A Complicated Family Can Make The Holidays Hard

by Marissa Layne Johnson

As a child of trauma, the holidays can be a reminder of all I have lost, or all I never had to begin with. Honestly, I just want to skip the whole holiday season every time it rolls around; I avoid the carols and the sappy music, shy away from the movies and special edition advertisements, let myself be genuinely surprised when those coveted dates are suddenly around the corner. This year, I actually looked up plane tickets to go abroad, as if being in another country would magically make me forget that it’s Christmas.

This is not to say that people like me are the Grinch, or anything like that. In fact, I honestly love the holidays! I love love! I’m a major sap. Even if I keep it on the low low, I love all those holiday things that I veer away from. But I have been disillusioned and disappointed too deeply, too many times. Sometimes, I can’t help but feel like I am the same little girl I was waiting by the illuminated Christmas tree, hoping I was enough to hold it all together, hoping I was enough at all, hoping I was lovable that year.

So this time around, I’m gonna be real. The holidays — for those of us who have complicated, abusive, and/or nonexistent families — generally just fucking blow. This makes the holiday rhetoric of being thankful for what you have, love, joy, and family values particularly hard to hear. It can make me feel guilty for my sadness, selfish for my wanting, and misunderstood by most — or worse, just silenced and forgotten.

But me? For me, I can not forget.

I can’t forget searching through neighborhood homeless shelters, hoping to find my brother alive despite the blizzards that year. The middle school cafeteria worker who snuck me packaged-up meals to take home with me to make sure I was fed over the weekend. My mom getting high before sunlight, just to make it through a Christmas morning with her daughter. How my stepmom took her own life within the same walls where so many of my memories still live. My uncle’s comments about Orlando victims deserving it, as if my own spilled blood would not be grieve-able in this house. Each time, I braced for impact or insult. Each time, I thought I wasn’t gonna make it to the next year. Each time, I was completely alone.

Having a toxic family means I live with a daily anxiety about my survival and well-being, a constant stress about making it and taking care of myself along the way, with little or nothing to fall back on.

And the holiday season really does a good job at keeping me feeling like I am still alone. All of the idealistic fantasies and romanticism around the holidays fills my heart with something pure, something I want so badly — and then sucker punches me with the deep loneliness that I am able to subdue every other time of year. When the memory of it all bubbles up, I am damn near amazed at how good I’ve become at this 'surviving' thing, at how no one seems to notice demons clawing at me just below the surface, a reminder of where I came from and where I could fall back to.

Having a toxic family means I live with a daily anxiety about my survival and well-being, a constant stress about making it and taking care of myself along the way, with little or nothing to fall back on. For the most part, I am used to it; it’s second nature at this point. But there are these little moments where I wonder what it must be like to know, without question, that I have a whole support system waiting for me, that I am loved, accepted, treasured, and cared for. I think about how that must allow other people to live their lives, free of the weight I carry. Who I could become if all of this energy was spent on positive, productive things. Would I be happier? More successful? Smarter? Better?

These moments are more frequent this time of year. This is the time when avoidance is difficult. They happen over drinks with my friends, while out shopping for presents, during small talk with my Uber driver. My coworkers ask me things like, “What does your family do for the holidays?” and “Where is home for you?” and suddenly I can not duck the questions or change the subject. I find myself saying “I don’t know.” I don’t know! Even when good friends who know some of the details ask about my plans and what I’m going to decide that will make me feel happy and healthy this year, I still say I just don’t know. Because I don’t. And maybe I just can’t ever feel that way. I am, thankfully, getting to a place of independence rather than reliance, of deciding what I want to do rather than putting myself in an unhealthy and toxic environment, and that is such an important place to be in for people like me.

Still, I find myself gearing up for yet another holiday season of trying to figure out my place — and stopping myself when I glaze over the truth, or believe too naïvely in the false idea of a common understanding among people my age. I know a lot of people have to deal with uncomfortable questions about their relationship status, or offensive comments from that one uncle and whatever, but that’s not quite comparable with the holiday nerves I’m talking about. Many people these days, especially millennials, understand the concept of the nontraditional family — primarily this idea that your friends are your family. But what happens when those friendships change, or are lost, or you grow apart from this chosen family? Then what? For me, I am standing where I’ve always been — arms out, ready to catch my own falls, passing the baton to my damn self, cheering my own name.

When friends invite me to join their families’ holiday plans, I may want to go but feel scared. Scared that I will enjoy myself and suddenly have a sobering moment, somewhere between passing the bread rolls and hugging your grandma, that this is not and never will be my family. Scared because when you say I’m part of the family, in my head I am counting the friends who have said that in the past who I don't even talk with anymore. Scared to get too comfortable. Scared to want it too much.

And I want to be happy. I really do. I don’t want to be this person, trust me.

To be clear, this is not to say that I only have a story of sorrow or only of bravery and overcoming. I fall on a different page of that story, sometimes on a daily basis. I am joyful and angry and jealous and hopeful and everything in between.

But above all else, I am so so frustrated with myself that I have still not figured it out. That though there are many friends to be had, there is not yet an alternative-to-home holiday get-together to rely on. That I don’t have a partner whose family I’m integrated into. That I’m not with the girl I love, who could be all the family I need right now, where all this wanting would fall away. That I am still grieving over her because that love was the first time in my whole life I felt like I was home. Really home.

I don’t want to hide. I don’t want to plaster a fake smile on my face to distract from this gaping hole within me. To cover up my shame and my fear. To correct myself when I am bitter. To lie or be quiet about it so that other people are comfortable.

So this year, I’m telling myself a few things to get through the holidays, like:

Stop feeling so damn guilty about expressing your pain and trauma, Marissa. I mean, damn, life is hard enough, you know? Find the power in your honesty and don’t you dare be sorry about it.

When people don’t understand you, it is not a reflection of your character or the validity of your reality. What’s the point of being easily swallowed, anyway? Let yourself be unknowable, let them try to chew you up just to spit you out. Rising from the broken is your origin story, and you have relived it and survived over and over again.

Let yourself feel everything you are feeling, without judgment. Cry in the middle of CVS because Mariah Carey’s Christmas album is blasting and that shit is just too much. Be jealous of your friends’ holiday plans with their families without abandon. Watch Love Actually for the 17th time alone in your bed, write another poem about your ex like you can write love back into existence, enter and leave conversations whenever you want, reveal as little or as much as you please.

Be patient with yourself.

Say how you really feel. Your trauma is not a mood killer.

You are not your family. Your future is not predetermined. You have no other greater obligation than to yourself.

This is probably gonna suck, tbh.

But God, one day, girl? One day, you will have the holidays you’ve always wanted. And it will probably look way different than what you’d imagined. But, like everything, it will be built with your own, steady hands, your giving, yearning heart.

Image: @kmichaudphotodesign