The Cost of Holiday PTSD

Photo credit: Chad Cooper, CC BY 2.0.

The Hampton Inn is across from an enormous complex of malls in one direction and a highway in the other. The surrounding landscape could be almost anywhere in the Midwest: dead grass, McDonald’s, and F-150s in the Motel 6 next door. When my fiancé and I check in, I verify the cost, the card it’s going on, and that the breakfast is free. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, so we’re paying $99/night for the privilege of a small room at the end of the third floor. The $350 buys me the ability to have the inevitable trauma nightmare or two far away from my mother—and the aforementioned free breakfast, which is good, but not so good that we don’t stop for brunch on the Friday.

Often-tense conversation dominates the three days we visit. On the six-hour drive back home, I buy way, way more Red Bull than I need, just because being overly caffeinated is better than crying about my family. When we get home, I order Korean food and I take a Lyft to work.

Then, at my desk, I start to tally expenses. Guilt takes over, and I modify my budget to include savings for my family. The numbers are calm and cold and make it clear that if anything genuinely bad happened, my little savings account wouldn’t help.

PTSD is a disease of anniversaries. The turkey goes cold, the lights come up, and my brain starts hollering at me that I’m not safe—that no one is safe—that I have to run, run, and never stop. As I get better, some of the symptoms become harder to negotiate; it’s challenging to accommodate a hyperalert funk alongside an engagement, a full-time job, and a grueling holiday schedule. It was no trouble at all to shut myself up in my studio apartment as a college student, but now it’s almost impossible.

One week after Thanksgiving, I order takeout and take another Lyft. That’s $60.

To handle the schedule, the dreams, the recurring yet inconsistent terror, I arrange my life as predictably as I can. All my obligations are carefully marked down. I have them organized in order of how simple they’d be to cancel. My best friends will be the ones I flake on most often in the next month and a half. The first time something goes wrong—a nice pink shirt of mine collects mysterious grease stains—I sit down and think, lucidly, that dying would be better than fixing my laundry. I say to myself, “That’s an overreaction,” and I buy an Oxy pen and a coffee: $10.

Wine, to help my body absorb my feelings of inadequacy: another $10.

The first week of December, I finalize my Christmas budget list. I’m saving $600 for presents for myself and my fiance’s family. I keep thinking back to visiting my family, and the problems I saw that I can’t possibly solve. A Christmas present won’t get my grandfather his memory back, nor will it get my mom a second chance at a career. My life is going terrifyingly smoothly; I spend half my time waiting for the other shoe to drop, and half my time worrying that when it does drop, my precarious middle-class-ness will be reduced to nothing at all.

That class anxiety has very little to do with whether I should get my mom an end grain cutting board or a fancy sweater, except that it serves to remind me, every time I think about money (often) or worry about money (constantly), that some part of my PTSD is right. The statistics say that even the comfortably middle class are still vulnerable. My brain is correct to remind me that things could still, always, go wrong. In the end, I allocate too little towards my family, resenting every dollar’s inability to genuinely fix anything.

I sleep late the next day and wake up with a sinus infection. The Minute Clinic would be $95 without good insurance, as the impatient nurse tells me when I have trouble pulling my insurance card up. My greasy hair and ratty sweatpants have apparently successfully disguised the fact that I actually do have good insurance. I pay $30 for some lotion I’ve been meaning to buy, but $0 for the diagnosis and antibiotics.

That weekend, I give $10 to a guy on the train. I hate that money for its inability to solve real problems, too.

Christmas approaches with its usual dreary march. Buying presents is a relief in that it means I don’t have spare money to try and throw at my more existential issues. I tell myself I’m going to call my mom and then I don’t call my mom. I tell my fiancé I’m going to be honest with her when I have nightmares and then I don’t mention any of my many, increasingly violent nightmares. I go to the doctor for my last vaccine shot, then spend $8 on way more ice cream than I need, because shots hurt and Talenti is medicinal, probably.

One weird side effect of Christmas-centric PTSD is that I usually make my new year’s resolutions in November, when I’m still capable of thinking rationally about the future. One of those resolutions is to save more consistently for my wedding. Another is to spend less money on booze and food that I’m not even that into. (Quality, not quantity, my therapists say. That’s also why I’m not in therapy as much as I probably should be. Wink wink.)

I don’t want to spend money, so I stay in. I work from home; I turn down invitations; I scuttle to and from the gym without ever stepping foot on a sidewalk. My world becomes smaller, and in a weird way it helps, because even my brain can tell the difference between a temporarily tiny social circle and the old days of isolation and abuse.

Right now, I’m looking forward to the new year, not Christmas. I’ll probably have to pay some bills I really shouldn’t have racked up, and I’ll almost certainly make a dumb decision or two as my brain struggles back to something like normalcy. If my savings remain flat through January, I’ll consider it a victory.

But it’s been enough years for me to know that the consequences of my PTSD are predictable. I might wish I could pay for my junk food and booze and hotel rooms out of my HSA—I might get a guilt complex from the sheer privilege of daydreaming about using my HSA in that manner—but much like an emergency fund exists to actually be used in an emergency, part of the reason I struggled my way into a good job was to be able to pay my way through these difficult times. I will survive the new year; I will add money to my savings again. I will stare at budget long term.txt and wish I was better, more together, less broken—sure, and while I’m at it, I want a millionaire to buy me a pony.

Maybe next year I’ll spend less money. Or I’ll spend the same amount of money, but I’ll plan for it in October. Or I’ll send next year’s Harvey Weinstein a symbolic invoice for the sheer expense of stressing out over rape culture.

Or I’ll hole up and do this exact same thing all over again. And I’ll survive to the new year then, too.


  • Hotel: $350
  • Lyft: $20
  • Food: $75
  • Gas + misc: $50
  • Lyft (again): $20
  • Takeout: $40
  • CVS (laundry pen + coffee): $10
  • Wine: $10
  • Cash pulled: $10
  • CVS: $30
  • Ice cream: $8

Running PTSD total, 2017: $623

Anonymous works with computers in the Midwest. She could tell you about cryptocurrency, but it would give you both nightmares.

This piece is part of The Billfold’s Holidays and Money series.

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