The holiday season, once eagerly anticipated, has become, for me, another situation to survive. Its long shadow harbors forced cheer, rampant consumerism, empty ritual, and ostentatious acts of “service.” Unfortunately, the holidays also coincide with two traumaversaries of mine. I fight suicidal depression every year. I owe my success in this fight to an acronym a Black psychologist named Dr. Vernon Savage taught me while I was a struggling undergrad.
HALT stands for never get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired.
Hunger is primal, but identifying exactly what I hunger for often takes thought.
I dream of abundant free time, boundless energy, and the dollars to underwrite spontaneous grocery store runs.
I am poor and live with chronic illness.
Most people don’t know I can cook. It must be a Virgo trait or the multitude of cooking shows (looking at you, The Great British Baking Show) that led me to develop a voracious appetite, but if I can’t have things my way, I don’t want to fuck with it.
I think nutrition is oversold. Especially since giving up other vices, I eat for taste and comfort. When I’m flush, canned soups are a go-to as are cheese, “breakfast for dinner” with fried eggs and those hot and spicy sausage links, and black bean chili. When even the food stamps have run out, I break into an emergency jar of peanut butter. Sometimes with just my fingers. Eating simply to be filled.
One recent experience satiated me on so many levels. I had a brief tenure working at a local community mental health facility and volunteered to work last Christmas. Christmas dinner became my responsibility. I know how it feels to have to go to one of those settings and be served slop. I was determined to put as much love and care into my cooking as I could. After consulting with my mother, who is an amazing home cook, I put my foot so far in it people talked about the meal for days. It felt amazing to have a role in making it special.
My temper is legendary. I see it as one of my biggest character flaws. I spent much of my youth suppressing my anger. I visibly flush when I am embarrassed or upset, which meant I had zero mental privacy. I was completely unaware of it until other people pointed it out. I remember the other kids taunting, “Ooh, she’s [sic] maaaaaaaaaaad!” I replied, “I’m not mad, and I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Before I came into my nonbinary identity, I was press ganged into a Southern girlhood. They bred Southern girls to be polite and quiet. I lived in a pressure cooker, and my true feelings erupted in unexpected and intense ways. I have thrown things, cursed people, and made them cry.
Sweetening my disposition is a significant part of my spiritual work. Knowing my triggers has been invaluable. I’m allergic to sarcasm, and disrespect makes my blood boil. I learned that my verbal communication unravels quickly when I’m being bombarded with strong emotions. I turn to pen and paper (or keyboard) to clarify my anger in a way that leans on my strengths. I have a few people who regularly help me sift through my feelings and try new boundaries on for size. A few Christmases ago, for example, I was supported in refusing to break bread with someone who hurt me deeply. Recently, my therapist and I decided to audit The Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Skills Workbook so I can continue building a solid emotional foundation. This is my “homework”:
I’m an introvert. I can easily spend 85% of my waking life alone. Still, I do feel lonely occasionally. I adopted a kitten from Animal Care and Control in 2013. A letter from my therapist allowed me to get around my landlord’s pet prohibition. Today she is a big, honking cat that loves belly rubs, people food, and stalking insects. She also reflects some of my PTSD symptoms back to me, giving me an opportunity to see my exaggerated startle response and withdrawal up close and personal. It has allowed me to have compassion for her and myself.
Facebook encompasses a large part of my social network. It’s a fact I’ve learned not to be ashamed of. Yet Facebook can be a double-edged sword. If I have to log off temporarily, I am secure in the knowledge that my Kindle Unlimited subscription has not lapsed. Reading sci-fi/fantasy keeps my mind well lubricated and increases my stake in the future. Samantha Shannon, Percival Constantine, and Tarah Benner are three authors who work I’ve enjoyed exploring.
The child me would talk to themselves a lot. It was a form of self-soothing and orienteering, but was regarded unfavorably by others. I trained myself to stop or at least do it silently. Now that I live alone I babble, vocalize, twitch, laugh, and sigh freely.
I sing. I have several songs on heavy rotation including “The Lung” by Kaiyote, “Be Great” by Kevin Ross ft. Chaz French, “Pistols at Dawn” by Seinabo Sey, “Flawed Beautiful Creatures” by Stacy Barthe, and “Prblms” by 6LACK. I’m starting to sing publicly. Bolstered by each other’s encouragement, my friend and I hit a local karaoke event and performed about six songs between us. This same friend is joining me as a member of a newly formed queer choir. One excellent reason to brave the cold weather!
An advisor once said to me “You have to recognize the difference between being sick and being tired.” It made my eyes pop. I couldn’t believe I was that far out of alignment with my body’s natural rhythms. Some indications overlap with chronic illness symptoms, but it’s a good bet that I’m tired if I notice:
• Brain Fog & Lack of Concentration
• Mood Swings
• Racing Heart Beat
• Poor Motor Skills
• Low Energy
For me, this is the trickiest part of HALT. Being tired amplifies everything else I’m going through by an order of magnitude. It’s a short hop from tired to suicidal simply because tiredness reminds me how little I want to be tethered to this body. Sometimes I wish my spirit would shed its casing and peace out.
Transition time is critical, respecting my limits is critical, and flexibility is critical. I’m driven and a perfectionist who regularly does to excess. And I do it because I sense no one cares if I push myself to the brink as long as I’m producing. So many people called me resilient, and I thought resilience meant throwing my body at my problems until they broke or I did. I am not a machine. I am not lacking in “mental toughness” because my brain is tired or I find myself flooded with sudden emotion. When we think of resilience as a personality trait rather than a set of behaviors that lead to greater capacity to handle life’s challenges, we do ourselves a grave disservice. When we make resilience a rigid measuring stick with which to beat ourselves and each other, we rob ourselves of opportunities to bend and not be broken.
* * *
There’s nothing like holiday nonsense to promote doubt about my worth beyond money, status, and accomplishments. I appreciate the people in my life who are willing to challenge these ideas. More and more I ask: Do I need to address this? Do I need to do this alone? Do I have to do this now? Do I need to do it that way?
Currently, I am engaged in an education and training program. I am responsible for part of the tuition and also was responsible for an associated expense that happened to be time sensitive. Due to my financial reality, this situation caused me an incredible amount of stress, and I was exhausted by my attempts to solve the problem on my own. I confessed my dilemma to one of the program staff. She was completely supportive, and, together, we found another way to handle the issue. I know eventually I will need to reconcile with the program, but I was told not to worry about it right now. Thanks to the practice I’ve had with HALT, I’m not. Communicating that I need support will help me stay focused in the program. And as an added benefit, reducing stress in this one area of my life will help me better manage the unavoidable stress of holidays and traumaversaries.
Overcoming childhood conditioning doesn’t come with a manual, and it is difficult work. You are not alone. We are all too fabulous to be held hostage to celebrations that don’t celebrate us. Be well. And remember the most important part of HALT – you deserve to be cared for and to save some of your energy to care for yourself.
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The main image is a photograph of the author. They are pictured with their arms up, body leaning flat against the wall. A tattoo of a wolf graces their back. They have short pink locs.
Each of the four HALT categories – hungry, angry, lonely, and tired – is accompanied by a line drawing by Dominic Bradley. The simple figures embody the feeling of each one, and the impacted area, such as the head for loneliness and whole body for tiredness, is circled.
The following text is from Dominic Bradley's DBT homework.
Relaxation skills for out & about:
use a fidget spinner
sit in the park
perform Cook's Hook Up
buy flowers or a plant
use worry stones
set a boundary
wear hematite for grounding
feel something soft
walk at a slow pace
take slow, deep breaths
read a book
sip coffee or tea
recite a favorite prayer
listen to music
help someone else
call a time out
About Dominic Bradley:
Dominic Bradley is a multimedia artist who lives in Brooklyn.