Holidays…For The Rest of Us
It’s that time of year again. A time with a certain crispness in the air, the holiday music wafting through the stores, the Christmas cards and Amazon packages arriving in the mail, the twinkling lights, and oh yeah, the cultural gaslighting.
We’ll get back to that.
Growing up, this was my absolutely favorite time of year. For Christmas, my family would fly to Seattle to visit my dad’s side of the family who would congregate at my grandma’s house for a big Christmas Eve. And I loved it because it was the one day a year where my family would cast off much of (but certainly not all of) our abuse and dysfunction and act relatively normally, maybe even something like a nice family. It was like playing pretend, like Halloween, only the costumes were our personalities, character traits, and treatment of one another. And I loved it! Because I wanted my love to make that version of my family real, just like the boys had done to the velveteen rabbit.
But of course, pretending came at a price. Namely, my own expense. Being a target of abuse in my immediate family, fraught with narcissistic, physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse, it was my job to just take it and to do so as quietly and invisibly as possible. And so, my family brought an elephant with us to these holiday gatherings. And that elephant’s name was The Truth—the truth of what really happened behind closed doors at our house, the truth of how my father treated all of us, but especially my mom and me, the truth of the impact that words, hands and feet can have when mixed with mal-intent, the truth that could expose my family for what it really was.
Pretending at these family gatherings felt less and less fun over the years and more and more of an exhausting burden. Am I the only person who sees things for what they really are? I’d wonder. My parents saw too, because if I ever started to say the wrong thing, they would shoot me glances with wide angry eyes, tense jaws and tight lips to telepathically tell me “You had better get rid of that elephant! Can’t you see it’s making the extended family uncomfortable? What kind of daughter is so selfish as to let her whole family be uncomfortable?” This would commence my single most important job at the holidays- to eat that elephant piece by piece and stuff it down so that my Grandma’s living room could feel more spacious and comfortable for the rest of the family and guests.
Sadly, I am far from alone in this holiday experience. Many people who held this role in their family describe themselves as the “black sheep” or “scapegoat” (lots of animal themes in this post, I know). And if you relate to any of this, it’s very important for you to know that if you are an abuse survivor, it is not your job to swallow the truth elephant these holidays, just to make everyone else in your family feel comfortable, especially if your abuser is among them.
And here’s where the cultural gaslighting comes in and compounds this. Holiday movies, songs and (preachy, unsolicited) advice can further hurt abuse survivors by making them feel wrong and petty because “the holidays are a time of forgiveness, burying the hatchet and letting by gones be by gones.”
One black sheep to another, I’m here to tell you that there is nothing petty about holding abusers accountable and choosing to not subject yourself to breaking bread with and spending hours or days with them, if that doesn’t feel integral to you. It doesn’t make you a hateful, negative person either, which is very important for you to remember because they just may tell you that (speaking from experience).
In the coaching world, there is a saying to “let your emotions be your compass.” Part of the reason it feels so terrible swallowing the truth elephant is because doing so perpetuates the lie. And lies don’t feel good deep down. So, if you’re deciding whether to spend the holidays with your abusive family of origin, I recommend getting really quiet, closing your eyes and saying to yourself “I am spending the holidays with my family.” Visualize it- the house, the food, the people, the conversation. Then observe what sensations you have and where you have them. Are they on the periphery of your body or in your core? Does it feel more like annoyance or aggravation or do you feel a deep and intense nauseous dread deep within you?
If it’s like the latter, it may be a good year to give yourself permission to do something different. 2020 has been a huge lesson for all of us in doing things differently. And maybe when it comes to how or even if you interact with your abusive family of origin, a change might actually be a good thing. Because holidays are about being with people who truly love one another, and there is nothing loving about abuse or sweeping it under the rug.
So this year, I wish you holidays that feel good, integral, and loving; I wish you time with your friends and loved ones (even if that is electronic or otherwise distanced and COVID friendly); and I wish you wonderful holiday meals, with no more elephants on the menu.
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Writer and Coach
Azure Moyna is a writer and coach about issues relating to food, body, mental illness, familial dysfunction, societal treatment of overweight people, and the healing journey. Azure is the author of her memoir, Fullness.