It’s not all snowflakes and tinsel, jingle bells and ho, ho, ho. It’s not all jolly times and happy memories.
Christmas has the ability to remind us of Christmases past and perhaps, for some of us, Christmas hasn’t always been a merry occasion. It can also remind us of loss – of those who were here in previous years but who aren’t here anymore, of the things we hoped we’d have by now but don’t, or of the opportunities we feel we’ve missed.
It can be an emotional time.
It’s OK to feel. It’s OK to grieve. It’s OK to get in touch with the pain and loss.
As I see it, I have a choice – I can stuff the feelings down with chocolates, mince pies and mulled wine, or I can accept them, unlock them and give them free passage out of my heart and my soul.
Sometimes we don’t know the feelings are there, lying just beneath the surface. We don’t know the tears are sitting in the rims of our eyes, ready to fall. We don’t know because we’re busy, rushed, stressed, trying to get everything done, trying to please others, forgetting to sit with ourselves and allow ourselves to feel.
Until someone says something or we hear something or we remember something that triggers us, that takes us to a deep place of pain.
That’s what happened to me last night. A simple phrase, uttered by another, triggered something incredibly deep inside. First, I felt angry as my expectations that this Christmas would be absolutely perfect and magical came crashing to the ground. Then I felt sad as I connected with the hurt and disappointment I’ve felt on Christmases past.
This is my first Christmas in my new home with my partner, a milestone on my journey of recovery from addictive behaviours and dysfunctional relationships, a milestone in my maturity and adulthood. I wanted it to be 100 percent wonderful and dramatically different to the Christmases that have gone before – no sadness, loss, regret, dullness, stress or boredom.
Those expectations of perfection are the unrealistic expectations of my inner child – of a child who’s felt sadness, loneliness, disappointment and distress at Christmas in the past and who wants it all to be fabulous this time around.
I remembered some of those previous Christmases last night as I got into bed. I connected with the hurt and I let the tears flow.
One memory was particularly vivid. It was, I think, the first Christmas after I’d left for university. We, the students, were all heading back home. Only I wasn’t sure where my home was. Mum had sold our family house in Liverpool and moved to a caravan in North Wales and my brother was staying away in the town where he was at college. I wanted to be with my childhood friends so I’d planned to stay at my Dad’s house in Liverpool, where he lived with my step-mum. I’d rarely stayed there before. It wasn’t my home. I slept in a spare room filled with other people’s stuff.
I stayed in bed late, having gone to the pub the night before with my friends and drunk far too much, as I did in those days. I opened a few cards and presents I’d taken back with me from uni and then I got up, just as my Dad was leaving the house with my step-mum. They were off to feed her horses. It wasn’t clear when they’d come back. It wasn’t clear when we’d have lunch or when we’d open presents. I was alone in a house that wasn’t mine and I had no idea what was happening on Christmas Day.
As I write this, I realise that people have had far worse Christmases – kids without parents, kids in war zones, kids with terrible illnesses. I’m always saying this to my therapist – there are people far worse off, who’ve gone through much worse things. What am I doing here? Isn’t this self-indulgent? What right have I to feel hurt?
And there are people much better off too, my therapist usually replies, who’ve had much nicer experiences. Plus, we’re all unique. We have our own ways of processing stuff and some of us are more sensitive and vulnerable than others. Shaming myself for having feelings is only going to make it worse. It’s OK. I’m allowed.
That Christmas, I was 18, an adult in legal terms. But given I’m writing this 27 years later as a woman who still has her emotional ups and downs, I can see how much of a child I was back then, how young I was, how completely unprepared I was for such a huge disappointment at Christmas, for my expectations of a lovely day to be shattered, to feel so alone.
On that Christmas day, stood in my Dad’s cold kitchen, I didn’t know what to do next. I called my Mum and cried a bit, then called my best friend who lived around the corner and cried some more. I was on my own – could I go round? I can’t remember the sequence of events after that – did I go back to Dad’s for lunch or did I stay at my friend’s? What I can remember, though, very clearly, is how I felt and looked by the end of the night.
In the evening, we visited another friend whose parents were really sociable and loved to host. I remember sitting at her kitchen table and my friends remarking that my face was all red and blotched. I’d eaten so much sugar, drunk so much alcohol and cried so much that day that I’d come out in some sort of a rash. My body had reacted to everything I’d put inside and all the anguish that was coming out. I thought the food and the drink would take the pain away but in such huge quantities, they only made it worse.
There is no blame. It’s nobody’s fault. All I know is that I wasn’t emotionally equipped to deal with the enormous feelings that came up.
I have other memories of Christmases that weren’t as I’d hoped they’d be. One Christmas, at 23, for example, when I was travelling in New Zealand and had fallen for an Irish backpacker who, it turned out was more interested in getting drunk and playing football with his friends on Christmas Day than hanging out with me. I’d expected him to take away the pain and the loneliness but those expectations were unrealistic – and I’d chosen the wrong man. I was homeless that day, too, so to speak, staying in the Irish guy’s dorm with a few of his friends because the Queenstown hostels were full and I was low on cash.
I remember calling home to Liverpool, speaking to my Dad and my brother who were enjoying a pint of beer in my Dad’s back room and wishing so desperately that I could be there with them this time – safe, in company, with my family, rather than feeling completely lost on the other side of the world. But how would it have been in reality?
Then there were the Christmases I spent in Mexico, with a different family – a huge family of Mexican and ex-pat journalists and friends. I felt like I belonged, like I’d found my tribe. I felt loved and surrounded by warmth. But I still drank myself stupid, perhaps drowning all the memories I’ve written about here.
In recent years, I remember the Christmases when I’ve felt like there was something wrong with me – returning to my brother’s home as a single, 40-something, childless woman, feeling like a little girl, not a grown-up, feeling like I’d taken a wrong turn, like I’d missed out some key life stages, like nothing would ever change.
Many of those images of Christmases past came to me last night and I let the tears flow.
This morning, there’s some lingering sadness but I feel more balanced. And I understand what happened to me last night – something triggered deep pain from my past and I got in touch with mountains of grief. I see this as a good thing, even if it didn’t feel that way at the time. Another layer of the onion. Another stepping stone in my growth and development.
It reminds me of the phrase – if it’s hysterical, it’s historical. My reaction last night was disproportionate to events, which means my past had invaded my present, that a simple phrase had triggered deep wounds from my childhood. I wrote a blog about this five years ago, If it’s hysterical, it could be historical, which interestingly also talks about how we can rewrite our stories, or write new stories for ourselves.
Our fabulous twinkly tree
This morning, I’m back in my adult again, aware more than ever that my enjoyment of Christmas depends on my inner condition, rather than on the stuff on the outside or other people’s actions. I know now that I can give the child inside me a wonderful Christmas, I can make her feel loved, safe, secure and joyful. I can choose how I feel this Christmas. I can do my best to cultivate inner peace, gratitude and playfulness. I can lower my expectations of others as well as my expectations of myself, while knowing I am responsible for my own happiness and have all the inner tools to make this a cheerful time. And I can celebrate the fact I have a beautiful home with a fantastic, twinkly Christmas tree, a partner who loves me and whom I love and that there’ll be plenty of joy, laughter, love and friendship in this house at Christmas. I’ll miss my family, especially the young ones, but I can hold those feelings, they don’t need to floor me.
I can also accept this Christmas will be a mixed bag like so many others – some magic, some fun, some stress and some dull, run-of-the-mill stuff. It won’t be perfect, since perfect is impossible, but that’s OK.
If I don’t write again before Christmas, I wish you all a wonderful time. It will be what it will be. If you need to cry, cry. If you need to grieve, grieve. If you need to feel loss this Christmas – the loss of a father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, child or friend, or the losses of your own childhood, of the children you haven’t had or of the life you haven’t led – feel the feelings deeply and give thanks that you can feel. Don’t be afraid of the tears. They won’t hurt you. They’ll cleanse you. They’ll renew you. They’ll help you to grow.
And if you feel triggered, if you feel anger, rage, sadness or hurt that’s disproportionate to the present circumstances – in other words, if your reaction is hysterical (I use that word because it fits with historical, without any judgement or shame attached) – step back, take some time out, remove yourself from the situation or conversation and give yourself time to process what you’re feeling. Is your reaction to do with the present or the past? Separate the two out before you decide what to do or say next and process your feelings from the past. This, I believe, will save and smooth relationships at what can be an emotionally charged time.
Finally, if you can find gratitude, and I believe we all can, if we dig deep, if we write a list, that’s amazing. If you can feel joy, that’s fantastic. And know, however dark you may feel inside at times, that you have the capacity to create your own light and you soon will again.
So whatever your festive feelings, I wish you a wonderful time.
With love this Christmas,