by Shannon Serpette
One of the worst years of my life involved a life-threatening illness and surgery for me, two serious bouts of pneumonia for my daughter, and a stack of medical bills that seemed to rival the U.S. national debt.
My surgery, which was shortly before Christmas, had caused a huge scar on my neck, nerve damage in my arm, shoulder and face, and had left me with temporary vocal cord damage. For several weeks whenever I spoke, I sounded like Marge Simpson’s sisters or a Muppet with a case of mild laryngitis.
I was handling it all in stride until one day when I got an invitation for a Christmas party. Going to big Christmas parties for me is like attending high school reunions – there’s people I can’t wait to see and some I desperately want to avoid. That year, I wasn’t sure I could handle some of the challenging personalities I knew would be there. But I knew my children would have a blast, so I took one for the team and went anyway.
Within the first 20 minutes I was cornered by one of the people I had hoped to avoid. My eyes darted frantically around the room looking for any kind of escape, but my children were happily playing and my husband was involved in another conversation and had no idea I needed reinforcements.
I knew the guy who had me cornered was a well-known braggart, and I wasn’t in the mood to hear about how fabulous his life was at a time when everything was falling apart for me. But he wasn’t going to let a fresh victim get away that easily.
After telling me in a nice, sympathetic way how awful my scar looked, he launched right into it. In a nutshell, he and his family had been traveling all over the place, everyone was enjoying perfect health, his children were dominating in school sports, and they were so blessed that things couldn’t be better.
In that moment, I blended right into the Christmas decoration color scheme – I was green with envy and my face was red with rage. I hated that feeling, and all I could do was swallow hard and concentrate on croaking out my congratulations in the least Muppet-like voice I could muster.
I’m not the type of person who ordinarily begrudges someone their happiness or success. But it was the wrong thing for me to hear, and it was at the worst possible time. I was left feeling as if my life was so screwed up, like I was the Cousin Eddie to his Clark Griswold.
Ever since that night, I’ve walked into Christmas parties with a strategic plan in place. Here are the highlights for other parents who also struggle to make it through parties that leave them feeling depressed when they walk out the door.
Make sure you have a wingman: Whether it’s your spouse, sibling or friend, you need someone who has your back. Make sure they’re aware of the problem you’re experiencing. If there’s someone flashy who loves to show off pictures of his latest trip to Hawaii and you need to count your change just to scrape up enough money for a trip to Subway, let your wingman know. Ask your buddy ahead of time to intervene if they notice you’re cornered by the person you want to avoid.
Remind yourself nobody has a perfect life: Even if the thought of it leaves you so unsettled that your eggnog seems to be curdling in your stomach, try not to judge the person who annoys you too harshly. It’s hard to be empathic or kind in the face of annoyance, but remind yourself that he might be going through a hard time too – it just might not be as obvious. Maybe he’s bragging about all the things that are going right in his life so he doesn’t have to address the things that are going wrong.
Rethink any alcohol consumption: Speaking of eggnog, although memory lapses and blackouts might sound tempting on a night like this, lingering too long at the eggnog bowl might lead to a little more depression than you need right now.
Find your happy place: From the moment they came into my life, my number one focus has always been on my children and their well-being and happiness. Despite all the challenges we have faced as a family, my children and I share a deep, close bond. We truly enjoy each other’s company, and we make each other laugh every day. They make me a better person, and I hope I’m doing the same for them.
When I’m feeling annoyed at holiday parties, I look over at them. Seeing them happy, healthy and thriving reminds me that nothing else matters to me but that.
Help an underdog: There are other people like us out there – the underdogs who are having a rough time. The quickest way to make yourself feel better is to lend someone else a much-needed hand.
Look around the room for someone who is trapped in an unwanted conversation – you’ll be able to recognize them from the glazed look in their eyes and the morose expression on their face. Once you’ve found your underdog, go help. Give them a sincere compliment – if they have well-behaved children, tell them. If they’ve made an outstanding dessert, let them know. A kind word might be just the thing they need right now.
Watch what you say: Since that night years ago, things have on an upswing for my family and me. The health problems have been resolved and the medical debt has been paid. My children are both straight A students, participating in sports and never get in trouble at school. But will I trap someone at a Christmas party this year and brag about it? No way. I don’t need to talk about it. I’d rather spend my time quietly counting my blessings and helping others realize what theirs are.