A survivor's guide to the season of joy
I saw my Mother today. As I think about it I have to swallow back the acrid taste of adrenaline that rises in the back of my throat. She was on the other side of the small crowded gymnasium where my daughter was having her choir program. Though I only saw her for a few brief seconds it was enough to leave me looking over my shoulder half an hour later just to make sure no one was following me. It may seem paranoid, but it’s a learned paranoia and is, in fact, a well-worn bit of self-preservation.
I tell all my friends I no longer have contact with my family, that my parents have said they don’t have a daughter, that we are all better off if we don’t speak. All of this is true. What I don’t tell them is that I’m terrified. Terrified that I still love them. Terrified that it will be used against me again. Terrified that they will prove yet again that my love is not returned. That is what scares me, not that it will happen, but that it will happen again. So I stay away, far away, and I resign myself to self-imposed exile.
I say this so that I can assure you, I get it.
I am a minister and one who does a lot of pastoral counseling. You would, I imagine, probably expect me to give warm platitudes in regards to those of us without the comfort of family. Things like, “family is what you make it” or “family is who loves you most when you need it most”, really lovely schmaltz like that. While those are both nice aphorisms they hardly manage to sweep away the anxiety of staring down a toxic family gathering. And pithy quotes certainly won’t wipe the tears away when you are hanging ornaments only you will ever see. I completely understand that, so instead let me offer some (hopefully) helpful advice.
For those facing toxic family.
- Don’t change. You are who you were meant to be and you are worth loving. If your family doesn’t like it, outlive them. It’s a numbers game and if you stay you, they either have to come around or eventually die. Those are the only two options. Winning by attrition is still winning.
- Be a boulder. When dealing with narcissists there is a technique called gray rocking. It’s essentially becoming as boring as possible until people leave you alone. Similarly, if you are at an event because you have to be, it isn’t your job to make everyone like you or even to be pleasant. Your job is to survive and get out of there. Priority one is you. Keep that in focus.
- Remember you are royalty. You deserve respect and no one can take that from you. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help meemaw take out the trash. It means that you do not have to take abuse from anyone. If you are in a situation where escape isn’t handy and you are stuck, gray rock, if you are in a situation where you can respond back and want to, go for it. But make sure you know the difference.
- Be tactical. Eyes open, ears on a swivel. Assess the situation always. You are going into this knowing it could go bad. Knowing you could get hurt. Keep your guard up unless you are absolutely safe.
- Jog afterward. After running the endless marathon of an unsupportive family get-together you need to come down slowly. Vent to friends, find shelter with supportive family, scream into your giant Japanese body pillow. Whatever it is you do, do it. Don't let one event linger in your consciousness or you may not have the stamina for the next.
For those who will be alone.
- Put the box of wine back. Just trust me on this one. Every time you wake up the day after the big holiday with a hangover, “they” win. And don’t act like you don’t know who “they” is.
- Do something. Yeah, I know you want to be alone with things and sit in your feels like a big kid. Too bad, you know it will just make you sadder so do something, anything. And bonus points if it’s with real-life human beings. Extra bonus points if it involves card or board games. Why? Cause I said so and this is my article. If you don’t like the scoring system take it up with my editor. (please don’t)
- Stop waiting. Holidays are when people get the most sentimental and often when they start idealizing their existence. But guess what, whatever you are waiting for, you exist right now. While you are waiting to meet a significant other or to have kids you can start making traditions. It’s actually pretty rad. Make up a tradition, and it can be anything. Being alone means you have time to figure out that tuna on waffles really does make for a horrible Christmas morning tradition.
- Don’t call. This is a hard one, I get it. There is a lovely narrative that builds up in your head: “It’s been enough time, surely family member X has learned the true meaning of Christmas/Hanukkah/Etc. and stopped being a toxic terrible person and the skies will split open and angels will sing and… and…” Nope. If you cut them off, there are reasons, remember them. If they cut you off, they owe you the first overture. Do yourself a favor, don't call. People change, but you can’t force them to accept you.
- Do call everyone else. All the people who have loved you and supported you deserve the round of applause only you can give. Visit or call or write or send a pigeon or anything. There are people that love you and now is the time to remind yourself and them that you are totally worth loving. Because you are. The people who can’t see past their own prejudices do not define you because they can’t even see you. Be sparkling anyway.
So there you have it. A few short tips from someone who's been there and done it wrong plenty. May this holiday season be better than your last and if it isn’t, well, I warned you about the boxed wine. Happy Holidays from Reverend Alaina.
Alaina Kailyn is in no particular order an Author, Geek, Minister, Bender of Board Game Rules, Poet, Devourer of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, Theologian, Cosplayer, Makeup Addict, Activist, Pastor of Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center (Chattanooga) and Mom. All that makes for a very active, very passionate woman and a very patient family. I once ate a Man’s hat just to see if he would notice his head was cold. See Darling I told you no one reads these things. Cucumber armoire decision plesiosaur. Remember to tip your waiters. Her book, The Gods of Purgatory, is available now at Amazon.