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Why You Need Support When Healing Holiday Trauma

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I’ve always loved the holidays– the soft glow of holiday lights, the sound of ever-merry Christmas carols, the festive smell of evergreen and the taste of warm, freshly baked cookies.  But my connection to the holidays is a complicated one because it also stirs memories of childhood holidays that weren’t always especially jolly.

My childhood Christmases were beautiful in many ways, at least from the outside looking in. Decorations went up Thanksgiving weekend and stayed up through mid-January. It was my mother’s favorite time of year and she always went overboard.  Our house every year looked like a winter wonderland straight out of a holiday movie.  We always had an overly full seven foot tree in the living room decorated with literally hundreds of ornaments, a six foot Kris Kringle tree entirely decorated with candy in the kitchen, a four foot tree in the bay window facing the street and even little trees for our bedrooms.  Every year, she put up multiple nativity sets, villages, decorations and lights galore inside and outside our home. Decorating in our house didn’t take a few hours– it usually took an entire weekend to unpack everything and set it up.

But the scene from inside our house didn’t always accurately reflect that cheery glow others saw from the street. My mother struggled with often untreated, always under treated bipolar disorder and was prone to fits of rage that always seemed to amplify around the holidays.  She was in many ways a perfectionist, and if her festivities weren’t perfect they might as well not take place at all. Celebrations would often go from cheery to scary on the drop of a dime or a single misstep, so I spent the majority of my early holidays walking on eggshells, ever fearful of being the reason she declared Christmas was ruined and ultimately having to face the inevitable wrath that was to follow. 

These feelings and reactions surrounding the whole Christmas season followed me into adulthood and ultimately tarnished my own holidays fo many years.

One year, when I was six or seven, my mother had purchased a case of little foil-wrapped chocolate snowmen and Santas to hang on our candy tree in the kitchen.  For weeks, they were stored in the pantry awaiting the arrival of the holidays.  On the morning after Thanksgiving day, when the time finally came to set up the Kris Kringle tree, my mother discovered someone had gotten into the box of goodies and had eaten over half of the stock.  Irate, she sat my older brother and I down at the kitchen table and declared nobody was getting up until the guilty person confessed.  For well over twelve hours we sat there, no meals, no bathroom breaks, no moving from our seats as she alternated between interrogating us both and tearing apart our bedrooms looking for clues.  Pain in my bladder increased and compounded for hours until I eventually peed myself.  Every time I would get sleepy and attempt to lay my head down in my arms, I would get slapped in the back of my head.  There would be no rest until the guilty party confessed!  Not being able to bear sitting there a moment later and just wanting to get out of my wet pants and go to bed, I broke down crying and confessed even though I hadn’t done it.  My mother glared at me and said “No you didn’t.  And nobody is getting up until the guilty party confesses.”  She knew my brother had done it.  She had found the wrappers in his bedroom, yet somehow, in her rage, she thought it was reasonable to punish us both for an entire day. 

That feeling of wanting to apologize for everything just to avoid conflict, especially during the holidays, has followed me into adulthood.  I’ve spent the majority of my lifetime apologizing, not because I genuinely feel I’ve done anything wrong but rather because I just want to keep the peace.  It became so ingrained in my personality that whenever someone seemed upset or angry, my first response was to apologize without even thinking of it.  I honestly didn’t even realize I did it so frequently until my husband called attention to it and began reassuring me that I didn’t have to apologize, that I had done nothing wrong.  I still catch myself apologizing out of habit sometimes, but that simple acknowledgement that I don’t have to take the blame for everything just to keep the peace was like a weight lifted off my shoulders. 

Growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s, hanging lights was more of a hassle than it is today.  Unlike the strands of lights used today that will stay at least partially lit even if one bulb goes out, on older strands of lights one bulb breaking, blowing or coming loose would darken the entire tree and would mean hours of testing socket by socket, replacing bulb by bulb, until you found the culprit.  Because we had literally hundreds of ornaments on our tree, having to take apart the tree to find the offending bulb was an all day task and was met with utter dread because the rest of the world was supposed to stop in its tracks until the bulb situation was resolved.  It didn’t matter if it was dinnertime or bedtime, or if we had previous plans to go out somewhere.  The first and only priority was resolving the Christmas catastrophe and setting the world right again.  And you didn’t want to be the person nearest the tree when a light blew because there was automatic guilt by proximity.  You were guaranteed to receive my mother’s ire, and potentially a backhand, if there was any perceived evidence that you intentionally imploded her Christmas. 

Even though holiday lights have improved over the years so that one light blown at most darkens half of one strand, any light going out triggers instant panic and dread.  My anxiety ramps up into overtime, reaching new heights.  It isn’t even anything I am intentionally doing or how I am choosing to react.  It is ingrained in me that holiday lights going out is a world-ending catastrophe.  Lightbulbs blow sometimes.  It happens no matter how carefully you tend to them.  On some level I know this, but a single blown lightbulb during the holidays triggers an instantaneous panic I have no control over.

A couple days after my husband and I put up our own little Kris Kringle tree, a small three foot version of my mother’s six foot candy monstrosity, half of the lights blinked out.  I instantly went into panic mode, flitting around trying to check random darkened bulbs to hopefully get the tree lit again.  In that moment, it felt imperative to get those lights shining again so Christmas wasn’t ruined.  My husband, seeing my obvious panic, calmly paused the video game he was playing, got up and began helping take candy off our tree so we could remove the lights.  He was so sweet, continuously reassuring me we’d figure this out together.  There was no judgment, just calm assistance and slowly my anxiety began to lower.  He kept reaching out to squeeze my hand, he’d smile reassuringly whenever our eyes would meet, and make lighthearted sweet comments and jokes.  What felt world-ending only minutes before all of a sudden didn’t feel like such a big deal anymore.  It was something we could, and did, resolve together.

I have an older sister from my mother’s first marriage who is 14 and a half years older than me.  She got married and started a family of her own while I was still a child.  We were invited to her and her husband’s new home for Christmas that first year.  My mother, a lifelong two pack a day smoker despite losing part of her lungs to cancer, took their request to not smoke in their new house as an unforgivable perceived slight and demanded we all gather our things and leave immediately because we clearly were not welcome there.  Christmas was over! 

Another year when I was eight or nine, my mother decided a couple weeks before Christmas that we were all unconscionable heathens with no appreciation for all that she did to make sure the holidays were perfect.  She declared Christmas was over and all the decorations were to come down.  It wasn’t until Christmas eve that she finally recalled that we were expecting family for Christmas day and an undecorated house was thoroughly unacceptable.  We spent the entire day, well into the early hours of Christmas morning, rushing to redecorate the entire house.  I vividly remember laying under the Christmas tree some time after 2am, hanging the dozens upon dozens of filler ornaments that graced to inner portions of the branches and reflected the lights outward.  I don’t honestly remember that Christmas day, though, because I was half-asleep for most of it.

My mother always cooked and baked elaborate, delectable trays of candies and cookies for family and friends every year, dozens of boxes worth for neighbors, co-workers, family and friends.  I’ve continued with that tradition since I was 19, 25 years at this point, yet still never felt like I quite measured up.  Each year, I bake 12 to 14 types of cookies, yet she always did 20 to 24.  I make a couple types of fudge, maple nougat and caramels. She did four or five types of fudge and multiple other types of candy.  As much heart as I always put into my holiday baking, I was always left feeling like I was disappointing everyone because I could never manage to do as much as she once did.

 Those feelings that the decorations, the food, the holiday itself has to be perfect have plagued me my entire life because it was instilled in me from my earliest years.  My mother’s voice echoes in my head, except it is now my own voice that has picked up where hers left off.  “If it’s not perfect, why bother?”  I desperately want to enjoy the holidays but I am still walking on those same eggshells, ever-alert, looking for potential problems to solve in order to save Christmas before it gets cancelled. 

My husband is one of the best things to happen to me because he truly is the calm in my storm.  Whenever I start to panic, he wraps his arms around me and reassures me that things will ultimately be okay, that things don’t have to be perfect to be wonderful in their own right.  It is because of him that I am finally starting to be able to catch my breath and actually enjoy the holidays.

Our small, at home pandemic holiday wedding this year was running almost an hour late, pushing our Thanksgiving dinner further back.  Who cares if we’re running a little late and aren’t on schedule for holiday plans?  We’ll take everything as it comes. 

Some of the lights went out on the tree.  The steeple on the church for my village broke off because one of the cats knocked it over.  A glass ball fell off the tree and broke.  At one time, each of those would have felt world-ending, but now they are small hiccups we face together. 

It ultimately doesn’t matter how many cookies or candies I make.  Whatever I do is more than enough.  They come from the heart and everyone loves and appreciates the effort I put in to making them.  Without the ever-present weight of never quite measuring up, I actually enjoy making my holiday cookies and candies these years.

When you carry with you a complicated holiday history, new holidays can feel just as overwhelming even though the earlier traumas are no longer occurring.  But that rough holiday past doesn’t mean you can’t learn to enjoy the holidays again.  One of the biggest first steps to take is to be honest about your past.  Talk about what the holidays were like for you.  Communication is key.  The people who care about you cannot help you unless they understand what is wrong.  Unpack that holiday baggage you’ve been silently carrying and help those in your life understand why the holidays aren’t always the most wonderful time of the year for you.  When others understand where you are coming from, it is easier for them to support you.  And having that support around the holidays can mean the difference between continuing to struggle or finally being able to find reasons to celebrate again.

Image courtesy of getty images

Originally published: December 11, 2020
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