The holidays are a particularly triggering time for family trauma survivors. Not only does society assume that you have a family in general; around the holidays, it’s expected:
“Are you seeing your family?”
It’s not even a legitimate question. It’s rhetorical. It’s a question you’re expected to respond to with great enthusiasm as you round off your own long list of relatives eager to spend time with you.
But what do you do when you’re no contact with your family? What do you do when the thought of your family causes a painful reaction deep in your heart?
Why is my chest pounding? Is it from nerves? Am I angry? Am I sad? Should I lie? Should I give them an immediate excited performance, declaring, “Yes” without going into detail? But what would lying do to my progress with healing?
Shit! I’m taking too long to answer.
The last significant family holiday memory I have is the last Christmas I lived with my mom. As usual, we were going to have our annual Christmas Eve family gathering in which everyone traveled to our house. Since my mom had bought her childhood home from her father before I was born, it made sense that her three sisters and everyone else met there.
“Everyone comes home for Christmas,” my mom would always tell people with a confident tone.
The fact that people came to our house meant that my mom was special for living here. She was providing an environment in which no other relative could replicate: true family history. I used to love this fact. I wanted to help make others feel like they’re coming home for Christmas, too. I used to feel genuine joy from seeing relatives I don’t normally get to see. Every year, I would send them thank you cards, commenting on how I hope to see more of them during the year, as well. I thought I had a real family.
By Christmas 2018, I was fully aware of my mom’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.
One night, as Christmas Eve was fast approaching, every surface of the kitchen was covered in sheets of sugar cookies. They were everywhere. Mind you, while my family is a decent size, we always have twice to three times as much food at this event than is necessary; usually, from relatives also bringing things. Maybe, I hadn’t noticed until this year. Or, perhaps her retirement had amped up her usual behavior. It was as if making cookies became her desperate attempt to show off how generous she tries to appear. A wall of cookies. The more cookies, the more distance between her true self and the one she presents to the outside world.
While she was making enough cookies to almost feel sorry for her, I was trying to set up the coffee for the next morning. I worked almost every day. I used to depend on her to make the coffee, but after a few mornings in which it still hadn’t been made and I’d have to wait for it to brew, I began setting it up myself. It was like that with a lot of things she now had time for, but neglected.
That night, I had finished off the coffee container. I wanted to wash it before putting it with the recycling. There she was at the stove, right next to me at the sink. She was putting icing on the baked cookies. Since I was at the sink, I knew she would find a reason to invade my space if I didn’t hurry up and get away from her. She doesn’t like that others could be more productive than she is. She wouldn’t be able to guilt me about her “working harder” than I do, later, as she had done my whole life: “You worked all day? Well, I worked all day, extra hours and then came home to take care of you and your brother by myself.” According to her, I never had reason to be tired. This year, it’d take extra effort to pull something from her ass to complain about and hold over me.
Today, it was that her vital and obsessive cookie-making had suddenly caused her to need her hands washed. Immediately! Making those cookies was more important than anything going on in my life. I couldn’t possibly understand the pressure. She needed the sink then and there! It doesn’t matter that I was trying to use it for five minutes.
She “asked” if she could use it. I told her, “I’m almost done.” Hardly any Dawn bubbles were left in the coffee container.
That wasn’t good enough. She stuck her hands under the sink, waiting for me to move. I finished filling the coffee container and poured it as I normally would, but her hands were in the way. Just like she had told me for years when I needed to wash my hands while she was doing dishes, the temperature is hotter than it should be for hand washing. She would need to turn down the hot water, first. Well, she didn’t wait for me to say anything. The hot water poured right onto her hands.
She yelled, holding her hands, glaring at me as if I was to blame for her pain.
“You know what? Find somewhere else to be on Christmas Eve. I don’t want you here, at all.”
There was a sinking in my stomach. My chest was hurting and pounding at the same time. Where would I go?
I had a few days to think about what to do to keep away, as well as distract myself. I chose a movie: The Favourite. It’s about a woman Abigail Hill (Emma Stone) who goes to work for her cousin Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz) tending to Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). I made sure there was a showing during the length of the party. I thought it would be mostly funny, being a black comedy. There were parts that were; unfortunately, deep down dark humor usually means humor at someone’s expense. Normally, this is right up my ally; however, seeing Abigail being blamed for things that were obviously not her fault only reminded me of my reality, and how I had ended up at a movie theatre on Christmas Eve, while my family has their annual gathering at my home.
When the movie was over, I drove back. Cars were still in the driveway. I debated whether to go in. I Googled a shelter. All of them seemed to have a waitlist and be very specific. Eventually, I did go in the house. No one greeted me. I figured my mom had told a sob story of how I had intentionally burned her hands days prior. Or, perhaps, she claimed I decided I didn’t want to attend, and she didn’t understand why I was so angry. Whatever it was, I was completely ignored.
In years prior, after the party, my mom would give me a gift. Sometimes, it was to hint about a theme for the presents to be opened the next day. This time, I avoided her entirely.
Days later, she told me that she had to talk with me. First, since she had seen that I was angry following her demand that I not be at home for the party, she had to lecture me:
“I had requested that you apologize to me [and to your aunt] because your anger was not…there was no reason for it. It was disrespectful. And so far there has been nothing. So, I asked you not to be here Christmas eve…and you respected that, and you weren’t here…But it was not nice having Christmas Eve without you.”
As usual, she rewrote history to make herself the victim. Not even a mention of the hot dishwater inspiring her to banish me from my own house.
When discussing the gifts she had for me it was a blatant guilt-trip:
“One of the things is in the refrigerator, and I don’t know how long it’s going to be okay, but it’s something very special that I ordered specifically for you. I had something flown over from France for you. It’s in the fridge.”
Notice how she repeats “For you,” as if she is being considerate and cares for me. As if she does not terrorize me with almost consistent blame for things simply because I’m there.
The gift was fruit that had been preserved in sugar like in 1500s.
About a year prior, she stopped giving me money for groceries because she “couldn’t afford it” on her retirement salary.
She continued asking when I would have time to open the rest of the presents. I didn’t want her presents. I was done with her endless abuse. Always upping her game. So, I calmly told her, “I don’t know. I’m busy” to avoid further abuse. In addition, I was deep in the grey rock strategy to deal with her mood swings.
She replied, “Are you doing this to punish me? For being angry that you were out of line…I know you’re busy, but you’re my daughter, and we live in this house, and I do not want this to be a cold house. I don’t want to live like that…If you’re going to force me to the [mocking] ‘okay;’ you know, very uncaring, then maybe you’d be comfortable somewhere else because that’s not how to live. I know you don’t like living with your mother..”
I had begun blaming my age and having to live at home due to a lack of money on why I would get angry because honesty and direct communication is dangerous in an abusive situation. I could not tell her that I knew her game. I could not ask for space. I would be met with rage.
“…Right now, I can’t change that. I’m trying to do the best I can for you.”
Again, not ensuring that I have nutritious food every week shows otherwise.
“There are sweets in your stocking just like always, and there are presents for you.”
I did not respond to this.
“You’re my daughter, and I love you, regardless of how angry I may be with you…”
She proceeded to list the things she bought me and how she bought these things because she thought that I would like it.
I didn’t respond. I just felt rage. If she was buying me all this unnecessary expensive sweets, why would she not buy me groceries, instead?
I finally broke my silence, “How much did it cost?”
“Fifty dollars…..And yeah, I’m in more debt than I was before.”
I reminded her that I had things to do.
“I’m sure you do.” She knew that I meant she could afford to buy me groceries. She brought it up.
“…If you’re going to be this way from now on, when the house sells, you’re going to have to find a place for yourself because I’m not going to live like this. You go your way, I’ll go mine. I will live with my daughter. I will not live with a stranger.”
I never opened the presents, my stocking, or ate the sugar fruit. I didn’t want gifts. I wanted a real family that loves me and makes me feel safe.
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