As seen on Elite Daily on 12/3/2015
Walking into the drugstore to pick up a roll of toilet paper and cat food the week of Halloween, I found myself being stared down by an oversized Rudolph doll. His doe-eyed expression triggered a swell of anxiety rise up within me. Not because I have an irrational fear of stuffed reindeers. The blinking red nose is a taunting reminder that for those of us who are members of dysfunctional families, the most wonderful challenging time of the year is upon us.
Nothing personal against Santa and his squad. The issue isn’t that the holiday season evokes a new, once a year unpleasant feeling. Rather, this time of year magnifies the most complicated, sensitive area of my life: family.
Truth be told, dealing with family is a year round struggle full of constantly changing variables. And over the past several months, certain situations have left me emotionally raw when dealing with the subject of family, particularly with my mom. The holiday season has never agreed well with her, physically and emotionally. Her first heart attack took place two weeks before Christmas when I was in 7th grade, with the song Jingle Bell Rock instantly taking me back to driving to the hospital to visit her after after her emergency quadruple bypass. Sophomore year of high school, we found ourselves awkwardly shoving turkey into our mouths trying to scrape together some normalcy after mom had come from a week-long stay in the hospital to recover from a heart attack and a stroke.
Despite the choruses of gratitude that Thanksgiving of the gift of having mom alive and home to celebrate – our hearts were contradictory. And looking back who could blame us? Mom was trying to make sense what the hell just happened to her body, dad was trying to adjust to this new level of caregiving and at fifteen I was just angry that everything was changing again.
After that Thanksgiving, I somehow took up the notion that it was my responsibility to continue the holiday spirit for my household. Despite dad’s grumbling of how much he hated the holidays, I pleaded each year to have people over. And regardless of the fact like clockwork my mother would snap by the end of the celebration leaving someone in tears, I begged her to decorate the Christmas tree with me. Grant it the tree had been downsized from the real Douglas Fir that would need to be cut down to fit into the house, to an artificial 3ft fake that topped a card table covered with a candy cane table cloth. But it was our Christmas tree – symbol that there was still a pulse of holiday cheer in our home, despite being a weak and requiring me to resuscitate it several times.
With tensions high, countless of cigarettes smoked and swear words uttered, I set us up in front of my tripod to take a family photograph that I paid to put on a holiday card to mail. Despite neither of us having a domestic bone in our body, I forced my mother into the kitchen to bake homemade cookies from her mother-in-law’s recipe. If we went to another family member’s for the holiday, the entire time was spent holding my breath waiting for the first sparks of a fight between my parents. This continued up until 2013. After seasons of force-feeding my parents the version of holiday cheer that I had wanted so badly to replicate when I was a child, something snapped. Coupled with a nasty bout of depression, with almost a decade of dragging my parents through the most wonderful time of year kicking and screaming, Christmas 2013 was spent in my apartment crying tears that were ugly and far from jolly. The realization finally washed over me that the holiday season I was trying to wrap my family up in was only making me miserable. No amount of garland or mistletoe would make up for the fractures that were felt by all of us, 365 days a year. Trying to make our dysfunction disappear for several weeks just because it was the holiday season just poured salt into the wounds I have been trying to heal.
With almost every aspect of the civilized world being focused on the-family centric holiday season, letting go of my attempts to save the season for my family has been challenging. Last Thanksgiving, I made the decision to spend the day with friends which was full of a roller coaster of mixed feelings. The entire day I fluctuated between guilt, self-consciousness, relief and hope. As my therapist Dr. R pointed out, these feelings are to be expected .Old habits die hard, especially ones hardwired to family. A few weeks later during Christmas, I experienced another tidal wave of emotions as I showed up with my case of beer and presents to the same friend’s house. Last year marked a new chapter in my life as an adult. It was the first steps in creating my own traditions for the holiday season, involving willing participants and tear-free dinners. A few days after Christmas, I visited my parents where we shared a pizza and exchanged gifts. It was the first time in my life that their living room did not have any trace that the holidays had recently been celebrated.
Did my heart break a little bit when my dad said that he missed seeing me Christmas morning? Absolutely. But do I regret the decision I made and the new way I proposed to celebrate with my parents after the holiday? Absolutely not.
Now with the week of Thanksgiving upon us, and Christmas soon after, I’m sorting through emotions that are more tangled than a string of Christmas lights as I prepare for the second year of going about my own holiday season. This week I’m looking forward to attempting to create a cheese and fruit turkey shaped appetizer, courtesy of Pinterest, to my friend’s house where I’ll be celebrating with her fiance and kids whom I love spending time with throughout the year. The Wednesday before I will spend the day outlet shopping and brunching with another friend, taking in the changing leaves and the crisp fall air. And the Sunday after, I will go out to breakfast with my dad and possibly squeeze in a short visit with my mom if she’s in a good mood. And Thanksgiving morning will be spent watching the Macy’s Day Parade with Annie, my lovable tabby cat, just like we did last year eating a bagel in bed.
I would be lying if I did not admit that a tiny corner of my heart holds on to a wish that I would be going to my parent’s house with some of my extended family and snapping photos similar to the one’s I’ve been reflecting on over the past few weeks. But it is less intense this year, slowly being replaced with the anticipation trying on new traditions. Creating and becoming comfortable with a new way of celebrating a holiday season is a work in progress, but at least there’s eggnog to take the edge off.