I used to love the holidays. I still do…sort of. But they’ve lost their magic for me. I don’t know if it’s just because I’ve gotten older and more cynical or if it’s because the holidays are huge stress magnets. I can tell you when I stopped loving the holidays. The day my father passed away…right before Thanksgiving in 2005. I think another part of why I dislike the holidays so much is because it seems that nowadays, Christmas immediately follows Halloween and it pisses me off. I didn’t used to be such a Grinch-bitch, but as I’ve gotten older, I refuse to utter the word Christmas until after we carve the Turkey. I boycott anything and everything Christmas until after we eat the bird. I had coffee with some of the “groupies” from my therapy group a couple weeks ago and sighed heavily when I walked into Starbucks only to be met with Christmas lights and a tree. I had to go to the Hallmark store after coffee and I clenched my jaw as I desperately tried to find a “thank you” card amid the three aisles of Christmas cards, all while listening to Celine Dion sing “So This Is Christmas.” A local easy listening radio station now starts playing non-stop Christmas music the minute Halloween ends. It pisses me off because there is a day of thanks that deserves to be acknowledged and celebrated IN BETWEEN Halloween and Christmas. So before we say “gimme gimme gimme”…can we say “thank you”? Our holidays have been turned into retail races and the whole reason for the season seems to be lost on most people. (The only store that gets any credit from me is Nordstrom, who refuses to “deck their halls” until after Thanksgiving.) Saying thank you is something I do often, holiday or not. I never miss an opportunity to thank someone for a gift or to thank them for their time or something special they did. I often thank people just for being themselves because some people are so wonderful to have around. The Three Kings of Orient DID bring gifts, but the holiday wasn’t declared for the sole purpose of exchanging gifts. And for me personally, not being really religious, it’s not even so much about Christ…it’s about love and family and being together. Instead, we come together to eat and exchange gifts. Who goes over to someone else’s house on Christmas or Thanksgiving just to spend time with another person? No one. They go to eat or to exchange gifts. And I think that’s sad. I would give up every turkey and any monetary gift just to have a nice conversation and a genuine smile or hug from someone. That means more to me than any pair of Dr. Dre Beats headphones would (and that’s saying something if you know what a music whore I am). So before you trim up the Christmas tree with bingle balls and woofoo fluff, don’t forget to say thank you.
I grew up in an environment where the holidays were always the same. Not boringly the same, but traditionally the same. I always knew what and who to expect every year because for 21 years, it never changed. We had the exact same Thanksgiving dinner every 365 days. We had the exact same Christmas traditions every 365 days. In 2005, that stopped. I lost my dad in the beginning of November that year. That was the first Thanksgiving I spent away from my family and celebrated with another family. Christmas that year was also spent, for the first time, with another family and not my own. Ever since then, every year and every holiday has been different. I never know what to expect. Well…I can expect a few things…stress, anxiety and ambivalence. For the past 7 years, I have shut down beginning in early November and I refused to start up again until February. I have to shut down so I don’t have a nervous breakdown. It is a survival mechanism. I have to shut down to get through the anniversary of my dad’s passing, Thanksgiving with a family I don’t particularly care for, a Christmas I couldn’t care less about, my dad’s birthday in January and mine shortly after. Boom boom boom boom boom…each significant day a small explosion of emotion.
I don’t want to imply here that I hate my family. Hate is a very strong word and just because you dislike someone doesn’t mean you don’t love them. You can love someone but you don’t have to like them all the time. My family “shrunk” after my dad passed away. Many extended family members cut ties and communication. I won’t get into the details of why because it doesn’t really matter…it is what it is. So for the most part, my “family” consists of myself, my mother, my half-brother (my mother’s son from a previous relationship), his girlfriend and my mom’s boyfriend. Five people. That usually works out fine for me because I don’t like big groups of people, no matter how close of a relationship I have with them. I’m very introverted and for the most part, I don’t enjoy just chatting amicably with groups of people, family or not. Plus, I don’t like being fake. I don’t like hurting on the inside yet forced to slap a fake smile on my face just to please those around me and not make them uncomfortable. I would prefer, instead, to just take myself out of the whole situation thus relieving my anxiety and so I don’t force people to walk on eggshells around me. I may be a “gloomy gus” at times, but I don’t enjoy raining on other people’s parade. I would prefer, instead, to be alone and have the rain fall on just me rather than on everyone around me.
As November approached this year, I felt myself starting to shut down so I could prepare for this year’s war. I mourned my father’s passing alone, spending my day talking to him, telling him how much I missed him and how I hoped that he was still here with me and that he wasn’t disappointed in me for the decisions I have made and the things I have done. My father was cremated and I have his ashes. My family went so completely ape shit when he died that no one could agree on (or pay for) a permanent home for him…so there is no where I can go to mourn him or put out fresh flowers for him. Although I wish I had a place for him sometimes, I suppose I am secretly glad that if anything, he’s here with me, quite literally. I don’t intentionally try to “keep” him from anyone else…but not once since his death has anyone asked me about his ashes. So it can’t be too much of a big deal to anyone else but myself…and that suits me just fine. Death is said to bring out the worst in people…and it is absolutely 100% true.
This year, as I felt myself start to shut down more and more with each passing day, I stopped myself for the first time in 7 years and said, “Instead of getting all wound up about all the things and feelings that MIGHT happen…know that they’re going to happen no matter what and make an escape plan.” So that is exactly what I did. I had 7 years of experience that told me that the same thing happens every year…stress, anxiety and invalidation. So I made a pretty good assumption that the same thing would happen this year…and instead of worrying about it, I expected and planned for it.
I won’t get into the nitty gritty details of DBT-focused therapy, but there is a module on Interpersonal Effectiveness. It centers around respect for yourself, respect for those you communicate with and how to communicate effectively without harming yourself or anyone else in the process. This module teaches you how to stay true to yourself and your values and feelings while letting others know where you stand. One big key component of DBT therapy is that you cannot ever control what another person thinks, does, or says. But that’s where the self respect comes in. Make your feelings known and stand your ground no matter what other people do or say. If you’ve communicated the best way you can and people still don’t respect your stance, that’s it. End of story. You did what you needed to do, the ball is in the other person’s court and they can choose to hit it back and engage with you or they can let it hit them in the face. This is easier said than done, of course. I’m still working on it but I’ve gotten better about stating my wishes and remaining firm on where I stand no matter how much another person tries to manipulate me or get me to change. I can walk into a room or event, state that this is how I feel, this is what I’m going to do (don’t confuse assertiveness with arrogance) and you can understand/empathize/work with me, but I refuse to “cave in” and do what you want me to do or feel how you want me to feel.
A big thing, for me, is a feeling of obligation. These people are my family and thus, I am obligated to love them and be happy about spending time with them. When I don’t, I often feel guilty and beat myself up about it. I’m working on trying not to do that. I do love my family, but I don’t like them all the time…or even most of the time. They make outings and holidays very stressful and miserable. My mom could really care less that I don’t feel like smiling or socializing on Thanksgiving; she will tell me to slap a smile on my tear-stained face and get my ass out to the dining room and socialize with the people who make up my family. Not this year, mom. Another part of interpersonal effectiveness is negotiation/compromise. Okay mom, I will come out and have dinner and join you all for a couple hours, but that is my limit. After that, I am retreating to my Bat Cave (my bedroom/laboratory) and putting my headphones in and turning the music up. To my great surprise (and relief), it worked this year. I spent a majority of the day in my room, watching TV, listening to music, snuggling and self-soothing. I spent a little over an hour with my family for dinner and conversation and after I was told to shut up after telling them that the blue whale is the largest animal in the world, even bigger than the dinosaurs were and their tongues can weigh as much as an elephant (I love learning new things and discovering mind-blowing WTF facts), I retreated to my Bat Cave, reinserted my headphones and sat down to write…my therapy away from therapy. My therapist once asked, after I started sharing some things I had written with her, if I was writing for her or for myself. I told her it was 100% for me but that I was sharing them with her because I found that writing allowed me the time to think more about my feelings and allowed me to express myself more accurately and with more clarification than when I am just sitting in my therapist’s office pulling stuff out of my ass. Not only did the writing turn out to be a great thing for me, my therapy away from therapy, it also allowed my therapist to better understand me. (Fifty minutes a week is just not enough sometimes.) Two birds with one stone. I don’t walk into her office each week with a dissertation, but she loves it when I do.
I suppose now that Thanksgiving is over, Christmas has officially begun and I said earlier that anything and everything Christmas goes after we carve the turkey. So Celine Dion, sing your heart out to “Ave Maria,” trim up the tree with Christmas stuff like bingle balls and woofoo fluff, trim up the town with goowho gums and bizilbix and wums…trim every blessed window and trim every blessed door…hang up wooboohoo bricks then run out and get some more! Hang pantookas on the ceilings, pile pankunas on the floor…trim every blessed needle on the blessed Christmas tree. I will cease to be a Grinch (until next year). But even after you open your gifts this year, say thank you again…not only for the gifts you received, but for the people who are in your life and for the love you receive, no matter if it’s from your family or your therapist…because Christmas doesn’t come from a store…Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.