While Christmas is supposed to be time of reunion and celebration, it’s often a highly stressful period for many families.
Routine is disrupted and expectations are raised, and family gatherings can expose the underlying issues that are simmering away in every family. For those estranged from or without families, it emphasises their loneliness.
People respond to the pressures of Christmas in different ways, says regional Victorian alcohol and drugs counsellor Mike Carroll. Alcohol can bring out underlying issues in every family, and for those living with other alcohol and drug issues it can be a difficult period to manage.
It’s a difficult time. Christmas is made out to be this perfect time when families are all happy and get together and have lots of Christmas presents, lots of food. It’s not the reality. The reality is these days that a lot of families are divided.
“It’s a difficult time. Christmas is made out to be this perfect time when families are all happy and get together and have lots of Christmas presents, lots of food. It’s not the reality. The reality is that these days a lot of families are divided,” Mike says.
“Christmas is also a time when people are gathering in a small space and once they do have a drink then problems can arise. It can be from little things like you haven’t brought the right food or your presents aren’t as good as the next person’s. Underneath all that are all these kinds of different resentments and tensions simmering away that are the real problem. And it’s when you get all these people in the room that that can combust.
“There are just dramas because of so many different personalities that are coming together that are not normally together. That’s exacerbated when people have drinks and multiple drinks, and start early.”
The nature of Christmas has changed with the nature of families over the generations and, with divorce rates having quadrupled since the 1960s, families are more divided now than ever before.
In my family, Christmas brought about different reactions to things depending on the current standing of our relationships and our capabilities in responding to them.
Throughout my early childhood when my parents were still married, Christmas was a happy time. We gifted one another presents and enjoyed a big festive lunch with rare treats like roast turkey and Mum’s lentil salad. We caught up with extended family who we otherwise seldom saw.
When I was 13 years old my parents divorced and Christmas became a traumatic time. It was a more emphatic, condensed version of the issues that we experienced year-round.
The expectations of how Christmas should be only highlighted the dysfunction and brokenness of our family. Where the kids would spend Christmas was always a source of arguing between my parents, with me and my three younger siblings caught in the middle.
I tried to block out the hurt and distress I felt with drugs, and lashed out against them with reckless behaviour. This behaviour was at its most prolific around Christmas, which also coincided with the school holidays.
I spent my first Christmas away from my parents aged 14, when I was court-ordered to spend three months in a residential drug rehabilitation facility. The only alternative offered was a sentence in a juvenile detention centre.
In the lead-up to that Christmas, I remember feeling happy for one of the first times since my early childhood. I had been clean from drugs for a few weeks and established a sense of routine, and rehab had also put some distance between the family issues that were both a symptom and a cause of my behaviour.
All that changed come the Christmas break.
Christmas made me feel more alone and angrier than ever. I knew that all my mates would be out there celebrating and running amok, while I was court-ordered to be sober and acutely aware of everything I was missing out on.
Christmas time also forced me to confront the issues in my family that I wasn’t equipped to deal with and would have chosen to block out with drugs, had that choice been available to me.
Some of the usual rehab staff who I had come to know and trust were also not there to support me, having taken a break to be with their families over Christmas.
I thought seriously about leaving a number of times over that Christmas break, as did many of my peers at the facility. If I hadn’t been court-ordered to be there, I probably would have left.
Christmas is a time when those who are estranged from their families, like I was, are acutely aware of how alone they are, says Mike.
“You’re left by yourself and what used to be a very enjoyable experience becomes a very lonely, sad experience. You look at social media and everyone’s talking about their happy Christmas, posting their happy family snaps. And for some people, that can push them over the edge.”
For South East Sydney Local Health District outreach co-ordinator Nick Rich, Christmas is an especially worrying time for his clients.
He says that at this time, it’s exceptionally important for NSP and other support services to maintain a sense of routine and normality.
It’s a complex and incredibly challenging time for our clients. The normal community shuts down a bit so the things that allow clients to kind of continue and manage – doctors, support services and the like – are sometimes not available. We do notice an increasing level of frustration within the community.
“It’s a complex and incredibly challenging time for our clients,” says Nick. “The normal community shuts down a bit so the things that allow clients to kind of continue and manage – doctors, support services and the like – are sometimes not available. We do notice an increasing level of frustration within the community around access.
“We absolutely try to maintain a consistency to our services. Because Christmas is such a difficult time, we understand the importance of that, and even though routine and staffing might be disrupted a little, we do everything to run services that are on par with our services throughout the rest of the year.”
South East Sydney Local Health District also works with other community groups like the Uniting Church, which provides a Christmas Day event and donations for its clients, says Nick.
“Thankfully, we do also see a huge upswell in other support services around Christmas. We really target that in our work and make sure we’re teaming up with those services to provide more engagement, presence and support.
“Each year the community is incredibly generous with gifts and various items that we help to distribute.”
Building up to it
In the top end, weather plays a more critical role in drug use around Christmas time, says Northern Territory Aids and Hepatitis Council (NTAHC) harm reduction co-ordinator Pete Sidaway.
“It’s called the build-up. Every year before the wet season we get this intense build-up of heat and humidity and people do go a bit troppo,” Pete says.
“By Christmastime it’s usually started to rain and cooled down a bit and things tend to settle down.”
Pete says that like South East Sydney’s health service, NTAHC and its partner organisation must work year-round to provide support, especially around Christmas, because people’s demons do not go on holidays.
“Unfortunately, because we see people in emergency situations year round we don’t really notice much of an increase around Christmas. It’s a systemic, ongoing thing.”
As I moved into my later teens, I took to smoking copious amounts of marijuana early in the morning before Christmas get-togethers.
Smoking cannabis helped me to build an appetite for the Christmas feast, and also to numb the discomfort and displeasure of all the little resentments and issues that would inevitably bubble to the surface on Christmas day.
Smoking cannabis helped me to build an appetite for the Christmas feast, and also to numb the discomfort and displeasure of all the little resentments and issues that would inevitably bubble to the surface on Christmas Day.
Drugs were the only way I was able to try to deal with these issues, both at Christmas and throughout the year.
View from the inside
My younger brother resorted to similar measures. This became problematic for him, and contributed to his imprisonment in 2020. He spent last Christmas in jail.
On Christmas Day the prison allowed its inmates a few extra privileges, he says, like a barbecue lunch and extended ‘Family Day’ visits, which took place on the oval rather than in the prison visits rooms.
But Christmas in jail was a mostly melancholy affair, with the inmates all the more aware of where they were and what they were missing out on beyond the prison walls.
“It’s pretty shit. Jail isn’t much fun most of the time, but around Christmas you’re always thinking about what your family might be doing, what your mates might be doing for New Year’s, what you might be doing if you were out there,” he says.
When you’re in jail you have to try to forget about the outside world, separate yourself from it and just accept where you are. Christmas definitely makes it harder to do that.
“When you’re in jail you have to try to forget about the outside world, separate yourself from it and just accept where you are. Christmas definitely makes it harder to do that.”
Often, he says, drug use within the prison increases after Christmastime, with the Family Day visits providing an opportunity for visitors to smuggle drugs like ice and heroin into the jail.
My younger sister celebrated Christmas and dealt with the issues it might have brought in her own way, mostly by drinking and partying – sometimes to excess.
“It’s Christmas,” she says.
“Everyone’s celebrating. There are heaps of things on and everyone is on holidays. It’s a time to let loose and have fun.”
Around the country, alcohol use increases greatly over the Christmas period, with a study from FebFast estimating that Australians’ alcohol intake increases by up to 300 per cent at this time.
This correlates with an increase in alcohol-related harms, with statistics from Turning Point and Vic Health showing a peak in alcohol-related hospitalisations.
While my sister admits to getting “blackout drunk” with friends at previous Christmas and New Year’s celebrations, she says the difference between whether her drinking at Christmas was a problem for her depended on her level of self-awareness.
I guess that’s the big difference: understanding how the things that come up around Christmas might make you feel, and how you choose to respond to those things. When I was younger and hadn’t learned that self-awareness yet, yeah, I would definitely drink to oblivion. With time and maturity, I’ve learned to manage that better.
“I guess that in my own way, some of the drinking and partying was about trying to forget about what might be happening at home, but I don’t think Christmas has to be a bad time.
“I guess that’s the big difference: understanding how the things that come up around Christmas might make you feel and how you choose to respond to those things,” she says.
“When I was younger and hadn’t learned that self-awareness yet, yeah, I would definitely drink to oblivion. With time and maturity, I’ve learned to manage that better.”
In the years since, many of the issues in our family have healed with a little time, and the way each of us siblings responds to them has improved as we’ve become more mature.
The rush of Christmas is still a stressful time when there’s so much to do and so many expectations to meet.
But to make every Christmas as enjoyable and peaceful as possible, Mike has a simple piece of advice.
“Just be kind to each other. It is a different Christmas than what we’ve had before, with the world finally opening back up after the lockdowns of recent years, and everybody may be feeling a similar way to you,” he says.
“Just try to be kind to everyone you’re around, even if you don’t like them, and you might have a great Christmas.”