Holidays are hard — and that’s okay.

Holidays.

My theory is there are 2 sentiments around the holidays – there are those people that LOVE the festivities and hullabaloo that comes with it, and those that….just really, really (really) don’t.

For a lot of years I said I “hated” the holidays. Thanksgiving? Christmas? Ugh. Labor day marked the coming of the “ugh season”. The holidays filled me with an ache and an emptiness that sent me into a dark depression like clockwork. As the skies turned gray and the air got colder, my heart and head transformed in kind.

Growing up, holidays were often awkward, sometimes dramatic, and never perfect like they are on TV. (Nobody has those kinds of holidays, by the way.)

One sad Christmas since I’ve grown up and moved away from home stands out for me the most. I spent it with my best friend in our old 1900s farmhouse which was anything but warm and cozy like you imagine when you daydream about an old farmhouse with a crackling fire with snow covering everything outside the window as far as the eye could see, and you’re cuddled up on a cushy sofa with a blankey, fuzzy socks, and hot chocolate.

Nope.

The house was in total disrepair. The house had no heat, so we huddled around a propane heater (the kind you are only supposed to use outside, because space heaters just weren’t able to keep up with the drafts). The heater sat in the middle of the living room (if you could call it a living room; we certainly didn’t do much living in it). Since it was the only space we could really fit a tree, that’s where it went, in the corner. We were piss poor (as my dad would say of his childhood), but we were determined to try to make some kind of normalcy happen in our very not normal life.

It was Christmas eve — or maybe it was a week before or after Christmas, I don’t remember. Once we got Thanksgiving over with, night after night felt the same way — cold, and Christmas. Whatever night it was, we sat next to the large picture window that, in an alternate reality, probably kept the cold from coming inside. In between the heater and the tree, we sat on an air mattress (we had no furniture), and we played monopoly.  Normal families play games during the holidays, we guessed. My husband of only 3 months was far from me, back home in Serbia finishing school. We had no idea when we’d see each other again, because neither of us could afford a flight.

Everything felt so cold and dismal. I will never forget the hopeless feeling, the feeling of not having anything, or anything ‘normal’, and not knowing if or how it would ever change. It was my own personal hell. I felt like a failure, and everything was crashing around me.

This year, that year feels so far in my past, though it was literally only 10 years ago this week. Not everything worked out as perfectly as I could have ever dreamed or imagined, but I’m in a better place now – mentally, physically, and financially. When I say I’m so thankful for everything I have, I mean that in the deepest sense. While I’d be a liar if I said I’d choose to experience the yuckiness I have to be where I am now, I do think it taught me empathy, and also helped me to appreciate, and even admire, my mettle.

For those of you that love the holidays, and find joy in it, congratulations! I hope you recognize how fortunate you are for either being able to make peace with the pain that’s often stirred up around the holidays, or for not having any to begin with.

For those of you that struggle with sadness around the holidays – this is for you, and it comes from a place of love. Please read these words slowly and closely, and hear them:

You are not alone.

You are not alone.

You. Are not. Alone.

As I write this, my eyes fill with tears. Not tears of sadness but tears of fulfillment. Whether it’s because I have come to understand that I am not alone, or because I know I can be the company that means you are not alone, I’m not entirely sure.

One of the themes we often hear from the Dalai Lama is that “in being human we are all the same”. Nobody wants to suffer, and in that we can also agree we’re the same. In that same way, we all understand suffering.

Once you realize that you are not the only one who suffers in this way, while it doesn’t lessen those feelings, the understanding that you’re not carrying this burden alone, and rather sharing an experience with hundreds, thousands or maybe millions of people, helps bring a sense of peace to your pain. You won’t stop hurting, and you might still feel blue or depressed, but you’ll find a bit of comfort in the solidarity you have with so many other humans. You are not alone.

Holidays are difficult because they shine a light on what we perceive as broken. Maybe you’ve lost someone you love and miss them during the holidays, or you have to endure that one uncle that drinks too much at family gatherings, or maybe there is always some drama or something goes wrong during the holidays. We, especially Westerners, have Thomas Kinkade visions in our head, and Coca-Cola commercials of happy, warm and joyful family celebrations, and we compare our lives to those storybook scenes. That sets us up to feel like something is fundamentally wrong with our holidays, because they’re not measuring up to some artificial standard.

This is a bit of a tangent, but I’m reminded me of an innocent childhood conversation I had with my (very Catholic) mother. I had a really bad bellyache on night, and while sitting on the toilet I asked her, “Mom, why do we suffer?” Mom explained, “We suffer so that we can offer it up as penance for our sins.” I thought about it, and naturally, as a little girl I asked, “What if we haven’t sinned?” Without missing a beat, my mom replied, “Then we can offer our suffering as penance for others who have.”

While I am now a student of Buddhism, in some ways very different from my Catholic upbringing, I can apply my mother’s words of wisdom in my current practice. When I suffer, I am taught empathy towards others who suffer. Because I can identify with their experience of suffering, I have more compassion toward them, and I can turn that compassion into action that drives me to help another human being to help alleviate their suffering.

The Japanese have a practice called “Kintsugi”, where instead of discarding broken cups and bowls because they’re cracked, choose instead to fill the cracks with gold, recognizing the beauty in the broken. In the same way, we can fill the cracks of our holiday experiences with gold.

If the holidays hurt, it’s okay. Let it hurt, embrace what hurts. Welcome it to your table. Sit down with it. Lean into it. Have tea with it. Make peace with it. Your holidays aren’t perfect, they hurt. It’s okay. You got this. Wherever we go, there we are.

Move the spotlight, and stop comparing your holidays to other people’s.

This was a lesson that took me many years and many tears to learn, but I think I get it now. Growing up, my family was weird and we had our problems. My life as an adult was untraditional, I went through periods of not being sure where my next meal would come from, being isolated, being mentally unwell. My life has been anything but a Thomas Kinkade painting. Eventually, I learned to shine my own spotlight on my life, not the one defined by tradition, culture or television.

Say what? What I mean is that yes, I hurt and miss my parents dearly – so much so that I can’t write the words without feeling heaviness in my chest – but at the same time, my heart fills with gratitude because I realize I had parents who loved me so much that I miss them so deeply now. New spotlight – gratitude. My husband and I weren’t able to have children, and that gets to be pretty painful for me during the holidays, when I think of the experiences we missed and will never have – but I realize too that I have a strong and fulfilling marriage, and have had the opportunity to travel and explore the world I may not have otherwise had. New spotlight – fulfillment in different ways. It still hurts, and the positive angle doesn’t make it go away, but it helps me to hold on to a perspective that helps me from sinking into a depression because “everything just sucks!” When it makes me sad, I sit and have tea with the pain, and when we’re done having tea (as long as that might take), I’m okay, and I go on.

I wish you true peace and send you love this holiday season, and always.