By Jeff Johnston
When I was in college, I began to notice my struggles with pornography and sexual acting out would intensify right at the end of the first school semester, around the middle of December. I also saw that this seemed to be true for others as well. People in my support group would struggle more over the holidays, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.
Later, after I was married, Judy and I lived in an apartment in San Diego, where we drove past a pornographic bookstore on our way home each day. I noticed that the parking lot of the store seemed to get busier during the holidays. I thought to myself, either a lot of people do their Christmas shopping there (looking for that perfect stocking stuffer?), or there is just more sexual activity going on. As I thought about this and talked to group members, there seemed to be a regular season struggle for many people.
I felt saddened that our sexual struggles intensified at Christmas – a season of the incarnation of Christ, a time of hope and celebration. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me that people would struggle more during the holidays. I’ll explain some of the reasons why I think this is so, then I’ll discuss some things we can do to prepare for this struggle – forewarned is forearmed! Most of you will receive this letter in early November, right before the holiday season. Now is the time to plan ahead.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
Charles Dickens’ familiar story, A Christmas Carol, tells about Ebenezer Scrooge – a bitter miser, who receives a visit on Christmas Eve from four ghosts. The first ghost, his recently deceased business partner, Jacob Marley, comes wrapped in chains that he forged during his life – chains of greed and covetousness. Marley warns Ebenezer that three more ghosts will come on the next three nights. So the unbelieving Ebenezer is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future.
With the visit of these three ghosts, Dickens taps into something that is psychologically brilliant. Christmas is such a powerful time of year because of all the symbols associated with it. The sights, smells, sounds and sensations of the season resonate within us to evoke powerful memories of all our past celebrations. If we carry unresolved events from a past Christmas – as Scrooge does, with the breakup of his engagement – we will be reminded of them at this time of year.
I remember one group member who had been molested by an older cousin every holiday season for 13 years. Each Christmas, his whole body would remember the pain he felt. A friend of mine experienced a painful romantic breakup at Christmas. Each Christmas was another reminder of his loss, his singleness and his loneliness. Another friend associates the holidays with her father’s drinking and verbal abuse. Christmas brings her memories of fear and hatred, of dysfunctional family gatherings.
Like so many ghosts haunting us, we carry the memories of past holidays. As we hear the Christmas carols and see the lights and trees, the pain and tension of unresolved issues comes back. If we have learned to comfort ourselves with masturbation, to escape with pornography, or to simulate intimacy and connection through anonymous sexual encounters, we will be more tempted to act out at this time of year. Many sexually addicted people also have other addictions – food, drugs, spending, television, sleep – these also may become unmanageable over the holidays.
The Ghost of Christmas Present
When I was struggling with my sexuality as a college student, part of the stress and tension I felt was due to the school calendar – our semester ended only a week or two before Christmas. So right up until Christmas I would be studying for finals, finishing research projects and scrambling to complete assignments I had procrastinated on until the last possible minute. The semester would end, I would have extra time on my hands; and very often I would “just happen to end up” at a place where I could get into trouble.
Two things were going on here. First, I was not very good at handling stress and pressure; and my urge to act out was fed by my stress. Second, in a weird kind of way, I would “reward” myself after a long period of hard work at school. I would binge on work, while my body craved pleasure and connection. Then I would feed the craving through sexual activity, instead of giving myself more healthy pleasure throughout the semester.
My point is this, if you have current stress in your life, you will be more tempted to escape through sinful sexual activity, if that is your pattern. And at Christmas, our stresses are multiplied. Let me list a few extra pressures that many of us feel over the holidays.
First is the general busyness of the season. There are cookies to bake, parties to attend, Christmas specials to watch on TV, presents to buy and last year’s fruitcake to pass along. Then there are money issues – should I go ahead and charge more presents, when I’m still paying for last year’s gifts?
Family pressures may also be part of the problem. I may be expected to attend numerous family functions with people who have hurt me in some way, or who expect me to behave like I used to – not recognizing all the growth in my life, wanting me to fall into old, unhealthy patterns of relating.
We may also carry an image in our head of what we want our Christmas to be – some sort of marriage between Martha Stewart, Hallmark and Normal Rockwell. When the reality falls short and disappoints, the temptation to act out will arise. The idyllic mental picture of what Christmas should be only brings into sharper focus our own loneliness and struggles.
Let me interject here a word to parents and spouses of strugglers. Christmas will bring about the same sort of stress and tension for you, too. If you have a son or daughter who is gay or lesbian, Christmas will be a time of grieving and mourning the loss of your hopes and dreams for your child. There are the added questions of how to treat your child’s partner. For a spouse who has been betrayed, there will be anger and bitterness to work through. Don’t expect to go on this year as if everything were the same as it was before.
The Ghost of Christmas Future
After Scrooge faces the terror of the Ghost of Christmas Future, he realizes that all three ghosts have visited in one night. He still has a chance of redemption, of changing his life and being saved. In the same way, each new Christmas – with all the stress and temptation – can become an opportunity for us to grow and change. There are many things we can do to prepare for the holidays; here are a few practical ideas:
1. Plan Ahead! Defense mechanisms are God-given ways of coping with stress and pain. We got into trouble when our defense mechanisms are unhealthy or inappropriate. Planning – or anticipation – is actually a higher level defense mechanism. It involves looking ahead at upcoming difficulties and mapping out a response.
2. Connect with People. Many support groups shut down over the holidays. I’ve had group members plan social events with other strugglers, when they know they will be lonely and vulnerable. Find safe places and people to hook up with. The book Safe People, available through Regeneration Books, gives excellent teaching on what kind of people are safe and how we can connect with them.
3. Spend Time with God. You feel lonely? You think Jesus doesn’t know what it feels like to be lonely? Ask Him about it. Tell Him what you are going through. When we want to act out, many of us shut God out, instead of bringing Him into our struggle. Spend time worshiping and giving thanks, even if you don’t feel like it. And if you find it difficult to worship and pray alone, ask people to worship and pray with you. Pray for others you know who struggle.
4. Give. Scrooge learns from the Ghost of Christmas Present about the desperate poverty in the world. There are many opportunities to give at this time of year. My Home Group used to throw a party for foster kids – cooking them dinner, buying them gifts, decorating cookies with them. It was a way for us to get our minds off ourselves and focus on others.
5. Rest. You don’t have to be working on recovery all the time – give yourself a break from reading books on healing and working on your “issues”. It’s okay to say “no” to a party to stay home by yourself with a video (G-rated, of course) or a good book. Do something that nurtures your soul.
6. Start New Traditions. If the past holds pain and grief, begin to re-symbolize Christmas by starting a new tradition. When we lived in San Diego, Judy and a friend would find a “Messiah” sing-along to participate in each year. We try to attend midnight Christmas Eve service together. Friends of ours bake a birthday cake for Jesus each year (angel food cake, of course).
If “the most wonderful time of the year” isn’t that great for you, begin to think now about what you will do differently, this year. Pick one or two ideas from this list and put them to practice.
And as Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”
(Originally printed in Regeneration News, November 1999)
Jeff Johnston, a former Regeneration director, now works as an Analyst in the Gender Issues Department for Focus on the Family’s
Government and Public Policy Division. firstname.lastname@example.org