The Holiday Gifts I Give Myself
My family -- like most, I gather -- is a complicated one. We are loud, loving, loyal, at times misguided, gossipy, close knit, opinionated and full of personality, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’re not a traditionally large family. In fact, I consider us small. And as time passes, and holidays come and go, we grieve the loss of grandparents no longer present. If I’m being objective, I was fortunate to have all four of mine until I was 23. And then in 2020, when I was 31, we lost two within a few months. I’ve noticed that since then the holidays have not had the same family cheer as they once did. With more little kids in the picture, as my cousins have babies, we watch our family go on -- the way life does - but I find that many of us enjoy pieces of the holidays while at the same time grieving those we have lost.
I too have conflicting emotions throughout November and December. And to be frank, I don’t remember what it was like to not live in tangent with them, though the intensity of these feelings has shifted over time. My emotions were never stronger than when I was 18 and going through the first holiday season after my best friend died that same year in September.
I remember distinctly not wanting to get out of bed on Christmas morning. I remember breaking down in tears at the song “Silent Night’ when my parents asked me to attend their church service. And I remember drinking wine with my friends in an attempt to numb out the grief I carried inside.
Back then, I remember feeling an acute, self-imposed pressure to be “okay” even when I wasn’t -- to put on the holiday face and take part in the traditions and try to not be a drag on everyone else. For many years, the holidays were a massive trigger for what would end up being weeks of chaos in the cycle of my eating disorder.
Side note: Eating disorders are chaotic enough, but factor in the holidays and WOW do they seem to rocket into another dimension.
Years later, I’d spend an entire holiday season in treatment for that eating disorder. And I’d wonder then, in the safety of a treatment center and staff, just how on earth I’d function during the holidays moving forward. In some ways, I resigned myself to the plight of understanding that holidays are just objectively hard. That extended family time comes with both blessings and curses for most of us. That we are all often triggered to our most human points and riddled with irritation by that one uncle’s comment at the dinner table. Biting our tongues at our cousin’s political rant. Wishing our mothers would enjoy the pie they made without adding a weight comment. Feigning interest in a football game on TV as a means of avoiding auntie’s “So what exactly do you do at work these days?” (Not you? Just me? Maybe…)
Anyway, over the years I’ve had a fair amount of practice in how to keep myself regulated so that I don’t end up, say, stomping out the back door in a fit of screaming at my father. And it’s not that I think I have anything so profound to share, because I think everyone is different in how they handle their feelings at holiday time. But in recovery, I have found the following to truly be helpful. These are the “gifts” I give to myself, so to speak.
1. Establishing a morning routine (even if you just do half of it).
I make my bed when I’m at my parents’ house. I don’t make my bed at my own house. I do it because it’s something I’ve just done first thing. Getting into a nicely made bed is a small gift to myself that I will appreciate later that night.
I also write down three things that happened the day before with my family that I’m grateful for. Sometimes this is only directed at my brother because he is the most wonderful human on earth … but I still do it. It keeps the eternal love I have for my family present, early on.
The gift I give myself: A good cup of tea. A strong coffee. Reflection.
2. You don’t need to see Kurt from 10 years ago for a coffee.
I had been jampacking my holiday schedule with every acquaintance, friend and former lover I could. Do I see that as an inherently negative thing? No. I love humans. I love my humans. I want to stay in their lives as long as I can. But it did take me a long time to understand that jampacking between family functions and everything else is a slow burnout.
By the end of a week or so, I was feeling so burnt out it was hard to even be present or excited about anything upcoming because all I could think about was how I had something else to get to in four hours. So do yourself a favor and give yourself some actual downtime, even if that means sitting in a coffee shop, alone.
The gift I give myself: Three episodes of a Hulu show during which I don’t have to speak to anyone.
3. Entrusting someone to scoop out the green bean casserole for you.
This one is geared more to eating disorder recovery, but for many of us the holidays obviously involve a lot of food and a lot of picking, shifting, deciding on how much, when, where, and with whom, making it a stressful endeavor on top of stressful emotions.
For years I’ve asked my brother to make my plate for me. For years he’s done it without hesitancy. He’ll ask what I want to eat of all the things, scoop it and hand it to me. This removes a lot of the pressure to choose and scoop and slice while the rest of the family is standing behind me in the line of food.
The gift I give myself: A calm mind.
4. “I’m curious what you mean by that.”
Does that sound passive aggressive in written form? What I’m getting at is that instead of getting mad, I work really hard at getting curious. Granted, sometimes I don’t want to “get curious”; I just want to be annoyed. And that’s that. But to take someone’s perceived meaning from their words is often a recipe for anger. For example, maybe our mom is being passive aggressive. But I think the bigger question is why. What does it say about her own upbringing? Her triggers? Her past?
My mother and father are good parents. They love me. They are also filled to the brim with their own narratives and projections, which of course spill over into how they view me and my life on the road in the van with a cat. Those episodes used to unnerve me. They precipitated fits of rage, when I would call my brother and not let him get a word in edgewise as I mouthed off about our parents’ lack of grace.
While there are boundaries to all this nuance, there’s still ultimately a choice for me on how I handle their comments and perceptions about my life. I understand that more clearly with age. Their opinion will always matter to me but it will not dictate to me. I am learning to live with that balance as well.
The gift I give myself: Exhibiting the compassion I want to receive.
5. I cry because I cry. And I love.
Nowadays we all hear variations of “it’s okay to cry.” For me it’s more a matter of “I cry because I love.” I loved my best friend. I miss him. I wish he hadn’t died. I wonder who he’d be if he was still here. If we were still 33 together. I wonder if he’d have had a family. Would I still be going to his parents’ house for Christmas? (I still do every year since he died.)
I think about Bradley because I loved Bradley. And I want people to know he existed on this planet. And that he was a good kid, with a big smile. And that his laugh still rings in my ears some nights when I can’t sleep and I wish I could call him.
I cry for Bradley every year at the holidays. I cry for my grandparents. And for my remaining grandmother who I know has limited time left on earth.
I cry because it all goes so terribly fast, and I love many people. And sometimes I wish I had more time to love them all over again.
So, I cry when I cry. Sometimes it’s during Bing Crosby’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and sometimes it’s when my mom makes my grandma’s recipe.
I cry because it’s all so very human, and very fleeting. And I’m thankful in the same tears that I shed: to be here for all of it.
The gift I give myself: The presence to recognize what I have.