Creeping up on us. Slowly, steadily, inexorably. Twinkling red and green... laced in dread.
They have so much potential, don't they?!? As Charles Dickens put it, “...a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely...” I don't know what he was smoking, but it sure sounds good! Just as Vitamin D deficiency and Seasonal Affective Disorder threaten to drown us in the Winter Blues, the twinkling lights on the tree lift our spirits. Christmas carols soothe our soul. And the skating and sledding make us feel like kids again.
Ah, childhood. The holidays were even more fraught with expectations and idealism then than they are now. And a lucky few actually experienced fairytale Father Christmasesque Christmases in childhood. Good on them!
But let's get honest. For the majority of us, the memories from past holidays tread heavily on the heels of the present holiday.
The heartbreaking memory of the Christmas when Dad got roaring drunk, knocked over the tree and blackened Mom's eye. Or that other time your heart was set on a model train, but you got socks and pajamas instead.
But more than anything else, it's the baggage. And I don't mean baggage wrapped in shiny paper with a bow on top. No! Relational baggage. Old conflicts thinly veiled in cleverly snide comments. Awkward silences while Grandpa carves the turkey. And the very real threat of “it” hitting the fan after a few glasses of Moscato d’Asti over the ham.
My family is no different than yours. But had you been a fly on the wall in the 80's and 90's, you might have thought you'd accidentally stumbled into Norman Rockwell's iconic painting, Freedom From Want. Who doesn't love the oil-on-canvas glow of smiling relatives chatting gaily as the beaming grandmother proudly bears the steaming turkey to the bountiful table?
Yeah, well, keep dreaming! Grandma may have demanded that we resemble Freedom From Want for forty years, but the interpersonal relationships around the dining room table were toxic as hell.
Toothy grins disguised lives enmeshed with codependence, boundary bashing and narcissistic judgmentalism. And at the bottom of the relationship cesspool, disguised as a jolly roley-poley grandmama was the belle of the ball, the Narcissist in Chief herself, our familial gossip information super highway. Fiber optics had nothing on her! Boundaries were meant to be bashed. No subject was too private. And no one was immune.
Her beloved daughter, not only a depository for juicy gossip, but a fertile source as well. And her precious son, a dumping ground for malicious gossip about his beloved sister. Technical name: Triangulation. Result: Keep reading.
But we soldiered on, smiling and nodding over the candied yams for decades. Forcing conversation as we passed the kosher baby dills. Trying desperately to remember what we “did know” and what we “didn't know,” for fear of betraying the curly-haired Information Super Highway's pet hobby of gossip dissemination. Watching our words lest we differ from her in any way, incurring “the look” and silent treatment. Or worse yet, floods of tears.
Of course, it all came tumbling done. How could it not?
So why did we do it for so long? Why does any toxic family come together to chat through gritted teeth? Do we enjoy the event? No. Do our relatives enjoy it? No. Is this living deliberately? No!
Ah, but does Grandma enjoy it? Yes! She's hovers over the laden table, blissfully playing the victim, salting the gravy with her tears. Sobbing into her hanky, wondering loudly why her children do such-and-such and bemoaning how hard she worked over the meal. Don't kid yourself. She's having a blast!
So why do we keep going back year after miserable year? Love. And to avoid drama. Drama belongs on the silver screen and the stage. Not in our lives. And definitely not sullying our holidays.
So we capitulate. We do the dreaded holiday “thing” so Grandma doesn't get a knot in her skivvies. A fake smile plastered on our face, a glass of liquid courage in our hand. And what is the result? Drama! Inside, our souls are screaming. Now we're the ones with the knot in our skivvies.
As I see it, if you have the misfortune to be born into a toxic family, you have two choices and only two. They aren't gonna change. They probably don't even realize the dynamics are deadly. So you must change. You can either distance yourself by mild degree or go whole hog. |
I'm not gonna' kid you. Either way, the sparks are gonna fly! Grandma's not gonna' let you go without a fight, sodden with her tears. To lose someone she can criticize, dominate and feel superior to, all in the name of love!?! Never!
From my own personal experience, there was only one choice. I went whole hog, said “No!” to everything and stayed happily at home. No more Christmas presents laced with snide comments from my uncle. No ham with a side dish of grandma's famous boundary bashing. No pecan pie topped with their subtle insults of my husband. We stayed peacefully in our cozy little cottage, toasting the holiday with a hot glass of crabapple cider, serenity filling our souls. Until a knock came on the door.
It was the sheriff, dispatched by grandmama to perform a Welfare Check. Yes sir, she'd found a way to bash my boundaries, insult my husband and demean me from hundreds of miles away, by proxy, in the form of a long-suffering public servant. And well I knew she was sobbing to dispatch. It was all the confirmation I needed.
I'd made the right choice.
So consider this to be your Emancipation Proclamation. Do the holidays make you miserable? Then choose to live deliberately. After all, if your family really loves you, they'll want you to be happy. They'll put your needs before their own. Or spend time with you on your own, happy terms. And if they're really worried about you, they can always send the sheriff on December 25th.
Welcome to the rest of your life! You've made the right choice. A toxic family is no place for a lover of life who chooses to live deliberately!