It wasn't until I got divorced at midlife that I learned I might not make it through the holidays alive.
I suddenly was besieged with advice on how to survive. Not in practical ways - like how to perform the Heimlich maneuver on myself if I'm choking on leftover Chinese pork ribs, or what to do if I run into a mountain lion while hiking alone - but ways to get through the holidays solo.
Given the amount of "survival" tips around this time of year, you would think more singles die from going home for Christmas or having no one to kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve than anything else.
Thankfully, none of my single friends has met an untimely end this way. And though media reports desperately want to make a connection between the holidays and an increase in suicides, in truth, fewer people decide to end their lives in December than in other months.
Still, the messages singles are bombarded with could understandably lead us to that fate. The holidays are "a particularly rough time to be single," according to Glamour magazine. Woman's Day throws a virtual warm and fuzzy arm around our shoulders and reminds us we should just "know how to have fun regardless of whether you're part of a couple." Meanwhile, the Huffington Post reassures us there's "nothing upsetting about being single during the holiday season, or any time of year, for that matter," because the real problem is that "we haven't met the right person yet."
But don't worry - experts are available to help us. Too bad their advice is often downright laughable. Among their survival secrets:
Head to a dive bar, or at least spike your hot cocoa. (Nothing says the holidays quite like getting drunk.)
Sit at the kids' table or spend time with kids. Anyone's kids. (If nothing else, it's a great reminder always to use birth control.)
Play with the dog, or, if there isn't one, buy your parents a puppy so they'll pay more attention to it than to you. (It took me a good 10 years of begging before my parents finally let me have a dog, when I was 15; I wish I'd known then I could have just bought them a puppy - for me!)
Binge on TV. (Although really keeping up with the Kardashians might kill you.)
Throw on some red lipstick and act happy, happy, happy, because you might meet The One. (Because there's no other reason to look good in public. And no one will be able to tell you're faking it.)
Though I have no doubt the writers of those survival tips have the best interests of singles in mind, the cumulative effect of their advice creates an artificial anxiety when there probably wouldn't have been any at all, or at least not as much. Which means a lot of singles end up feeling bad for no reason.
Are we more alone during the holidays than any other time of the year? Though some of us aren't close, geographically or emotionally, to our parents, siblings, and relatives, others are. Many of us have friends and a tribe of assorted loved ones who feel more like family than our family of origin. But what is it about the holidays that make us feel particularly vulnerable to messages that seem to indicate we're "less than" because we don't have a romantic partner?
For people who live with depression or mood disorders, the stress of the holidays can make them particularly vulnerable. Same with people who have recently experienced a loss, such as a death or a divorce, or who are newly sober.
But for many of us, single or partnered, the biggest reason we sometimes feel blue around the holidays is unrealistic expectations, clinical psychologists say. Who doesn't want to have a Norman Rockwell kind of holiday, with loved ones sharing food, stories, and laughter around the family table?
It's easy to get a bit nostalgic for a real or imagined time when life was simpler and happier, when we felt loved for who we were. The holidays, and all the advertising, marketing, and media around them, play with those sentimental feelings. But nostalgia isn't all that bad, according to psychology professor Krystine Batcho.
"We define ourselves in terms of our relationships, in terms of how we are connected to other people. That helps us identify our sense of self, and nostalgia helps us maintain those connections and a sense of belonging," she told LifeScience. "When you are lonely, it is because you are separate from others in one way or another. And the holidays are really notorious for making people feel alone, even when they are not physically alone."
So when we're feeling crappy about whatever's happening in our lives, Batcho said, nostalgia can be redemptive, helping us remember that there have been better times in our past, and giving us hope that there will be more in the future.
And it isn't necessarily bad to feel crappy around the holidays. According to one study, there's a lot to be said for bah-humbug thinking.
"The strong cultural emphasis [people place] on wanting to be happy all the time is misdirected and could even be damaging. It sends out a message that feeling negative is always unnecessary and dysfunctional, which is clearly not the case," study author and University of New South Wales professor Joe Forgas told Body+Soul magazine. "By propagating a myth that uninterrupted happiness is possible and desirable, it makes people feel worse than they would otherwise."