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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

Stress and Holidays

December 2021

The holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Hanukah can be tough times for those with PTSD. They mean lots of family and friends gather. They mean large crowds at the mall or supermarket. Crowds often mean bumping shoulders or at least very close proximity to others. It means flashbacks can come and tempers can flare unannounced, even to the person having them. Thus, those with PTSD and who live with those who have it, please remember stress and holidays do not need to go together.

Even after over fifty years, I remain amazed as a sudden explosion of anger over something that seems so minor or normal to me. What’s wrong with having siblings and friends over? What’s wrong with the fuss over a big gathering and sit-down family dinner? What’s wrong with all the chatter, laughter, and happiness? Getting together with family that you like is enjoyable. It is to me, but I appreciate that it can be very stressful to others. Some people grew up in very dysfunctional families. Some were in a war zone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Day. Whatever happened, they may have been on high alert. That doesn’t go away permanently, but comes back in spurts.

A baby cries. Someone drops a pan or plate. Two people have a disagreement. Anything can happen that suddenly brings the past to the present—Dad hit a child and you were that child. If a pot clangs to the floor, lots of noise ensues from the kitchen. This time it was the potatoes, ready to be mashed, and are now crash-mashed across the floor. This was a loud noise followed by a pandemonium of voices trying to solve the problem.

There is the natural tension of lots of people, of fixing a holiday dinner, of being polite and gentle to someone who is not a favorite person. All this occurs to anyone who’d rather be at home alone reading a book, sleeping, watching a movie, the game, or some special event. Tunnel vision is a good idea here, but tunnel vision means the person is in a crisis situation—flying a helicopter on a mission, tolerating a painful situation meant not to happen, or some other crisis. We’re all expected to behave normally as if this is the pleasant holiday we’ve waited for all year.

To take it off the holidays for a moment, I had not wanted to watch Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam. Why not? My husband spent two years there as a teenager. Those two years impacted his life, our marriage, our family. Why wouldn’t I want to see it? I didn’t want to see the horror. I did not want to watch it for fear of my husband’s reaction. Sideswiped again. He brought the series of DVDs home from the library and had already watched the first four when I came home from a trip. He raved about them. I watched Vietnam 5 and 6 with him. He learned a lot. He experienced the war from inside M.A.S.H. and evac (evacuation) surgery rooms and tables. Just as he said after we watched Taking Chance, “I never knew what happened to those who died after they left the OR [operating room].” He learned and he was grateful for that knowledge. No, he was not one of the soldiers walking through rice paddies, trails, cities, and villages. He didn’t see that part. He only saw what happened to those who needed surgery, however life-altering, deadly, or minor their injury.

Yes, the war was his whole life those two years. That explains why he was so dumbfounded when we met in 1970, that he was the first person I’d ever met who had been in Vietnam. I knew veterans from World War I and World War II, and some were relatives. I’d met veterans from Korea, just not from that current war.

Let me also consider those from families where there was verbal, physical, sexual, psychological abuse or various combinations and severities of one or all of the above. Oh so devastating, life altering, oh so tragic. Holidays and other family gatherings were unpleasant, so horrid for some. Why would someone want to go home, or be home, for an event and have to pretend to be pleasant to someone who had abused, if not the individual then a sibling? I remember a friend in my college dorm saying that she’d lie under the bed while her brothers fought, blood flying all over the room. She did not look forward to going home for any university breaks. I remember working with some children who had spent much of their childhood locked in a closet or the basement. That goes beyond pain, beyond confusion, beyond low opinions of self, beyond misery. Any of those terms are such inadequate words for torture. And such a family is going to have an enjoyable Christmas or Hanukah in a situation like that?

I grew up in a household of six to eleven people, the number dependent on how many other relatives lived with us. We had no yelling, swearing, no loss of temper, and much gentleness and kindness. Even saying “shut-up” to a sibling was not allowed. Instead, my childhood home had much laughter, lots of games, outdoor play, and an abundance of caring. We siblings did not fight or try to get another in trouble. Even as adults visiting one another’s homes, we always kissed goodnight just as we had as children.

I don't know why I have spent my career working with children and adults with problems. I think it may be because I feel I owe something back to society for living the privileged life of a good and loving home, an excellent education. Why am I so fortunate that holidays don’t come with stress any beyond whether the turkey or roast will turn out well? Why was I so unbelieving, shocked, when a friend called to say she had cancelled her son’s birthday party because he’d misbehaved? No, you don’t cancel your child’s birthday party for any reason. You don’t withhold presents because of misbehavior. I want to say, so simplistically, look at your own behavior before doing anything like that.

Once again, I need to quote my niece who stood yelling at me, “…and further more I’m not mad at you I’m mad at me but since I can’t yell at me I’m going to yell at you…” and she continued to scream at me. But I no longer cared because she, this 16-year-old, clearly stated that I was not the object of her anger. Most people who yell or throw the potatoes or a chair or plant have something, deeply hidden even to them, as the object of the anger.

Remember that, if you end up yelling or being the object of someone else’s anger. If you are the angry person, go outside and yell at a tree when you’re stressed or dust that anger off your shoulders because it is not your stress.

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