By: Jennifer Garrett
Joy and glad tidings are only part of the seasonal picture. While many of us light up at the first sight of tinsel, others struggle as the cards and invitations arrive. Maybe it's your first post-divorce holiday without the kids, or the first Christmas since a parent or spouse passed away. Or perhaps you've been diagnosed with a chronic illness or you're struggling with an eating disorder. For whatever reason, the holidays can be painful, stressful or lonely when celebrations are more pain, temptation and stress than, well, celebration.
Yet no matter what you are going through, you aren't alone, and sympathetic souls are usually no farther than the nearest support group.
"I think one of the biggest benefits of anyone attending a support group is being around others who have had a similar experience … to normalize what they're going through and realize that they're not alone," says Jessie Shiveler, a grief counselor with Agrace HospiceCare.
Bruce Nicholas, director of residential substance abuse treatment center Hope Haven–Rebos United, agrees. Nicholas points out that support groups are standard components of various recovery programs, and many individuals rely on them, sometimes years into sobriety. "Support groups do exactly that," he says. "They address a basic human need to not be isolated. Most people do get some support just from being with other people."
That can be particularly helpful during the holidays, which, ironically, can exacerbate feelings of isolation. With gatherings around every corner, those of us who opt out because of grief or to avoid temptations can easily feel left out and alone.
"We have a natural drive to be with people we feel close to, but for alcoholics or addicts, a lot of those family ties may have been lost," Nicholas says. "[The holidays] may emphasize the fact that they are separated from their families, that they're not welcome home anymore, that they separated from their children."
More simply, support groups can provide companionship without the need to explain why you're skipping the rum punch and company without questions about how you're coping with your spouse's death.
Shiveler recognizes that some individuals hesitate to attend meetings for those very reasons. Reluctant to rehash difficult issues with strangers, it might seem easier to avoid the groups and deal with grief or sadness alone.
Yet while she acknowledges that there is a lot of discussion, Shiveler points out that support groups are not all talk. For example, support groups can generate useful coping skills and tactics that individuals can employ not only during the holidays but also throughout the year. Groups might discuss how to identify which events will be most challenging or how to be open with loved ones about feelings and expectations. You might learn that you can reach out to some friends and explain that while the annual New Year's party might be too difficult, you would love to get together for lunch or a movie in January.
Nicholas adds that alcoholics might learn that instead of avoiding gatherings, they can bring a sober friend to parties to help defuse tensions and keep recovery on track.
And support groups are a great place to find not only those kinds of strategies, but also those kinds of friends. "Support groups … don't tend to be people who are still stuck in their misery," Nicholas says. "They've learned about their illness and how to be sober."
The value of support groups is evidenced by their ubiquity; most anyone can find a group tailored to his or her issues or circumstances. Most are free and easy to find through health plans, doctors or even places of worship.
"People look forward to our groups," Shiveler says. "Sometimes they are apprehensive at first because it's a new experience. [But] there really is something therapeutic about telling your story to a group of people who have had a similar experience. There are other people who have significant losses in their lives. There are people who know how you're feeling."
Jennifer Garrett is a Madison-based freelance writer.
See more Madison Magazine health stories here.
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