Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. This week, she counsels a woman who has had more than her share of troubles—at work and at home—and is now facing a bleak Thanksgiving Day.
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I am usually a happy person, but 2013 has been a hard year for me. I was asked to take a lower-paying job with more hours and less control over my work environment. My husband was diagnosed one year ago with a chronic and serious back condition that requires pain medication that he is careful about; but nonetheless he is not the same person as he was. He seems depressed and is unable to exercise or do much, and he is only 60. He can’t tolerate a car ride that lasts longer than 30 minutes. He is on disability, and with the change in my salary, we have curtailed entertaining and travel. I have two daughters who live in nearby states, but it takes them four hours by car, with young children and grumpy husbands, to come to visit us for the holidays. Last year was a bit of a disaster. A total of three glum men, five wild children, and two exhausted daughters being helpful with the big dinner, but there was just no joy in it. Both of my daughters indicated this summer that they needed to see their in-laws for Thanksgiving. I was saddened by this, but understand that no one would volunteer to be part of a day of Thanksgiving where there is so much gloom. We have been invited to visit both of our daughters and share the day with their in-laws, but it is not possible because of my husband’s inability to travel. I don’t know what to do to prevent this from being such a sad day here at our home—two older people having a Thanksgiving meal. I sort of feel like this is how my life is going to be from now on. No fun. No travel. No holiday celebrations.
Dr. Ford Responds:
You and your family are facing many obstacles that make it difficult to celebrate the holidays in the manner that you are accustomed to. As you say, it’s been an unusually hard year for you—and your husband’s inability to travel, which prevents you from being with children, is yet another consequence of the hardships you have endured. One particular danger you are facing is that sad feelings tend to be magnified during the holiday months.
The fact that your children don’t live close by is now a very common phenomenon in our society, and many families face painful choices like yours. The “Norman Rockwell” picture is now three-quarters of a century old. Since then, families have scattered, so that even if your children did live close by, they might have to visit distant in-laws, as yours do. Our challenging economy, meanwhile, does not easily permit jet-setting around the country for these occasions, and the stress of air travel has become so great that it is barely an improvement over driving, even if you can afford it (especially during the holidays).
Your best bet is to try to “reframe” how you see the upcoming week and change your expectations by avoiding the twin evils of imagining “what others are doing” and remembering “how things used to be.” Try to approach this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to celebrate in a new way. For example, some people, when separated from family, enjoy inviting other friends in this position. Others find it a good day to take advantage of the peace and quiet and go to the movies—sometimes several in a row. Many people have found great satisfaction in volunteering in soup kitchens.
On a final note, your letter makes it sound as if you feel as if your daughters might be actively avoiding you because you have had such a gloomy year. Clearly, your string of bad luck is getting you down, and you need some support. I can’t tell whether or not you are clinically depressed (though your husband is, and I hope he is getting treatment), but it is important to keep an eye on this—especially at this time of year. Encourage your daughters to come visit soon, even if they have to leave the husbands and kids behind, or maybe you should go see them without your husband if he remains unable to travel. It’s important to stay in contact with loved ones, and though holiday visits are great, we shouldn’t need a special occasion to reach out—you need some TLC, and you should ask for it.