A Different Perspective on the Holidays

By: Thomas Pecca, MS, CAS, CSAT, CTT
Therapist, The Refuge – A Healing Place

When I think of Thanksgiving, the classic Norman Rockwell painting comes to mind. A huge family sitting around a table preparing to carve a Turkey, so big it looks almost prehistoric. Smiles and anticipation on every face. For many of us that painting, although a caricature of American life, is close to accurate. For many of us the holidays are a reflection of the love and joy being with our family can bring. The holidays for those of us lucky enough, are a time for celebrating gratitude for our family.

For me, as a boy Thanksgiving meant going to my Aunt Rita’s house for the classic Italian American meal. I loved my Aunt’s house, it represented love to me. When I walked in, I felt wanted, accepted and important. There was an abundance of food, almost to excess. I have such fond memories of that home and those people. Even watching my Uncle Junior with his dress shirt off in a white T-shirt  falling asleep to the football game is endearing to me.  My Aunt Rita would always make ravioli as one of the courses of the meal. I loved those ravioli and she knew it. One year she bought an extra box to make sure I would have my fill, and she pulled me aside to say these are for you. To this day my family will occasionally send in the special P & S Ravioli from Philadelphia especially for me. I think this is where my connection to food as love began and while it helped me feel important and loved (not the easiest thing for this child) it also set me up for food as a coping mechanism later in life.

Thanksgiving at Aunt Rita’s meant getting up early in our South Jersey apartment and catching a bus into Philadelphia to catch another bus and then a taxi, but I didn’t care. You see, home was not like Aunt Rita’s. My Father passed away when I was 4 years old and my mother raised us alone. Not an unusual circumstance today but slightly less common when I was a boy. She worked as a waitress and as such was gone much of the time. I spent a good deal of time on my own as a boy and loneliness was an issue for me, feeling different and separate was an issue for me. At Aunt Rita’s I felt part of and that loud Italian family was the farthest thing from being alone. My mother did the best she could but food was not always on the table and the utilities would occasionally stop working. We moved almost every year and rarely in my life did I feel I had a home. Her alcoholism also created a distance in the connection between us at times. I knew my mother loved me but I still felt alone. Thanksgiving for me provided hope and love and connection in a way I could not receive in my daily life. I am still grateful for what I received at the home in South Philly. I truly believe it is one of the things that helped me survive my traumatic childhood. For me Thanksgiving is a wonderful experience.
For some of us Thanksgiving is not as wonderful. Many of us are alone, and Thanksgiving sitting with a microwave Turkey dinner or at a table for one in a restaurant. is just a reminder of that loneliness. For some of us Thanksgiving with our family is a reminder of dysfunction and trauma often times being served a meal at a table that contains someone or someone’s that hurt us, abandoned us or neglected us. For those individuals Thanksgiving can be something that must be endured. For some of us working on our own issues of addiction or trauma, perhaps newly sober, Thanksgiving can be a dangerous thing. Some of our families celebrate the holiday by getting as drunk or high as they can. This may be fine for some of them and some may be in their own addictive behaviors, but it can be an incredibly triggering event for those of us early in our recovery. It can be an incredibly triggering event for those of who have been in the recovery process for a long time as well.

I don’t know which category you may fall into but I have some thoughts on what you may consider doing in each case. If you are lucky enough to have that Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving, maybe you can look at it with a different perspective and gratitude this year, knowing it’s not true for all of us. Gratitude is what this holiday is about. It is commonplace to consider that Thanksgiving for those with less means is difficult. We don’t often consider what it is like for those of us who struggle in different ways. For those of you like me who Thanksgiving was a “Refuge”, gratitude is a perhaps more important and appropriate. For those of us alone I encourage you to find fellowship where you can. If you are in recovery there is almost always “alcothons” going on at Alcoholics Anonymous clubhouses around the country. It is a great place to feel welcome, a part of and not alone. Another option is to give of yourself. I have spent a few Thanksgivings serving the homeless. It can be a wonderful way to find gratitude and escape loneliness for a while. For those of us that must endure the holiday, I encourage you to find support to talk to before, during and after. To look at what our triggers may be and have a plan of action to get through it. A friend or sponsor to text when it gets rough. Sometimes it’s the decision to leave early, or not to go, which can be a difficult decision to make.

It is my greatest hope that this holiday finds you in a place of love and gratitude. If that is not the case and you need help, it is my hope that you reach out for the help you need and deserve.