HOW TO HAVE A HAPPY HOLIDAYS WHEN YOUR FAMILY IS THE WORST!
When your childhood was dysfunctional or abusive, every day is varying degrees of difficult. For me there’s depression to be navigated, PTSD to be managed, disordered eating to keep in check, not to mention the constant, oppressive thought of “AM I HAVING NORMAL REACTIONS TO THE WORLD AROUND ME?” It’s exhausting, and when I think of all the things I could accomplish if I didn’t expend so much mental energy on just KEEPING MY SHIT TOGETHER I get sad all over again. So that’s my life most of the time.
The winter holiday season, though, is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s the time of year when everyone feels compelled to ask about what plans you might have, with the assumption that those plans are going to include your family. “What are your plans? Are you going home to see your family?” they ask, so kindly, with no malicious intent. The impact they have, however, can run the gamut from annoyance to frustration to the angry sads (other people get so sad they have screaming rage fits, right? Right?). Being an adult means that these reactions need to be managed, and an appropriate response needs to be crafted. This is easier said than done.
For me, it’s a constant battle to fight against my baser instincts. You see, I was raised on a steady diet of David Letterman and Mad Magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”, so my first impulse is always to say something cruel and cutting, dripping with sarcasm, something that could make a normal, well adjusted person feel as awful as their innocent question made me feel:
“Oh, yeah, the graveyard where my mother is buried is so festive this time of year! Nothing’s nicer than singing carols by a gravestone!”
“For sure, the federal prison puts on a great Christmas pageant!”
“Of course! I mean, the home I grew up in is now rented out to tenants because the family evicted my mother per my parents’ divorce agreement but I love to stand in the yard creepily and stare in their windows, watching them eat pumpkin pie!”
I harbor irrational anger for people with “normal” families, an anger that is exacerbated by the oppressive expectations of family togetherness during the holidays. I become enraged that they have parents who never beat the living hell out of them, who never stole money set aside for their future, who never passed on a tendency to abuse alcohol, who never taught them that verbal abuse is how you communicate with those closest to you. When people with healthy families complain about having so many family members to buy presents for, or how they’re dreading eating the same green bean casserole lovingly prepared by their Great Aunt Ethel, all I want to do is shove them in a chair and make them listen to stories about how I only have memories of one Christmas, and those memories are mostly scaffolded on one surviving polaroid that was scorched on the edges after surviving the fire that burnt down my house when I was fourteen. I want to tell them about spending Thanksgiving on campus during college because I didn’t want to go home to the house I grew up in, which made your average episode of Hoarders look like a spread from Better Homes and Gardens. I want to shake them and make them realize how absolutely lucky they are, and make them feel even just a tiny bit of the pain I carry in my heart every single day.
But I don’t, because despite my neglectful, almost feral upbringing I am not a complete monster. I smile and chuckle and play the role of “normal commiserating person.” “Oh, ha ha, yes, another year of drinking Uncle Albert’s homemade eggnog! Ho ho! What a trial! How vexing to have fifteen cousins all buying you gifts that you slightly don’t care for! My! What you do put up with!”
Honestly, though, I prefer listening to other people’s plans as opposed to talking about mine. Because I almost always do have plans, but they’re the kind of plans that sound odd to most people, and I think hearing about them makes most people slightly uncomfortable. But I can’t lie, so when asked, I will tell people that I am visiting my developmentally delayed brother, and making dinner for just the two of us, or that I’m visiting old friends—my logical family, rather than my biological family. I can see the confusion, though, on most people’s faces when I tell them about these plans, but there’s not much I can do about it, and I don’t feel the need to do that emotional labor. Their confusion will be brief and ultimately have little effect on their lives; me having to explain my complex and familial situation, on the other hand, is always painful to some degree, and frankly I only want to deal with explaining it with a therapist or after several strong cocktails.
There’s no easy answer for this social situation, though. We can’t know other people’s experiences or trigger points, and what I would prefer is going to be different than what almost everyone else prefers. The only suggestion I could possibly make is for people to consider that the holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone, and to simply leave space for people to offer their thoughts on what their holiday entails, rather than directly asking for them to share.
So, my fucked up friends who’d sooner ride an elevator alone with 45 than spend time with their family, I see you, and hereby give you permission to do whatever the hell you want while everyone else is home for the holidays. My top suggestions include:
watching a marathon of Making a Murderer or other true crime media of your choice while attempting to make cinnamon rolls even though you have no idea how old your yeast is, so you might end up with cinnamon dough pucks but they’ll be delicious anyway
going to the movies alone and getting extra butter on your popcorn and possibly some nachos, and definitely a cherry vanilla Coke Zero Sugar (which is a dumb name for a product, why not call it what it is rather than what it is not; anyway I digress)
watching all the holiday episodes of your favorite tv shows, such as 30 Rock, Community, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while drinking hot apple cider, with booze or without
finding a bar that’s open for the holidays and possibly ending up getting a weird gift bag from a stranger who looks oddly like Alia Shawkat and feeling really touched by the gesture but you still not eating anything in the bag because it all looks kind of old and stale but it’s still makes you love humanity just a little bit
watching Planes, Trains and Automobiles and just letting all your feelings out, friend, those tears need to be free; and once your eyes unswell, writing a fan letter to Steve Martin, with bonus points if you write an awkward love song for him on the ukulele
Happy holidays, dearest Heauxs, whatever you do.