A therapist’s guide to holiday hell 2021
Staying sane while distant relatives descend into your life with screams of "I've been doing my own research..."
This is it, huh? The big lead up to some big holiday. Hope you’re doing okay.
Someone I’ve been really lucky to meet through Webworm — and get to know a bit better this year — is therapist Paul Wilson. Based in Auckland, New Zealand — he’s penned a few pieces now, and going on the feedback I’ve received, they go down like a fine whiskey or a smooth glass of creamy Baileys.
He’s well versed in conspiracy theory culture and also at helping people. A winning combo in my opinion.
Last year he wrote a Holiday Guide, and seeing as 2021 turned out to be a worse version of 2020 on the misinformation scale, I thought we could use his help again.
I hope this aids you as you head into your “break” (is there such a thing anymore?) — and I figure maybe you know someone who might want to read it, so this is the link: webworm.co/p/holidayhellscape
Thanks for reading my work this year, btw. You’ve helped keep me sane, and I hope I’ve returned the favour in some small way.
A therapist’s guide to holiday hell
by Paul Wilson
Last year, I wrote a Christmas Webworm to offer some advice about dealing with difficult relatives and hangers-on during the holidays who you might have differences of opinion (or politics) with.
That’s all sorted now, and not going to be a problem this year.
I mean, Trump lost the election, we have a vaccine (or three), and maybe a lockdown (or two) or a mandate — and we’re all on the same page and less divided now, right?
Nope. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the eggnog, this year Covid is again the Grinch who stole Christmas.
Last year is going to look like a walk in the park when agreeing on when, where, who, or even if you are meeting your loved ones for Christmas this year.
It’s an absurd and sometimes scary situation to all be in right now. Firstly, for some reading here, Covid and conspiracism may have already caused significant loss to you and your family. In no way do I wish to trivialise or laugh at your grief.
Some of us may still have the psychological luxury of being able to find any humor in this crazy world. Those deep in the grieving process do not. You deserve nothing less than my heartfelt compassion which I offer you here without reservation.
Secondly, based on familiarity with David’s oeuvre (a totally legit journalistic term meaning ‘body of work’) and given my time with y’all in the comments, I’m going to assume that the audience reading this is pro-vaccination and vaccinated.
If you’re new here and that’s not you, you should probably stop reading now since you are unlikely to find it useful or funny. Instead, pop out and visit a vaccination clinic right now for your own health and for that of others. We’ll still be here when you get back and hopefully you will be too. Nuff said.
What the F**K is going on right now?
Why has this all gotten so intense and entrenched? For those of us in New Zealand, we’re partly a victim of our own success in the initial lockdown and elimination. This Christmas, we’re catching up with the rest of the world so it’s all getting very real very fast. Collectively, on top of Covid, the world now has the wisdom of vaccines, mandates, and repeated lockdowns to argue about. And boy, are we arguing!
Firstly, I think we're grappling with the phenomenon of Reactance.
In summary, some individuals react very negatively and angrily to any perceived impingement on their freedoms as the beginning of a slippery slope and are highly motivated to attempt to regain those freedoms. Like protesting or rioting during a pandemic lockdown.
Secondly, and more importantly, I think this issue can be understood through the lens of Terror Management Theory.
TL;DR: Events which involve fears about death (such as a pandemic) cause existential terror to break through into our awareness.
When that happens, people become more motivated to resort to what is called ‘Worldview Defence’ to shore up their sense of self-esteem and certainty to manage the terror. That’s irrespective of whether your particular worldview is left-wing, right-wing, spiritual, conspiratorial, or whatever. You just start clinging to it and espousing it more rigidly, gripped by escalating anxiety. The terror is real and that’s a recipe for confirmation bias on steroids.
So know that it’s not just you — rather it’s us and them. This is a dire state of affairs, right? Well, like any (good?) therapist, I’m going to say the answer to that is both yes and no.
An optional historical interlude: The Ghost of Pandemics Past
If it’s any consolation, contrary to repeated claims of unprecedented government overreach, all of this has all happened many times before. Yes, pandemics, vaccination, mandates and anti-vaccination movements are recurring features of human history. And sorry to spoil the ending, but the world eventually recovered, and democracy flourished.
One of the first times these all came together was almost 250 years ago.
The disease in question then was smallpox which had a 30% mortality rate, and left sufferers permanently scarred with small facial pockmarks (hence the name) and sometimes blind — and had been terrorising humanity since the 6th century.
Variolation was a medical technique developed around 1720 which exposed people to smallpox on their arm since a minor skin infection would give them immunity with less risk of killing or scarring or blinding them.
When Prince Louis XV of France died of smallpox in a 1774 outbreak, his successor Louis XVI mandated the still distrusted practice of inoculation for his entire royal line. It worked and even became popular in French society.
The next major medical innovation against smallpox came in 1796 when Jenner developed his process of vaccination by exposure to cowpox. It was safer than variolation, which could still kill you and spread smallpox if it wasn’t done properly (or you were unlucky) — leading the UK government to ban the older technique in 1840. In 1853, the UK government put in place the first nation-wide vaccine mandate for all infants.
Anti-vaccine and anti-mandate groups mobilised and began protesting. Many of the now familiar strains of misinformation emerged too. Some claimed that this new technique was experimental, untested, and unsafe. Others considered it to be ungodly and unbiblical. They didn’t know about RNA or DNA since those weren’t discovered until 1869. Nevertheless, some people claimed that vaccination might change people into cows. Sounding familiar?
All the arguments against mandates got an outing too. Some wanted the older kind of inoculation, even though it was more dangerous. Others favoured natural immunity or wanted complete bodily autonomy rather than state intervention. But thankfully, the governments of the 1800s and the majority didn’t listen to them back then either.
The UK vaccine mandate succeeded in stemming repeated smallpox outbreaks, as did the many mandates that followed it in other countries. Almost 150 years later, in 1980, the WHO was able to declare smallpox eradicated.
There was also polio, too — which was eradicated in the developed world in 1979 and is closing in on world eradication now. Polio vaccination didn’t generate the same resistance that smallpox vaccination had, but there were still some who vigorously opposed it, such as cosmetics magnate Duon Miller.
That’s two horrific diseases that no longer stalk our children, thanks to broad public support for mandatory vaccination and the tireless efforts of innumerable health professionals. You guys also rock!
TLDR: Viruses and medical knowledge evolves but misinformation does not.
So let’s be like Prince Louis XVI and Party like it’s 1774.
But how should I handle this NOW?
I get it. Families can be a complicated affair at the best of times, let alone the worst of times. Given your personal circumstances and history, Christmas might often get a bit tense in your family. Like Donkey said “Christmas ain’t Christmas until somebody cries. Usually that someone is me.”
Firstly, this Christmas, I’d really question any decision to visit unvaccinated relatives even if you’re double vaccinated. Especially if they are elderly or immuno-compromised.
I know it’s really hard and you’re missing your precious and beloved relatives, but we want them to stick around for many Christmases to come, right? If you decide to see them since they are getting on and this might be one of your last chances to see them, consider getting a COVID test before you travel, if only for your own peace of mind.
Another issue to grapple with is that if you have unvaccinated relatives who just don’t accept the virus, the vaccine or the level of risk, your refusal to host or attend will likely feel like a personal rejection of them. You might get called a Scrooge or an Ogre or a Fiona.
Any unresolved family issues of envy, perceived favouritism or fairness can easily get projected into these difficult Christmas decisions and might get heatedly re-enacted. Ouch!
My advice is to make sure they understand that it’s not about them (or any old issues) and just about the state of the world right now and you’re doing it out of concern for them and not disdain. Next Christmas will hopefully be different (oh please, oh please). Resist the urge to have this blow up into a relationship-defining rupture that will haunt your Christmas futures.
To quote the esteemed philosopher, Bubble of Ab Fab, say “It’s not just for life, it’s for Christmas.”
If you do decide to get together, remember that Covid transmission seems to be largely a function of time and air quality. Consider ways you might decrease the former and increase the latter. If you’re hosting or have a say in the choice of venue, consider having an outdoor Christmas this year.
Of course, that’s easier said than done depending on your geography. Any geo-centrists reading might be surprised to hear that we enjoy different seasons in the Southern hemisphere, almost as if the earth revolved around the sun. Crazy, I know.
In the Antipodes, our holidays often involve BBQ’s, beaches, and budgie-smugglers. For the benefit of Webworm’s northern audience, that’s an umbrella term of clothing that includes both togs and undies.
Oops. Remember to mask indoors.
Outdoor holidays in the northern hemisphere will involve scarves, muffs, puffer jackets, and thermal underwear. While clothes don’t 100% prevent the risk of hypothermia and frostbite, like vaccines, I still recommend wearing some. Winter is not a hoax promulgated by Big Cotton to sell coats.
If you don’t control the venue, know that the gift of your presence is always in your hands. Keep it brief if you need to. Reinforce those social bonds and then make like a Christmas tree and leaf.
I know, I know: You’re probably groaning now because we both know Christmas trees are usually deciduous. But the Dad jokes aren’t going to make themselves this year so I took one for the team.
I see annoying people and some of them don’t know they’re annoying
What if you’ve decided to attend Christmas and there are others coming whose opinions often make your blood boil or suck your soul. You know who I’m talking about: Dementors.
The bad news is that they may have spent this past year getting a degree in epidemiology, vaccinology and conspiracy by correspondence from Facebook University (FU). You just know that this year, they are going to say some particularly annoying things.
Maybe they are anti-vaccine and the host really wants both you and them to attend and you’ve decided to risk it. Eesh! Maybe they are pro-vaccine but anti-mask, or anti-lockdown or anti-mandate. They may not represent a risk to your physical health, but they still represent a risk to your mental health and nearby ceramics or glassware you might take a bite out of.
My advice is don’t engage and enrage. You can’t limit their alcohol intake or effluent output, you can only limit yours. There is little point in arguing since you’re dealing with Motivated Reasoning.
TLDR: Even if there are ‘facts’ involved (I’m using that term ‘alternatively’), they are deployed to rationalise an unconscious emotionally driven position. If you try to use logic to refute them, it’s unlikely to get you anywhere. The only guarantee is a rise in temperature (yours and theirs) and reduction in air quality.
So don’t do that. Instead, try diverting them onto talking about positive things like the lovely food, jointly treasured relatives, and shared memories of better times.
If that doesn’t work and they are insistent on pursuing less welcome topics, I propose a game I’m going to call Webworm Christmas Bingo.
Imagine yourself as a slightly disinterested and intrepid ethnographer, searching for colourful specimens of absurdity without disturbing them in their natural habitats.
To assist you, I’m going to name and describe the characteristic arguments of the various species and give some brief insight into what might be going on underneath their plumage.
The idea here is to allow you to keep your cool and not get mired in the emotional tarpit when you congregate at the watering-hole. This is like managing your fear of public speaking by imagining your audience naked. As an aside, that is not good advice for teenage boys or desperate dog-whistling political figures who aren’t polling well since it comes with the risk of unwanted elections.
The natural phylum of Christmas Guests:
QAnonus Insurrectionus Drumpii.
Category of Annoyance: Conspiratorial. Catchphrase: “Q sent me to #savethechildren”
Against: Everything sane and reasonable. It’s all a [liberal/satanic/Jewish] hoax. They just want our precious bodily fluids and to microchip and stick spoons to us with magnets. No rational argument possible here. There is no spoon.
Underneath: Need for simple black-and-white worldview, intolerance of ambiguity and a need to be special. An escape from shame and regret.
Mortlockus Eftpostlius Torquemadii.
Category of Annoyance: Evangelical. Catchphrase: “Vaccines are unbiblical”
Against: Everything except tithing and ring-kissing. Only submission to me, oops - I mean the Lord - will protect you. Please pay your server before leaving your pew. No rational argument to be had here either.
Underneath: For the flock, hope for an ultimate rescuer. For the wolf — I mean shepherd — personal specialness and often traumatic narcissism.
Williamus Wallus Roganii.
Category of Annoyance: Political. Catchphrase: “Freedom!”
Against: lockdowns, mandates and sometimes vaccines. Classical liberal and/or Libertarian insistence on personal autonomy and limited government. May not explicitly align with those political styles, but like the esteemed Australian constitutional scholar, Dennis Denuto, said ‘It’s the vibe of the thing’. These political philosophies had their zenith around 1820 which notably predates the Germ theory of Disease in 1854.
Underneath: reactance, paranoia, and rejection of the very idea of public good.
Farquaadus Foxnewsus Carlsonii.
Category of Annoyance: Financial. Catchphrase: “Some of you may die. But that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make”
Against: Lockdowns and border closures. Endlessly bemoans their impact on business. Not a real argument since the economic impact of unchecked transmission is just as bad while adding a whole lot more death and long COVID.
Underneath: narcissistic entitlement and economic privilege. Loss of privilege can feel like oppression. But it’s really not.
Stormus Antiminchinus Gymbunnii.
Category: Natural. Catchphrase: “If you lived as cleanly as me, your natural immunity would be enough”
Against: vaccines particularly, and medicine generally. Not really an argument since while exercise and nutrition may help immune function, they’re insufficient against COVID and catching COVID is a risky and foolish way to get immunity.
Underneath: Personal specialness and purity culture, The Just-world hypothesis and its uglier sister, Victim blaming.
Brassica Oleracea Dalailamerii.
Category of Annoyance: Spiritual. Catchphrase: “Division is the virus. Your lack of love is like sand in my chakra”
Against: Lockdowns and mandates mostly, but often vaccines too. Because discrimination and vaccines (but not drugs) are bad, mkay. And all the people who keep putting the pandemic on their vision board have a lot to answer for. Not really an argument since it’s the Paradox of Tolerance. We can’t agree to safely live alongside each other and think differently because the virus doesn’t respect psychological boundaries and will cross them.
Underneath: personal specialness, magical thinking, and possibly Thallium poisoning from too much Kale.
Scoring Note: You can only count a given individual as one species based on their primary features. However, if you do manage to mark off all five of these at one family event, yell out ‘BINGO!’ and leave immediately!
Do not wait or explain. There is such a critical mass of unreason present that it might form a borehole at any moment and suck you all down through the earth to the lost continents of Lemuria and Kawanda. It’s not safe down there due to an ongoing war between their feuding kings, Julianus Rex and the Black Vegetable.
Finally, humour aside, it’s not just for your sake that I’m encouraging you not to engage. It’s also for theirs.
Underneath all that bluster and bravado, they’re feeling death anxiety too, probably even more strongly than you are. Those arguments are their defences, their coping mechanism for that terror. So don’t rip it away from them. Be silently compassionate and, unless they are directly hurting someone, let them run unopposed and preserve your relationship. They’re hopefully good people making some really bad arguments. Remember, history is on your side and time both heals all wounds and wounds all heels.
Feel free to exchange a knowing glance or a supportive squeeze with your significant others and then later, once you’ve reached minimum safe distance with your young, you can compare notes and scores and vent a little. Or a lot.
Spend some time with your chosen family
What I’m getting at here is what trauma therapy specialist Dr. John Briere likes to say: “We’re all bozos on the same bus”. In troubling times like this, we can try to find a little pocket of joy by spending quality time with our chosen family - our friends, our partners, our children. Hold them extra close (when safe) this year and maybe laugh or cry. And there is something especially therapeutic about doing both at the same time. If you can.
As Donkey says “Before this is over, I’m going to need a whole lot of serious therapy”.
In my case, that always involves spending time with my family, possibly rewatching Shrek 1, Shrek 2, Shrek 4 and Shrek the Halls. We don’t talk about Shrek 3.
We’ll also be trying to prevent our new puppy, Dakota, from destroying half of our shoes like our own little canine Thanos. She’s lucky she’s so cute.
She’s already a very modern dog and has more posts on Instagram than I do.
She also has more followers than me. And she hasn’t followed me back.
I’m not bitter.
To all the merry band on Webworm, it’s time for me to sign off. I hope some of this has been helpful and I wish you all a Great Christmas. See you in the comments.
Paul Wilson, December 2021
David here again. I just wanted to say — stay safe this holiday time. Things can get weird. Line up some good podcasts for those long drives. Remember to take time for yourself. Remember Paul’s advice. And if you can, pat a cat.
Thanks for reading Webworm, and supporting my work.
This was a really, really great edition, I’m so grateful to have discovered Webworm this year, David Farrier you are an absolute gem during these times. Enjoying your writing (and film /TV making) has really helped me through some horrible times over the last few months. Meeting Paul in the comments was an added gift as he always has such wonderful notes and is so bloody funny. This guide had me laughing out loud, really hard, some absolutely fabulous references. I adore everything about all of this and just can’t thank you enough for all you do here. What a year! I wish you all the very best for the holidays and new year, thanks for everything you’ve shared here and all the dedication, words of wisdom and humour, and humility, you’re a breath of fresh air. And Paul, I wish you, Dakota and your family all the very best too, thanks for all the laughs and D&D advice. Stay safe everyone x
Thank you so much for this, the context of all of this insanity being fear based is something I have to keep returning to in order to stay in my compassion. I can very easily go to the "you're all insane fuckwits" place in my head and occasionally this sentiment has been known to fly out of my mouth with not so good outcomes. Anyway, this helps. Mere kirihimete nga Webworm whanau, you have kept my head out of the oven this year, and I am grateful for David, Paul and the sanity of the comments section. Nga aroha.