Last Day

How to Survive the Holidays

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Show Description

We asked. You answered. This week, we hear from Last Day listeners about why the holidays are so hard, different, stressful, all of the adjectives. Stephanie chats with Dr. Neha Kumar, a clinical psychologist, about tips to get through the season and ways we can honor our loved ones who are no longer with us. Drug and alcohol counselor Wilma Hawkinson discusses being newly sober during the holidays and the importance of making new memories; Miss Ian Callaghan, Executive Director of San Francisco Drug Users Union, provides useful advice for those who have someone with active addiction in their lives; and comedian James Tison explains how boundaries keep holiday gatherings healthy. Plus, a very special letter from Santa.
Please note, Last Day contains strong language, mature themes, and may not be appropriate for all listeners.
Show Notes

Last Day, episode 13 — How to Survive the Holidays transcript


[00:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Before we get started, I have an ask. We want to hear from you about your experience as a Last Day listener. Please go to to answer a short survey and provide us with insights about you and your ideas. It’s short. I promise. I know you’re busy. I am, too. We’d appreciate it. Thank you. 


[00:59] Caller: This time of year is hard for us because this is sort of a season of anniversary, especially given last year, my friend was relapsing on his whole holiday season was covered by that. So everything brings you back there, so, that’s hard.  I think it’s just hard to — it’s sort of hard to connect with what used to be the feeling around the holidays. It all feels different. And I’ve learned that that’s not necessarily bad. We’re finding a new way to do them. And it’s less about the surface prettiness of everything. And we’re trying to find more meaning and focus on connection. But it’s different. And that can be hard sometimes. 


[01:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Ah, the surface prettiness. It’s so alluring, isn’t it? I mean, there’s this version of the holidays that features decked out Christmas trees, and twinkling lights, and smiling families posing for holiday cards adorned in swirly gold writing. It all looks so perfect. Well, what happens when one of those family members is gone? Or unable to show up this year because they’re in the throes of active addiction. How does one generate a holiday card then? Because speaking from personal experience, it is pretty damn hard to feel festive when everything is so different. And like our listener said in her voicemail, it’s hard not to think about what used to be. And this isn’t just true around the holidays. Listening to your voicemails, it’s true every day. 


[02:51] Caller: Hi, my name is Mary Ann. 


[02:53] Caller: Hi, I’m Corey. I’m calling from Southern California.


[02:56] Caller: Hello, this is Emily. 


[02:58] Caller: This is Alexa again. My voicemail was too long, so it got cut off. 


[03:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Grief and loss are hard and depressing and can feel soul-crushingly lonely. And now we’re taking that very shitty status quo and putting the holidays on top of it, which just amplifies all the stuff that’s already there on a daily basis. Because now there’s pressure to be festive and happy and to bake cookies and to take photos with Santa after standing in a long line at the mall. It is the ultimate pressure cooker threatening to explode at any minute. 


[03:34] Caller: My family’s experienced a loss related to opioids. 


[03:39] Caller: It is so evil what it has done to our family, to me, to my sisters, and to my mom and dad, and all of the other relationships that they have.


[03:50] Caller: And sadly, he was caught shooting up heroin in the bathroom of my hometown gas station were my little sister worked and it’s just really hard.


[04:05] Caller: It’s been a way for me to reach out to family members and share information to come past that paralyzed feeling of not being able to understand or to do anything.


[04:23] Caller: I’ve been hesitant to call this number until today. My wife has pushed me. I found my brother dead last December 9, 2018, a little less than a year ago. He died of an accidental overdose. I can’t get that image out of my head of opening that door and seeing my brother alone in his condo fall — he kind of fell over between the couch and his table, just laying there for 13 hours until I found him. It’s just an image I don’t think I’ll ever get out of my head. Something I think about every day. And that’s when I created a local nonprofit here called Henry’s Uncle. Henry is my one-year-old son, almost two-year-old son now. So other families don’t get that call, or don’t find their loved one dead, due to a substance. Again, thank you both for everything that you do and talk to you soon. Bye.


[05:47] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs, and this is Last Day. 


[05:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We were putting this holiday episode together and my producer was like, what’s your holiday story? And as I shove potato chips into my mouth, I said, I don’t really have one. And then I took a beat and I was like, hmm, I mean, my dad would write us these very emotional letters from Santa every year dating back to 1985. Is that a thing? And Jackie was like, um yes, that is definitely a thing. So this thing is that my father, who is very much Jewish, made a very big deal out of Christmas because he didn’t want us to feel left out. So we did the whole shebang. Stockings, cookies, toys. They did draw the line at the tree. But the MVP of the season were these letters from Santa that started when I was four and Harris was one. 


[06:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: His first note was pretty short and sweet. It said, Dear Stephanie, I know how hard you have been working to be a good girl. And I like what I have seen. I like the please and the thank yous when people have done something nice for you. And I love the way you treat your little brother. I can see how very much you love him. I think you are a very beautiful and sweet little girl, and I am very proud of you. Love, Santa Claus. The gifts were cool, but over the years, ghostwriting Santa became the focal point of the day. You guys met my dad last episode. He’s not a speaker of feelings so this was the one time a year when, quote unquote, Santa expressed his feelings to me and my brother, and it meant a lot to us. 


[07:36] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Over time, it grew and grew into one of our most beloved family traditions. And Harris was a big part of that tradition. And now he’s gone. And that loss colors the whole holiday season. And it will forever. And it sounds like you’re all experiencing your own versions of that, too.


[07:58] Caller: All of my memories of Christmas growing up that were so magical have my brother in them. And it will never be the same. So this will be my third Christmas in a row of pretending as best I can. Putting a smile on my face and trying to make it magical for my kids. But I know what we’re all missing out on. 


[08:20] Caller: I think for the holidays is like the family members that are not here, you know, for different reasons that aren’t able to spend, you know, Christmas Eve and, you know, just that family time together. I think that that kind of gets hard. And just like the stress of it, especially with the little kids, you know, we want everything to be so perfect all the time. So it does get kind of stressful. It’s just kind of chaotic. 


[08:45] Caller: Holidays are hard. Growing up, I selfishly hated December 18th. My mother and my brother shared a birthday that day, and it was also my grandparents’ anniversary. We would usually all have dinner together where I was the only person not celebrating something. Now, I hate that day more than I ever did growing up. I wish my grandparents were still here to celebrate their anniversary, and I wish my brother were still here to celebrate his birthday. I wish my mother weren’t the only one left having to celebrate. And I wish she didn’t have to absolutely dread her own birthday. I wish I still hated December 18th for stupid reasons and some real ones. 


[09:26] Caller One of the things that I miss the most in this new life without my brother in it at the holidays is shopping for him. And I don’t know why my grief comes out in this materialistic way, but there was just something that I loved so much about going out and looking at things and thinking about what he would like or what he could use. Just anticipating the joy that he would get from whatever I bought for him. I’ve even thought about buying some of these things for myself, an oversized flannel that I could wear and think of him. But it’s not the same. And when I’m out now, in the three Christmases since he died, I see things that I know he would have loved and it just hurts. But I always loved cooking for Daniel because he liked my cooking and he loved food more than anybody in the family. And I just can’t believe that he’s gone and he won’t be a part of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, New Year’s and all the holidays every year.


[10:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s hard not to focus on the way things used to be. So today we are talking about the holidays. The things we do and don’t do, the things that are hard and the things we can do to get through it.


[11:08] Neha Kumar: The holidays are a time that people associate with celebrating and festivities. And unfortunately, a lot of times that means using weather that’s drinking or, you know, using whatever their drug of choice is. 


[11:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s Neha Kumar. She is a clinical psychologist who works in the recovery world in Los Angeles. 


[11:26] Neha Kumar: I think it’s very, very important to have some sort of a plan. If you know, you’re going to somebody’s house for a party, or family members, you know, it’s always important to be able to reach out and say, look, this is triggering for me. Can we not have alcohol there? Can we not have this there? Sometimes it’s important to be able to be surrounded by your sober support network. So if you need to take a sober buddy to a family party, or plan your own get-together, if you know that your family or friends are getting together and there’s gonna be alcohol, there’s gonna be this and that and they’re not really willing to eliminate that, make your own plans. But definitely make your own plans. Don’t try to kind of go into it with with nothing planned and then you’ll get depressed and you feel lonely and you feel bored because that can definitely lead to relapse.


[12:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Holidays are hard for people who are trying not to use, but they’re also hard for families that are grieving loved ones who they’ve lost. 


[12:19] Neha Kumar: As somebody that’s experienced loss, especially around the holidays, I would say that one of the best things you can do for yourself is let yourself feel, let yourself grieve. There’s nothing to feel shameful about or feel guilty about. You are allowed to feel whatever you’re feeling, because if you internalize that, then it’s really going to make things worse. I would also suggest figuring out a way to kind of honor that person that you lost, whether it’s having a picture of them up by the tree or, you know, just just having them be a part of it. It’s going to be bittersweet. It’s going to be painful. But, you know, if you’re able to grieve properly and emote and incorporate them in some way, it will start to get a little bit easier. And chances are they wouldn’t want you to kind of dwell in the misery of it all. That’s the last thing they probably want for you. And then the last piece of advice I would give is maybe start some some new traditions. And if you have young kids in the family, that’s always a great way of infusing the holidays with joy again is really seeing it through their eyes. So I would say definitely emote. Try to incorporate your loved one. And try to bring back the joy.


[13:33] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is lovely advice. When we come back, we’ll hear what it looks like in practice. 


[15:51] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back and we are trying our best to fa-la-la-la-la our way through this holiday season.


[15:58] Caller: Biggest thing I do is slow down. Self-compassion is my new mantra. And we only do what we want to do about the holidays. You know, there’s no should anymore. It’s just how how would this feel good? How would this feel meaningful? And if it’s too much, stop, take a break and recognize that I’m doing the best that I can with the energy that I have. 


[16:34] Caller: The holidays are all a part that I’ve learned over these five or six year that the best thing to do is communicate with the people around me. I told my boyfriend that I may not be acting like myself and that I may need time to myself. And that really helps. Just kind of putting down some time if I need it.


[16:54] Caller: You know, I think we just really just trying to focus on the good. You know, we had such a rough year and there were so much bad. And sometimes I have to remind myself, like, it’s OK to be happy, and it’s OK to live in this new life that we are in. Continue to feed ourselves with positivity and good thoughts and just really not letting the small stuff like bring me down. And things happen when you put like too much pressure and too much focus on things going right. Like it’s OK if my bow didn’t come out perfect, you know? It was fun doing it. So I just try to be more laid back and just enjoy the moment, enjoy the conversation, you know, enjoy the time off that we get and just enjoy the fact that we have each other. Like, why waste it? And that’s really what I’m intentionally trying to do this year is to just enjoy it no matter what happens. 


[17:50] Wilma Hawkinson: I have some, you know, some traditions that I carry on too, like making sure that I do decorate for the holidays. Because my children all live in different states, so it’s really easy to go, well, they’re not going to be here any way, why would I do that? I’m doing it for me. I’m doing it for my inner child. I’m doing it for pre-addition Wilma as well.


[18:14] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That last voice is Wilma Hawkinson. Like everyone else you just heard, she has to take the holidays at her own perfect fucking pace. You can’t bring yourself to decorate this year? Good. You need to decorate this year? That works, too. 


[18:30] Wilma Hawkinson: I have just a little bitty Christmas tree, but I have a ton of lights and I have really awesome little homemade ornaments. And, you know, just a bunch of Christmas tchotchkes. 


[18:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Wilma is a drug and alcohol counselor in Eugene, Oregon, and she is nine-and-a-half years sober. And even though that probably sounds like a really long time, she still clearly remembers what those early days were like.


[18:58] Wilma Hawkinson: In early sobriety, I felt like I didn’t have any skin. I was so uncomfortable being around people and not being around people. Everything was just uncomfortable. And I always did just what was right in front of me, kind of regardless of how I felt, because the fear of relapse and going back into active addiction was so scary.


[19:23] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Listen, when you don’t have skin, nothing comes easy. You are 100 percent exposed and vulnerable with no protective barrier between you and everything that’s outside of you. So absolutely everything feels like a test. And tests are hard.


[19:43] Wilma Hawkinson: And I think it’s just kind of by, you know, experimenting with what you can tolerate. You know, for so many reasons, we feel like we don’t belong. So it was a huge deal to like, quote unquote, make myself go somewhere. And I would sit through the meeting with a ton of anxiety and I’d leave and I really wouldn’t feel any better, but I knew I had done what I felt like I should do, or what my sponsor had suggested. And it was those little kind of baby steps that helped me realize I was doing what I felt like was the right thing for my sobriety. And that began to kind of increase my self-worth as well, because I didn’t used to do what anybody told me and I definitely didn’t do what was best for me either. 


[20:39] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: When you’re learning how to do something new, it doesn’t always feel good. So there’s something important about going through the motions and showing up anyway. Wilma’s gotten really good at showing up for herself and for others. In fact, she used to manage family services at a local treatment center. She worked with parents, spouses and children from the moment they called for help, checked their person in, and throughout the treatment and post-treatment journey. Also just FYI, we’ve been pretty language-militant on this show. But Wilma personally identifies as a recovering alcoholic and an addict. So she uses that language, which is actually something we’ve heard from other former drug users as well. So give her a break, which is actually her advice to you as well.


[21:26] Wilma Hawkinson: Some of the things to be aware of, on both sides, is give yourself a break. Give mom a break. Give the recovering addict a break. You know, and I think, too, that in early recovery, addicts and alcoholics, we have so much shame and guilt that we’re just waiting for somebody to bring up, you know, the wreckage of our past or, you know, this is the first Christmas we’ve seen you in five years. And how lucky you are. And the thing is, with addicts and alcoholics, we know, we really know all of that. And it’s really, really painful. And so I think that giving each other space, like, holding the space for the family of an addict, holding the space for an addict themselves just to find their way. And try to be as compassionate and loving as you possibly can with no judgment.


[22:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s kind of similar to what we heard in Episode 5 with interventions. Guilt and shame and judgment just aren’t useful. Wilma has her own complicated relationship with her family. She’s a mom of four with two grandchildren. And even though she’s not always able to be there in person. the holidays give her a chance to express her love for them any really tangible way. With goodies.


[22:55] Wilma Hawkinson: So what I do is I make sure that I listen all year, you know, to something that they might mention that they would like. And so I start my Christmas shopping pretty early. And I just kind of build a box of things and I make sure that I wrap them all. I also include — because I wear patchouli, I also include some patchouli in there so they can kind of smell me in the package. And I try to make it as thoughtful and loving as I can. Like, I bake cookies and send them as well. They just rave and rave and rave about it. And every gift is really thoughtfully chosen. And the box is just packaged with a ton of love. And I grew up in a really, really abusive home. And so it’s not the same as being with them at Christmas, but it’s the best that I can do right now. And right now, that’s OK. 


[24:04] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m going to learn embroidery just so I can embroider the phrase, ‘It’s the best that I can do right now. And right now, that’s OK.’ on a pillow. I mean, how great would it be if we allowed that to be the guiding principle of the holidays? We’re gonna return to Wilma later this season to look at substance use as a symptom of trauma, specifically childhood trauma. For now, we’ll leave it at this. Wilma has come a very, very long way. And she’s still actively fighting for her well-being. The fact that she’s aware enough to accept where she is on her journey is huge and it allows her to find comfort in small but significant ways.

[24:51] Wilma Hawkinson: So some of the things that help me feel safe is first and foremost, my dog. My dog has been with me in sobriety from the very first year I got sober, and moved with me from Memphis to Oregon, and so he is a real source of grounding and stability. But I also have surrounded myself with really stellar, strong, supportive, beautiful people in my life. And that’s not always the case in early recovery. Actually, last year I asked two really good friends of mine if I could spend the night with them on Christmas Eve. And I don’t do that. Like I don’t — I like to be at home in my bed, you know, and just kind of reflect. However, I thought it would be really cool that we could, you know, watch movies the night before, and all of us have our jammies on, and pop popcorn and, you know, wake up at their house on Christmas morning. And so it was really cool. And to be honest with you, I didn’t enjoy all of it, for real. I just did it because I thought that maybe doing something to remind myself, and also to make memories. You know, I think that making new memories is really, really important. And so I suggest like just doing something maybe a little bit different and always, always, always try to reach out to the, you know, the best you can, even if it’s via text message with someone. Definitely try to reach out. 


[26:38] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: What she’s talking about is the importance of connection. Whether that be with a dog, a friend, a tradition, a community, whatever it is. The idea is to reach out, to try to connect with something outside of yourself. And I know up top we said listen to whatever you need this season. But the flip side of that is if your internal voice is telling you to hide under the covers all alone and cry from Christmas straight into New Year’s, get a second opinion. I mean, respect your boundaries, yes, but just don’t do it all alone. 


[27:18] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: With this in mind, we are moving from Eugene, Oregon, to the Tenderloin district of San Francisco to talk to a woman who is working to create a space where people don’t have to be alone. 


[27:29] Miss Ian: My name is Miss Ian and I am currently the executive director of a nonprofit called the San Francisco Drug Users Union, and it’s a needle exchange and Naloxone/Narcan training and distribution center. 


[27:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The San Francisco Drug Users Union has been around since 2010. They’ve managed to hold on through gentrification and marginalization and they’ve carved out a little piece of home in their neighborhood. Recently, they moved into a new space that has a full working kitchen and they hosted this big Thanksgiving dinner that felt just like any normal family holiday gathering. Miss Ian, like many harm reduction advocates, is compassionate and empathetic and believes in treating people with dignity and respect. And typically when we ask people in this field how they relate to the community they serve, they share their own history of substance use or a family connection. But Ms. Miss Ian brings another experience to the table that influences her perspective. 


[28:28] Miss Ian: I am transgender and my family is pretty pretty OK about that fact. But it still is, in my personal experience, it’s something that’s not often talked about. It definitely sets me aside. So even when I guess I’m with family, it feels a little isolating. So to be able to, I guess, help create a space where people who feel like they don’t fit in in other spots feel like they can fit in for a day is that impactful for me, to be honest. It’s very powerful to have people who aren’t accepted or feel like they haven’t been accepted in other places are a lot quicker to accept other people who are different. So it has been, in my personal experience, it’s been fascinating. On a completely — on a side tangent — to have people who are really bad at, I guess, like pronouns and stuff like that in normal life, which can be kind of isolating and a little bit — how would I say it — like a not — it makes you sad a little bit. You’re like, oh man, people can’t get it even though they’re very smart. Or they’re like college-educated and whatever else. I can be in a room full of people who are at probably what society would call the lowest of the low, like living on the streets, injecting heroin all day, still with great senses of humor. And always call me Miss Ian, and always use she pronouns is pretty — is a pretty interesting dichotomy to have experienced in my life. 


[30:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Miss Ian’s lived experience gives her insight into what it feels like to be stigmatized and marginalized. But she also gets how uncomfortable it is to deal with people who are well-meaning but totally misguided. Like when people go out of their way to talk about the fact that she is transgender. 


[30:38] Miss Ian: Oh, man. Maybe it’s the one thing that you want to be the most careful about is actually the one thing that I want to talk about the least. Right? It says I’m not comfortable, and I’m trying to figure out how to be comfortable. So it’s more about other people than it is about you. And I think that that’s also a feeling that people who are marginalized get. They’re like, hmm, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, you invited me here and now I see making you uncomfortable. And that’s actually making me uncomfortable. And now I’m not having a good time. 


[31:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know exactly what this dynamic feels like in terms of my brother’s drug use. To be relieved on the one hand that he’s there and that he’s safe. But to look at him and only be able to see the thing that’s making everyone uncomfortable. Drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs. And that’s not because I didn’t love him. It’s because I loved him with the entirety of my being. Families want the best for each other. And sometimes that feels really good and supportive, but it can also manifest as a ton of pressure. We asked Miss Ian and how well-intentioned families can support their loved ones without accidentally pushing them away. 


[32:02] Miss Ian: Number one, you can relate to your family member in a non-judgmental way, which is really hard to do if you want the best for someone and you think they’re not doing the best for themselves. It is hard to approach that person in a way that seems like I don’t care what you do with your body. I just want you to be safe. It’s hard to take on that outlook. But the more that you gravitate towards that side, the more that people will come back to you when they realize — or when their life starts getting more out of control, right? If you create a space. Like the Union is a space that there are lots of people who have sort of problematic behaviors attached to their substance use, and that we sort of set up a space in a way that will hold people accountable, not necessarily for their drug use, but for their behavior.


[33:00] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is a super helpful distinction, drug use versus behavior. I think some people hear our show — I mean, I know this — and they think we’re endorsing abusive behavior in the name of compassion. Like addiction as a chronic disease, so you have to put up with anything a drug user does, and if you don’t, you’re a shitty person. Just to be clear, that is not the message. The idea is that drug users should be treated like all human beings, and part of that is holding them accountable, the way you would with anyone you love and respect. Miss Ian sees this in practice at the Union all the time. People come in. They get connected to the space and the community. It feels like a family. But that doesn’t give them carte blanche to behave any other way they want.


[33:43] Miss Ian: If I was to give you my own personal recipe, you set the space up to have people acknowledge that their life and their identity is really complicated, and that they’ll be accepted no matter what. But that their behavior, if it’s poor, will not necessarily be tolerated. Which means that you have to figure out good ways for people to be accountable for their behavior so that when they mess up, they can write it. You don’t have to tolerate bad behavior. You don’t have to tolerate abusive behavior from people. And remember that people can learn. And that also when you’re setting a boundaries for other people to set up boundaries for yourself. Because you don’t have to be a martyr in trying to save other people. Like don’t kill yourself trying to save someone else. Remember that you still have a life and that people will always be inspired by how you are deciding to live your life as well. 


[34:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is a big-deal concept when you’re in close proximity or in any sort of love relationship with someone who uses drugs. Continuing to live your life in a non-chaotic way can feel impossible. Continuing to find pleasure in your life can feel radical. 


[34:59] Miss Ian: You can’t change everyone’s direction. You can’t change everybody’s path. But you do have control over your own. And so it doesn’t mean that you have to give up on people. And it doesn’t mean that you have to give up on yourself. But you can always find things that make you excited like a new — like a brand-new book. Or traveling somewhere you’ve never been before. Or figuring out those things that make you scared. This is like a Disney hope definition. But it’s true that just taking a deep breath, and trying to let go of the things that you can’t change, and remembering that this is also your life. And so you get to live the life that you want. And I think that if that seems selfish to you to know that when other people can’t find hope, that they might see it in you.


[35:59] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, I’m gonna have to embroider another pillow. ‘Know that when other people can’t find hope, that they might see it in you.’ My Etsy shop will be opening very soon. 


[36:14] Miss Ian: This holiday, make sure that you take an extra helping of whatever your favorite food is this holiday season. Make sure that you eat at least two portions of it. Don’t always share everything with everybody. Take a little bit extra for you this holiday season. 


[36:31] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: More useful holiday advice, like taking extra pie for yourself, when we come back. 


[38:41] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. So we’ve talked about people who are grieving this holiday season. People who are working through the emotional wreckage of the past and people who are looking to build a connection with a new community. Now we turn to someone whose goal for Christmas is very simple.


[38:59] James Tyson: My plans for this holiday season are Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars and secondarily, family. 


[39:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is James Tyson, a stand-up comic in New York City, who’s two-and-a-half years sober from alcohol. Yes, alcohol. And yes, this isn’t opioids, but addiction is addiction and fallout is fallout. And when James goes home to San Marcos, Texas, to visit their mom, sister and nieces for the holidays, there’s a lot of love. And a lot of history. 


[39:31] James Tyson: I have a great relationship with them. My feelings about going home are also generally positive. Having said that, that’s because I have set boundaries on the homes that I go home to, and the family that I go home to. I love my mother and sister. I am happy to see them on the holidays. There are whole portions of my family that I will not be seeing. 


[39:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: James is pretty much living Wilma and Miss Ian’s advice in action. Setting boundaries, respecting personal space and learning how to give each other a break.


[40:07] James Tyson: You know, I don’t know if this is true for everybody because some parents truly are monsters. My mother isn’t a monster. So for me, that is a relationship where the more I leaned into, wait, what are this person’s needs? What’s going on for her? And take the focus off of myself and say, how can I, in this situation, tend to other people’s needs? And my family, when I do that, is grateful. They give it back in return. Not all families are like that. Some families — people are in the position of giving too much and their family will take and take and take. If you’re in a family of people who have a good back and forth, and will appreciate the positive energy, bring as much positive energy as you can. 


[41:00] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This didn’t happen overnight. James had to figure out how best to deal with the same matching set of holiday baggage as everyone else. 


[41:09] James Tyson: I think the holidays are hard for the same reason that they’re hard for everybody — the holidays put all this pressure on you to buy gifts, and be happy with your family, and happy with yourself, and have fun and be joyous. And those demands are really hard on anybody. They’re really hard on you if you are trying to learn how to buy groceries for yourself for the first time, or just be okay alone with yourself in your house for an hour without alcohol. That’s a tall order any time of year. It’s especially a tall order when every commercial, every Facebook post, everything is holiday. Holiday. Holiday. Family. Family. Family. 


[41:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Historically, the holidays were tied to some of James’s most excessive use. 


[41:58] James Tyson: So I truly, in terms of the holidays, had to learn for the first time how to just be around my family without leaning in to those maladaptive coping techniques that I used whenever something was triggered. And with family, I mean, they’ll trigger anything at the drop of a hat, not even meaning to. They’ll make an off-hand comment that to them is so funny, but for you it’s like ‘that’s my pain!’ And in the past, I just poured alcohol all over that. I had to learn not to do that and how to breathe through whatever was being triggered. And either talk to them about it, or manage it on my own. And find the balance of like, OK, what do I need to work through with these people, and what can I work through on my own, so that I’m not showing up for the holidays with not just the baggage from, you know, a shitty airplane ride, or the stress from my month, but, you know, that thing my sister said to me when I was 16, when I came out that she doesn’t remember, but I’ll never forget. 


[43:11] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Being aware of your triggers means that you don’t have to lash out at your family and then feel guilty about it for the rest of the trip and then want to use again. It also means, like Wilma said, that you’re building new positive memories.


[43:24] James Tyson: I never would have thought about this in my drinking because I didn’t have this much foresight. I am so grateful that my nieces were too young and not really present for my drinking at all. So the thought that they’ll never really know that about me, and that kind of everything that we’re building going forward, they get to have this uncle who’s honestly pretty hip and pretty grounded and cool with themself and queer. I love it. I get to be kind of the role model that I always would have hoped I would be, that I definitely was not in my drinking years. 


[44:09] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’d be lying if I said that hearing James talk about this relationship and how positive it is doesn’t make me feel envious. The fact that my kids won’t ever have a relationship with their uncle is possibly the hardest part of all of this. Two months before Harris died, my dad wrote his last letter from Santa.


[44:30] Ellison Wittels: Dear, people. This year almost did Santa in. 2014 had unbelievable ups and downs. It wasn’t that there was good and there was bad. It was all that crap that changes from good to bad and back. Let us remember — 


[44:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: He writes about Iris being born. He talks about her hearing-loss diagnosis. And then he talks about Harris, who was going through brutal withdrawal this Christmas. 


[44:56] Ellison Wittels: Harris knows lots of people in L.A. and does lots of great things. Harris still loves writing, but Harris has some rough times. Harris is working hard at doing better, but it is tough. We love and support Harris. He is worth it. Santa thinks this is the most wonderful Christmas of all. This year we were all tested. We survived both as individuals and as a family. Say what you want, and think what you want, but one thing is clear. We have been here for one another during his very tough year. So keep the faith and trust 2015 will be lots better. And Santa will see you next year.


[45:42] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Needless to say, 2015 wasn’t lots better. It was much, much worse. And after we lost Harris, my dad retired as Santa. And I don’t blame him. But the future of that tradition was hanging in the balance. And so my husband put on his red cape, or his red Santa suit, and took over. His first letter was addressed to Iris in red crayon. One particularly painful paragraph read, ‘this year has been hard. Uncle Harris left way too soon. It’s like a big crater was left in Mommy, Momo, Baba and Daddy. It’s hard to explain to you now, but anytime they thought it was too much, they’d see your smile, hear your laugh. Remember something hilarious you did. You’d start building more and more ground around that crater. Everyone loves you so much for that. I’m sure Uncle Harris is thankful that you’re able to make them smile.’


[46:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Since then, my husband Mike has continued this tradition. Last year, our son Harrison was born, named after Harris, and the Santa letter wasn’t about what we had lost. It was about what we had gained. In fact, it sounded a lot like the first Santa letter from 1985. It said, ‘Iris, with Harry’s arrival you have become the best big sister. This is a certifiable fact. I’ve looked at all brothers and sisters on planet Earth. That’s basically my entire job. He loves when you dance or give him hugs or make funny faces. Everyone already knows how much he adores his big sister. Keep up the good work.’ So to you listeners, I say keep up the good work. And remember my inspirational pillow this holiday season. Do the best you can do right now, and right now. That’s OK. 


[47:55] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: FYI: the Last Day team is taking a much-needed tiny break, so this will be our last show of 2019, but we will be back in your ears with a brand new episode on January 8th. New year, new voices, new stories and lots of them. A new one each week, in fact. So if you have a story to tell, it is not too late to reach out and share. You can call us at 1-833-4Lemonada. Email us at Or track us down on social media, @LemonadaMedia. In the meantime, make a plan. Feel your feelings. Make new memories. And tell those shoulds to take a fucking hike. We’ll see you soon.


[48:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. This episode was produced by Jackie Danziger. Our series producer is Danielle Roth and our executive producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer. Kegan Zema is our technical director and our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can find us online at And if you like what you heard today, please share it with your family and friends. Tell them to listen and subscribe. And if you want to get us a holiday gift this year, I suggest writing a review on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And then check out our show notes for a deeper dive into what you’ve heard today, and how to connect with the Last Day community. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs and I will see you in 2020. 


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