This is a post I wrote around this time last year. I have updated it a little. Look in and then look out; there are so many people in need because of austerity in this country. But take care of yourself, too. This is a tender time of year and I hope what I have written will comfort a little if you are anxious about expectations, family and feelings over Christmas. I could feel it come up like a bubble on the school run this morning. But I am brighter now. And thinking of you if you are feeling nervous or sad.
PLEASE NOTE: while there is much here which is not expressed explicitly, be sure that this post does refer to extended trauma. Also, to mental health problems and family estrangement both chosen and not chosen.
I wonder if you’re looking forward to Christmas? I am, now – but this process has taken a long time. In brief, I lost my mother just before Christmas and my dad eighteen months before that; in the five years prior to that, I had also lost all the relatives who were most significant to me then and the beloved godmother who loved me in a way – I truly believe – which my mother never did. I loved my mother dearly, my father, too, but if you’ve read my first book, you will see that a lot of very dark and complex things went on and were either not known about or were not…seen…by my extended family. I’ve the scars from all that and there will always be scenarios when I feel tender about might have beens, as loss bubbles up. And Christmas has a habit of swatting you back to your earliest pathology. Do you find that, too? I don’t fancy being that frightened kid any more.
Now, in my dad’s family, there was conflict and dissension; there was untreated and severe mental illness which I had some measure of as a child and which terrified me; there were suicides and what I now know to be eating disorders which killed at least one of them. I do not see any of my remaining relatives now – and my father had six siblings so I know I must have cousins living not far away; it is a strange and unreal situation. I do not think about it so much until another relative or well-meaning friend brings it up, usually some time around Christmas. I shiver.
‘You ought to try and get in touch with your father’s family.’
But you see, when I think of it all, of my father’s family, I feel so sad. I can salvage a memory of the most beautiful tree you ever saw at Christmas; it was in my grandparents’ house and it had tiny musical instruments you could actually play; I can bring to mind a pretty little brass saxophone now. But all this is gone. Why? Because when I buried my mother, some of my father’s clan came and, as I turned from the grave, two younger aunts and a cousin tapped on the arm before leaving abruptly. They said, ‘We will not be seeing you again.’ So there’s me, barely an adult, having just lost both parents and there we are. No, I never saw them again because all communication stopped. I know that people say blood’s thicker than water, but I disagree. Blood is thick, alright – but sometimes family links are meaningless.
There, I said it.
If a group of people makes it clear that you have no place in their life and that they do not and never loved you, why would you pursue them? Yes, this hurts; it hurts particularly at Christmas, but this is really where your self care and command of yourself need to kick in. Build more family. You may have a partner, children (I am married, have three boys and help to take care of others’ children); you may not. You are not in any way lesser because you do not. I’m not having that, oh no no no. If you possibly can, try to think that family is a flexible construct. You can build it of your friends; of those in your community, there and up there in the ether. And, frankly, I am available if you’d like to add me.
It would bloody well be a honour.
If you feel lonely, unloved, come and see me. Because I know, I just know, I am going to love you. And I’ve got the pies and mulled wine. And sugared almonds. Or we could just scarf down the same on social media because our imaginations are transcendent.
I mentioned before about my parents. Well, there were many good things and I don’t want to be ungrateful for those. I loved my mother, in particular, with a passion. But my experience, broadly, was of one brutal and sneering parent (my mum) and of another (my dad) who failed to protect me from her. It was made clear, again and again, that I was an unwanted child. That I was the bringer of harm. I was weird kid and eldritch child and any manner of things. I remember wonderful routines and beautiful decorations at Christmas; I also remember being frightened and lonely. I have had years of managing mental health problems, from the OCD that ruled much of my activity in childhood and early teens, to depression, generalised anxiety, the nightmares which are the bringer of insomnia (I always have the same nightmares, more or less) and the dissociative episodes which are managed but not cured. Were I to hunt for a root for all that, I should test my pulse and say…yes: there it is in the ghost of Christmas past when I was given a present unsmilingly and told I did not deserve it. And it was such a beautiful present. It might have been lying beside me as I was kicked in my side or had my hair pulled. As part of all this was a much older sibling who, to me, was angel and devil. He disappeared from my life altogether and then re-emerged. My mother, like my dad, came from a big family but, with a couple of exceptions, when he re-emerged with a new wife, they killed the fatted calf. Because there should not and cannot be – I don’t want to overload you with detail here – a link (meaningless anyway) between my sibling and my young family, recent extended family events at Christmas have involved him and her and not me, not the kids everyone should, I would say, be focused on or more protective of. The loyalty and the love that I hope I have shown my entire life are valued – and I cannot say that I am without family members who value me and who have been understanding and loving – but it is easier to go along with the person who may leave again and go along with it for the sake of my dead mother. So, I have had to entirely reshape my family dynamic and, this year, for the first time in years, we are spending it all at home, the five of us, the cats. the ladybird colony upstairs, the hens clucking away outside. The home I always thought I could not build or have.
And I feel so lucky. We will ring my husband’s family in the US. We try. Again, my husband has made the difficult decision not to see his birth father any more. He tried to make it work from his parents’ acrimonious divorce onwards; that was when he was a kid. He can no longer do it. He is loved, our boys are loved, but then again there are fractured relationships in that family because of two difficult divorces, remarriage and where the kids settle into all that. Or haven’t in all cases. Some families manage it well; it would be fair to say that this one has not and that there are deep and divisive wounds which go largely unacknowledged. In this particular case, we make the best of it. Because it’s what you do. You take the love and joy where you can; when you get stronger, you realise you can move away from the things that hurt. When you are a child, it is not the same at all. There’s another reason why we are at home this Christmas. My husband wants to hunker down there and for his sons to feel the solidity of that home.
Again, a voice pipes up. ‘You should make contact with your dad. It’s Christmas.’ My husband is altogether more phlegmatic than I am. He just says, ‘Nope.’
And a few more pipe up on the subject of my brother. ‘You should try and make contact with your brother. For the boys’ sake. Don’t they deserve to know him?’ I cried a full hour after that, pulling off the M4 at Cardiff Gate. The notion that I had taken something from my children. (And also, The Glamour. What did I look like, banging the steering wheel in the rage that followed as I sat there?) All well meant, but no, they deserve better and no I shouldn’t make contact. Any interest is fleeting, I am scared of him and more now of what he could say than of what he could do and it is incumbent on me to protect my kids, while I can. Families go down rabbit holes to keep the peace. But I am peaceful. What happened there, in my past, my teens and early twenties, caused me immense pain and fractured every area of my life. Why would I put my kids in a place of risk? Why would I enforce on them a contract with a person who has taken no interest in them and in their wellbeing and shows none now. And a kindly relative whom I love (but still whose opinion I must disparage – this is okay, readers) says again and again, ‘You must do what your mother would have wanted’. There I, the gaslit child, ask a question and am met with bafflement.
I say, ‘Why?’
And a well meaning friend: ‘Christmas is for families…’ ‘Yes, but…’ ‘But they wouldn’t have to be alone with him…’ Think about this. It is predicated on fantasy from an otherwise kind and intelligent person. It is nonsense.
I say, ‘But why on earth would I even entertain that?’
What I said about family being a flexible construct. Last year, my friend J Hall, who is wise beyond compare and has been through so much, wrote this piece: https://jlhallwriter.com/2018/12/14/a-safe-christmas/ J confronted her parents and the results were explosive. I will leave you to read this beautiful piece. But here is an example of what happened next.
Fast forward over a decade and there are no invitations to family Christmas dinner, no more phone calls after the Queen’s speech. The festivities in my wider kin continue without me. Sometimes I wonder if I am missed, or thought of for anything other than a brief, conscience-pricked moment. My family now is my partner.
At Christmas, for those of us that have lost, we feel the heartbeat of those losses. They pulse under our skin, they surge in our veins. When we stop the busy-busy, the undead of abusive Christmases past nip at our heels. They sink in their teeth and bite. Memories appear fully formed, here to bully and ravage.
Many families have been broken, and as adults our worst Christmas is always remembered, and held a little bit closer to us than it is the rest of the year.
She’s right, isn’t she? And brave. And I said to her that she can now add me to her family, if she would consent. And she said, ‘I do’ and that was a bit exciting, frankly. As I write, I’ve had devastating news about a friend. She’s a friend who calls me ‘Sis’. Through the demanding illness of both herself and her husband, her family has not stepped up. We will be there on Christmas day – as the family that was made. And her boys need me. They tell me. Water is sometimes thicker than blood! Let’s go with that image: imagine a thick water, warm, enveloping, doting, loving and providing. Like your best bath ever! Yes, that.
Now, here’s a feature from last year, too. From the excellent Kerry Hudson, prefaced with this quotation:
‘Christmas without family might be painful, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than Christmas with them.’
If you’ve been feeling fragile, may it comfort and support you; likewise, if you have chosen family estrangement, then you could look for the Necessary Family Estrangement group on FB and ask to join, but be mindful of who it is for. This was set up by that brilliant woman Sali Hughes and it is wonderful. Find friendship and kinship. Practical and wise advice and thought. I want to add, for anyone alone on Christmas day, because of family problems or any other reason – and I mean feeling alone, feeling lonely – then I can thoroughly recommend the hashtag #joinin on Christmas Day, as started by the comedienne Sarah Millican. Here: https://metro.co.uk/2017/12/25/sarah-millicans-joinin-campaign-help-lonely-christmas-7183846/ As Metro put it,
Whether you’re spending the day on your own, are feeling lonely, have suffered a loss or simply find the holidays hard, just click on the hashtag and chat to those feeling the same.
For the past two years, I’ve joined in. I’ve had big bubbles of cry come up – and this despite having the children here. Because I find it hard, still. A huge support and I hope others enjoyed talking to me as much as I did to them.
I think that’s enough of all this. The sky is azure here; the air is crisp. Hey you. Gird your loins, get some stollen in, dm me, whatever you need, my bravehearts. Go for a walk and listen to the winter song of the robin for a while. Take a holiday from the worries that beset you (and I mean global worries as well as about family and the dearth or paucity of it) and remember my adage: that family is a flexible construct. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
As you are and on your terms,
Love, Anna x