Heavy weight of holiday expectations

The compulsion to make Christmas perfect falls away in later years. Traditions are stripped down to what is truly meaningful. A bit of pine inside for fragrance, some lights on the mantel or the porch, and a fire in the fireplace can make for an ideal day. Putting a book or two on your wish list and a carton of eggnog in the refrigerator will put you in good position to take advantage of the stillness of Christmas.

If you celebrate something else, or nothing at all, it is still a day when the world slows down, a state so rare that it is good to heed the quiet. A walk in the woods or by a pond or along the shore will leave you able to justify being a sloth for the rest of the day.

At Christmas time, all is merry and bright — unless you’re poor, or sick, or lonely or addicted to drugs or alcohol. There is no holiday for any of these afflictions, and in fact, the holiday season may make them even harder to bear.

Expectations for the holidays create enormous pressure, even on those of us lucky enough to be warm, safely housed and well-fed. It’s all about family and decorations and presents. Many of us have families in tatters, so the lights and garlands, the relentlessly schmaltzy Christmas music, only heighten our awareness of what we lack compared to the fairy tale Christmases playing out all around us.

We can’t always put away the troubles of the rest of the year. It would be good if we had found a way to alleviate the poverty in which too many of us in Maine live, but we have not. Cures for disease are verging on the miraculous but are beyond the financial reach of too many. Even if you can afford treatment for a life-threatening illness, the undertaking is often hell for you and those whom love you.

If it is your first Christmas after bereavement, the day is bathed in pain from the time you awake until your head hits the pillow at night. All the cherished moments of Christmases past are staring you in the face all day long. Do you accept the company of family and friends when you feel like you are the grinch with “LOSS” stamped across your forehead?

Or do you stay home, wrap yourself in a blanket with Kleenex and a thermos of hot chocolate at your side and wail the day away? Yes, you may. But only on Dec 25. On Dec. 26, you have to get up and start putting one foot in front of the other again. Can you find someone in your community who is a year ahead of you in the grieving process? They can help immeasurably, because they really do know how hard it is and that it does ease, though slowly. They will want to help. You might have to be the one to say, “How did you get through it?”

The other great underminer of the holidays is addiction. Alcohol flows in abundance at every holiday party and meal, and is the centerpiece of New Year’s Eve. Can you resist the exposure without succumbing? Or do you need to create your own, alcohol-free traditions? And if it is drugs to which you are addicted, be they street drugs or the prescription variety, no holiday priority will surpass your dependence.

Drug users are dying at the rate of one a day in Maine; almost 400 Maine families will be in the “newly bereaved” category by Christmas 2018. Even if you are a survivor, what will you have in your life other than drugs? Will you still have a spouse? A family? A job? A house?

The following data are all from “Substance Abuse Trends in Maine, State Epidemiological Profile 2015″:

  • The number of drug offense arrests related to heroin quadrupled from 2010 to 2014.
  • A 340 percent increase in the number of illicit drug-related overdose deaths was observed from 2011 to 2014.
  • In 2014, nearly seven out of 10 overdose deaths involved an opiate or opioid.
  • Since 2012, the number of deaths involving benzodiazepines or heroin/morphine has more than doubled.
  • More than seven out of 10 young adults thought that binge drinking a few times a week was not risky.

The recitation of this data serves only to hint at the magnitude of the problem in Maine. The full report is at www.maine.gov/dhhs/samhs/osa/. Suffice it to say that it makes for the kind of reading that does not say “Merry Christmas.”

Holiday buzzkill? Maybe. But few of us are unaffected, either directly or through the indirect economic impact of substance misuse at this level. It will be with us on Christmas and New Year’s and into the year to come. There is work being done toward solutions. If “merry and bright,” “peace and love” are to be more than Hallmark greetings, it is time to put the addiction crisis front and center, every day. Even on Christmas.

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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