It’s the holidays! Divorce blues spike. Where’s the “magic pill” for holiday loneliness?! If you feel a profound dread of the month of December, you’re not alone.
Here’s what Ellen, 59, told me at our divorce recovery session last week: “This year, I have no holiday invitations. None. Zero. Zilch. Last year, I was married and we were dancing our happiness charade. We had our little gang of friends and the holidays were jam-packed. Our marriage had already fallen apart, but no one knew. In January, after 35 years of marriage, I filed. His friends disappeared off my radar screen. I kept a few loyal buddies. I moved to a new town about 25 miles away to start a new life. You’d think I’d moved to Siberia.
“Since Thanksgiving, I’ve been lonely as hell. People get busy. I know that. But I need my friends now more than ever. I can feel the depression settling in. I fight it hard, but it’s there. I smile when I see old friends. We keep it light. I hear about how busy they are with open houses and fundraisers, and oh yes, that trip to Paris for New Year’s Eve. One friend described the dinner party she and her husband were having and the couples coming. As if I had the plague, I wasn’t invited. It hit me hard: I’m single/divorced/alien now. It never crossed her radar screen to include me.
“I go home and cry. I’m not blaming them, but I’m discovering what a married society we have. I had no idea. I don’t think I’m jealous. And I did the right thing leaving my ex. But, I’m so darned lonely. The dark cloud of the holidays hangs low. The house is so empty. The ache is so deep. I hate it. Is there a pill for loneliness?”
Chemically Masking your Holiday Loneliness
So, is there a pill for holiday loneliness during divorce recovery? Yes and no.
The remedy depends on this question: How painful is this holiday season for you? Medically, you can mask the emotion. It’s not a long-term solution, but over the holidays the pain of isolation during divorce can be palpable. Drug companies – legal and illegal – capitalize on this. Drugs of all flavors are available, as are alcohol and marijuana. Your doctor can prescribe an SSRI like Prozac (though it takes about 6 weeks to fully kick in, so don’t plan to feel a positive mood swing until January), or an anti-anxiety drug like Valium or Ativan. Marijuana can smooth things out but it’s not legal everywhere, and there’s no point to going to jail when you already feel rotten enough. Same with other illegal drugs – don’t put yourself at risk. Your vulnerability is high, and this isn’t the time to court danger.
Alcohol can be a slippery slope, too. I have no objections to a glass of wine or a cocktail. The relief is instant but keep your eyes wide open. Alcohol loses its stimulant qualities after the first 30 minutes, and then it becomes a depressant. If you find yourself crying more after you drink, kick the juice to the curb and find another solution.
Above all, never mix your chemicals. This despondency you feel will dissipate after the holidays, and you want to be alive to enjoy it.
Overcoming Divorce Depression and Holiday Loneliness
Let’s be realistic. There are no easy solutions. Being alone with no support system in a new town after a divorce, during the holidays, is brutal. No one said it would be easy, but devastating depression? Ellen (above) wasn’t prepared for that. Her symptoms of nagging loneliness and her inability to turn off Netflix and get out of the house have stymied her. The longer she stays at home, the further she sinks.
The challenge with overcoming divorce depression like Ellen’s is that the cure requires self-starting – and that’s a challenge when thoughts are gloomy. As energy diminishes, so does the ability to invigorate yourself. It’s a vicious circle exacerbated by the ludicrous expectations of joy, bliss, and happiness on every billboard and on homes prematurely decorated with little lights. Thus, Ellen’s challenge is very real. She can’t get off the couch, she can’t get that knot out of her stomach, and, if she does succeed to rouse herself, her first brave steps outside are met with reminders of how alone she is.
Change Your Expectations and Thoughts
Is the conundrum fixable? The good news is: Yes! It’s a matter of changing the way you think. You control your thoughts – not the other way around. Learning life skills to cope with deep sadness trumps drugs every time. It’s worth a try right now.
First, change your expectations. Step one in divorce recovery is to accept the situation. Look at what’s depressing you. Friends not calling? Empty house? No invitations? Kids are spending the holidays with your ex? He/she is unreasonable? He/she is dating someone new – perhaps the louse that he/she cheated with? You may feel hurt, angry and vengeful. Nonetheless, here you are. You can’t change the situation, but you can change your expectations and the messages you give yourself. It’s your expectations that are making you miserable.
How about deciding that your expectation this year is to simply get through the holidays without having a complete nervous breakdown!? Don’t promise yourself that you’ll have the best time ever. That’s unrealistic. There’ll be other years for that. This year, start with survival. Like the oxygen mask on the airplane, take care of Numero Uno – YOU – first. Be selfish. It’s ok. Put your needs first – not the kids, not the community club, not the office, not your parents, not your friends, not your pets. You. Period. There will be plenty of times in years to come that you can take care of others.
Learn to Practice Extreme Self Care to Cope with Loneliness
This year, you need YOU on your team. It’s called ESC: Extreme Self Care. To do it, you need to answer two questions:
- When are you predictably sad? Know yourself. Slow down and baby yourself when your “bottom out” time comes. Is your low point 4 p.m.? There’s a reason the British have high tea at that time. It’s time for a boost. Be ready. Save easy projects for late in the day at work. If you’re at home, perhaps watch a murder mystery and take your mind off your woes. Do you need a massage? Be your own best friend! Coddle yourself. The key here is to be prepared. Change your expectations of loneliness during your down times. Face them head-on. Be gentle with yourself and indulge yourself in a treat. Do you know you’ll be alone on Christmas or New Year’s morning? Plan something fun for yourself now. Make a lovely breakfast buffet and listen to your favorite symphony. Take a walk in the woods. I have a single friend who has no family nearby and no partner. She gets on her bike every Christmas morning and rides through downtown San Francisco while the streets are empty. It’s pure bliss for her.
- What makes you happy? Start a list. Keep it with you. This isn’t a “to-do” list. This is a “what makes me smile” list. Your favorite comedienne? Your favorite movie? Eating cherry pie? Reading recipes? Playing golf? Watching football? Carry a pad of paper with you, or record your list on your phone. You and yourself can have a lovely time together if you’re involved in activities you love. Learning to be comfortable by yourself, enjoying yourself, will be a factor in your happiness as you move forward out of divorce – even if/when you find a new partner. The gist is realizing that you don’t need anyone else to make you happy or complete you. You’re fine, just as you are. This holiday season is a good time to please yourself. Ask yourself: What would I do to make my best friend happy? Do that for yourself.
On a serious note: If your sadness is so deep that you’ve considered ending your life, call a suicide hotline immediately, see a counselor, call 911, or go to your doctor right now. You have a lot to live for, and you may not see that right now. It’s not a matter of ending it, it’s all about getting through it. You can do this!
These holiday divorce blues won’t last forever, though that may be of little consolation for the agony you feel now. Take one day at a time, and you’ll exhale with pride on January 2, saying, “I did it. (And, I hope I never have to do it again!).” You can turn the pain into gain, and begin on a life skill that you’ll use throughout the years ahead – nurturing yourself. Taking care of yourself means there’s less chance you’ll need drugs to get through the holidays. Be brave this year. Examine your expectations and reframe them to take care of you first.
Happy Holidays – from you to YOU!