Ho Ho Ho-ly Hell: It's Family Time
What do you get when you mix family, alcohol, overeating, stilted conversations, dogmatic political views, and intergernerational madness? Well, the most wonderful time of the year, of course! Fasten your psychic seatbelts, people: it's holiday season. And I hate to break it to you, but, for most of us, Adele won't save the day.
Some of you are fortunate enough to sip spiced cider with the sweetest of siblings and scions. There are carols and candles and cookies and kisses to spare. Gods bless you -- or rather, the gods have blessed you. For some of us, though, the mere passage of Thanksgiving is enough to ignite dread, as we brace for any one of the many manifestations of familial dysfunction that derive their fuel from festivities. Maybe you try to prepare. You do your "communication calisthenics." For example, let's say your Aunt Allupinmyshit asks you every December, "When are you going to find a nice boy and settle down?" You might want to say, "I'll settle down when you shut the hell up" or "You mean a nice GIRL, right?" but you know neither is likely to make the day any easier (if in fact that is your goal). So you rehearse the forced smile, the feigned insouciance, the shrugging and saccharine "Someday!" These perfunctory answers may quiet Auntie Allup, but they often leave us feeling frustrated, hurt, angry, or anything other than celebratory. Alas, we find ourselves with little to do other than locate all exits with the casual but critical precision of an airline attendant and pray that we're stricken with food poisoning.
There are more than a few sound reasons for speaking up, and likely there are as many for sucking it up. For some of us it can be healthier to skip dinner at mom's house entirely. But for countless others among us, these familial connections, no matter how fraught with passive-aggressive disapproval, are a large part of that which sustains us. Whether to endure without protest, to set boundaries, or to bail entirely is a decision that is not only wholly personal and unique but also dependent on the specific family system, its history, and the unique traits of all involved. So while I cannot, in this short format, suggest with any specificity a right or wrong way to approach your family holidays, I can tell you three, hopefully helpful things:
1) People who tell you that you "should just be thankful you have a family," usually haven't been told by their grandmother every year for 20 that they'd have such a pretty face if it weren't for those ten extra pounds nor listened to their father go on for 45 minutes about how he, too, would shoot a hoodie-cloaked teen running from a store because this is America, goddamit! That (infuriatingly) said, I think we all know that a warm home and a full meal are blessings that our texting-calloused, iPhone 6S-gripping hands aren't even big enough to carry. One can hold both of these realities, though, and I think one should: you are lucky to have food and family, and sometimes you'd rather go to the dentist than spend an evening with those people.
2) You are not crazy, immature, unevolved, or petty if your mother's megalomania reduces you to tears. Rather, you are a human being who exists not only as the adult who drove (or rode or walked) to mom's house but also as the child who once didn't have the skills to tell her what hurts. The part of your brain that holds emotional memories but with no timeline, no sense of how old you are or where you are, doesn't always know that you have options other than silence, rage, or tears. And the part of your brain that does know can't see clearly through all that cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine. The good news? You can learn how to metaphorically windshield-wipe your way to a tempered response. The best gas-mask for those stress reactions is practice. Practice what, you ask? Well, that's #3. Stay with me, peeps: we are almost there.
3) There are -- I promise -- ways to get through the time with your more challenging family members without sacrficing your own truth. And since I need to save my own energy for the 75-minute conversation I will have in a few days about why I have to ruin Christmas by serving ravioli instead of ham, I'm going to refer you to an Instagram post I wrote with a handy, portable Holiday Survival Guide.
Before I close and return to my own communication calisthenics, I want to reach out to those of you for whom this post is wholly moot. Perhaps you would take any amount of brood rudeness (or "clantics," as I like to call them in my ongoing effort to put the fun is dysfunction) over being alone at the holidays. That loneliness is one many of us will never know, and it deserves more focused care than can be folded into this post. So, for now, please accept my IOU as well as the assurance that, with some help, you can access the support and comfort that right now may feel forever elusive. And, on that note, I remind the rest of us that sometimes the easiest way to endure your parent's criticism or your partner's eggnog habit is to take a look inside that privilege backpack with which you feel so saddled and count your blessings. If that doesn't help, spend half the holiday with creepy cousin Clyde and his catalog of taxidermied critters and the other half making dinner for a few people without the resources or company to do so themselves. You might find next year's round of "Who Can Make the Most Thinly Veiled Racist Remark?" infinitely less triggering. In any case, I'll be chanting Astrid's words right along with you.
Have your own holiday horrors to honor? A question about how to handle a particularly obnoxious relative? Please write up a storm in the comments! I'll answer every one -- I can't guarantee I'll help, but I can guarantee I will hear you. Likewise, if you're a reader who hasn't commented but have words of wisdom for one who has, please share. We weren't meant to do this thing -- this life thing, I mean -- alone. Let's try to do it together.