Thanksgiving is early this year, before many in the Northeast have had a chance to recover from the psychological and physical damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. Marianne* watched as trees fell all around her home, destroying neighbors’ cars and homes. Although she was without power for almost a week, she felt incredibly lucky that her own home somehow escaped damage. And she felt guilty that she could not feel happier. “I’m grateful,” she said, “but I’m feeling sort of stunned. And I keep telling myself that I don’t have any reason to feel so badly. I didn’t lose my house, or a child, or all of my things…” Marianne’s feelings are actually quite normal. Most of us are creatures of habit. We expect things to go the way they have been going, and we are shaken up when suddenly everything is different, frightening, disrupted. Watching a neighborhood fall apart, listening to trees falling during the storm, even simply walking around and seeing what the wind and rain and sea did to familiar places, can make a previously safe-seeming world suddenly appear frightening.
While repairs are moving forward at what seems an incredible pace, there are still far too many people whose lives have not gotten back to normal. And no matter what we want to think, that change in the world we know – or thought we knew – can be disruptive to our psyches.
And the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is not, of course, the only frightening occurrence in the world right now. Many of us worry about the aftermath of the presidential elections in this country. Military and political escalation in the Middle East, concerns about the increasingly violent weather patterns, and anxiety about the economy are also hanging over our heads as we prepare to give thanks on this day that ushers in the holiday season.
But whether or not we’re prepared, Thanksgiving is here. If you are personally affected by any of these disturbing events, you may feel angry, sad, bitter, lonely, frightened – and not at all like celebrating. If you are lucky enough to be outside of any of these worries, you may feel selfish and ungrateful for complaining or even thinking about small Thanksgiving woes like an unpleasant day with some of your family members (or your in-laws). Or despite yourself you might engage in a pity party over the fact that you don’t have anyone to spend the day with. Maybe like Marianne, you’re telling yourself that you have no right to feel bad, since you have a roof over your head, a warm place to sleep, and money to feed yourself.
One of the things I like about psychoanalytic theory is that it makes room for opposite, conflicting and incompatible feelings. For example, from this perspective it’s okay, although not always comfortable, to feel love and anger towards the same person – sometimes even in the same moment! In the same way, it’s normal to feel both sadness and relief, gratitude and resentment, even guilt and pleasure, about a single event.
The following suggestions might help you manage these feelings and maybe even enjoy Thanksgiving this year.
1. Remember that the image of the loving and happy family gathering for a Thanksgiving celebration is often a wish, not always a reality. When families get together, there are almost always tensions. That’s part of family life. Try to make room for, accept and live with the tensions. And then look for the opposite, the moments of connection, the nanoseconds of closeness. They may exist in hidden nooks of the family interactions, like a moment when you catch your brother’s eye and share a grin. Or you may be able to create something yourself. For example, what might happen if you take a second to put your arm around your mother and tell her you love her? Will she reject you? Make a silly comment? Ignore you? Maybe all of the above; but maybe, in her heart of hearts, she also appreciates the gesture as long as you don’t insist that she admit it!
2. Try not to force yourself to feel something you’re not feeling. If you’re not thankful, so be it. You’re not a bad person for feeling what you feel. Maybe tomorrow or the next day you’ll have a moment of gratitude. It will have every bit as much value if it’s not on Thanksgiving Day – maybe it’ll be even more meaningful, because you’re not feeling it because you “should.”
3. Sometime during the day, try to reach out to someone who may be having an even worse time than you. It may make you feel lousy to hear how unhappy they are, but it might also make you feel better to know that you have given them a minute or two of solace.
4. Sometime during the day, try to reach out to someone who you know will be having a great day. This, too, might make you feel bad. It might highlight your own unhappiness, for example, in contrast to their great time. But maybe, just maybe, a little of their gladness will shine on and lighten up your day. (If it doesn’t, don’t worry about that either. Remind yourself that you tried.)
5. Remember: nothing is pure. A wonderful day has its moments of pain and sadness; and a miserable one has its instants of pleasure, if not actual joy. Pay attention to each moment. Breathe into the difficult ones and into the lovely ones as well. Each one will soon be gone. Just as pleasure is not permanent, neither is sadness or pain. Tomorrow will be here soon.
6. And finally, consider a non-traditional Thanksgiving this year, maybe even one with people who have shared some of the experiences you’ve been through. Being with others who know what you feel, who understand and even feel some of your confusion and sense of anxiety might seem like a bad idea; but according to trauma specialists, it can actually help us connect to ourselves again after a traumatic experience.
Marianne and two of her neighbors are planning an open house for Thanksgiving. “I usually spend the day with my family, at my brother’s house, but this year I want to be with my neighbors,” she said. “I’m not even sure we’re going to be able to prepare a turkey. We might have potato chips and turkey sandwiches, but we weathered this storm together, and it feels right to spend the holiday together.”
*names and identifying information changed to protect privacy
Teaser image source: http://www.citysoap.com/thanksgiving/534