you can meaningfully support those who are struggling at this time of year.
  • Make time for yourself: carving out nuggets of me-time is a necessary, and healthy, retreat. Get up early to do some yoga, go for that walk, read a few pages of that book. You deserve it!

I hope you enjoy a meaningful Christmas, whatever that entails, and a restorative New Year!

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