Managing Your Emotions During the Holidays
Years ago my babysitter was attacked in her grocery store parking lot. A man held a knife to her throat and demanded that she get into the car. She fought back against her assailant and escaped with cuts to her throat and hand. She needed some stitches but suffered no permanent injury.
She told me the story the next day calmly even when she showed me the bandages and explained the severity of the cuts. She seemed most angry when she described how the bananas she had just bought were mashed into the carpet of the car and how difficult it was to clean the carpet. Days later she was still talking about the bananas.
It seemed strange to me at the time that she should be so angry about mashed bananas and not about having her throat cut and narrowly escaping serious harm. However, I have noticed the same tendency in myself in the years since. Sometimes in the midst of serious situations, I find myself furious about some trivial aspect of the situation.
I remember one of my late-stage cancer friends raging about how the pharmacy mishandled a problem with her prescription when what she was really furious about was dying. My sister, who used to work in disaster relief, says the same thing can happen after earthquakes and hurricanes. With their houses in ruins behind them, the survivors often become fixated on some minor issue, such as raking the yard.
I'm a member of several on-line cancer groups, and I saw incidences of what I call "mashed banana syndrome" in recent discussions of Thanksgiving. Some people were angry because their relatives avoided discussing cancer or acknowledging how seriously ill they are. Others were angry about insensitive comments their relatives made about their health.
Being angry is a valid response to cancer. Our lives have been turned upside down. Anger helps us marshal our forces to do what needs to be done to get well. Sometimes though it is hard to acknowledge that we are angry about the possibility of dying. Depending on our faith tradition, we may be angry at God for letting us get cancer in the first place, but who can admit to being angry with God, or fate, or our parents for passing down crappy genes to us?
We may blame ourselves for not getting a mammogram sooner, or for not exercising faithfully, or for drinking a little wine every night despite that fact that plenty of women who follow every health guideline still get cancer. But blaming ourselves is also uncomfortable, so we focus on the mashed bananas in our carpets-little things that seem more manageable than death.
Although mashed banana syndrome can happen at any time of year, the holidays can intensify it. We spend more time with our families, and every family has issues that can flare at family gatherings. We hope that our sisters or brothers will put aside old hurts and be there for us now that we are sick, but the reality is that our illness will probably not change the patterns of interaction that have existed for years.
We have idealized pictures of how the perfect decorations and the perfect foods will lead to perfect harmony and joy. When we are exhausted from chemo or too busy with our daily visits for radiation to decorate and cook, we may focus on these little things when we are really sad because this may be our last Hanukkah with our family or we are worried that our children may not remember Christmas with Mama.
Maybe this year you can teach your daughter how to make your famous latkes while you rest in a chair. Maybe this year you will delegate some of the decorating and not worry if your children hang the garlands a little lop-sided. Maybe this year, you will be reading the Christmas story in a hospital room and celebrating with joy that you have one more Christmas with your family.
Light is at the heart of our winter holidays. The candles of Christmas and Hanukkah are symbols of hope. This year if you find yourself getting angry at what your relatives do or at what you cannot do, light another candle. Acknowledge what is really bothering you and then move on. Life is too short to worry about mashed bananas.