Deck The Halls With Fears And Sorrows
I love the holidays. I really do. But there’s something deep inside me that doesn’t. And I’m trying to figure out what it is.
It started about 16 years ago. Just before Christmas, I read in my college alumni newsletter that one of my best friends from college had her first baby. My husband and I had been struggling and failing to get pregnant. I remember sitting in my living room floor wrapping presents and feeling like life was passing me by. Everybody else was effortlessly turning into adults who were achieving their hopes and dreams. And I was in a unchallenging job plugging in overhead projectors and I couldn’t even manage the basic woman-skill of conception. (I mean you have to take pills to KEEP it from happening! WTF?) That was my first Christmas with the blues.
I dealt with a little mild depression every holiday after that, but generally attributed it to not being able to capture the magical feeling of Christmas as an adult the same way you can as a child.
Then five years ago, I started having shortness of breath and heart palpitations about a month before Christmas, particularly in the mornings when I first woke up. I was drinking a lot at the time and thought maybe my alcoholism had gotten so bad that I was having those morning shakes that you read about because your body needs a drink. But as soon as Christmas was over it went away.
Christmases continued that way, even after I got sober. Until last year when the heart palpitations started around Thanksgiving and didn’t stop until Christmas Day. (Yay! Special bonus hyperventilation!!!) It was particularly bad when I thought about the list of things I had to do before the holiday. I didn’t feel consciously overwhelmed in my brain, but my body sure was acting like I was.
This summer, when I went through deep depression, I had these same familiar physical symptoms. Again, they didn’t seem to be related to anything I was consciously worried about in my mind. My therapist explained that it’s a physical response to deep-seated anxiety. And when I did a little reading about anxiety, I realized I’d been suffering from it for a long time without even recognizing it.
The work I’ve done with my therapist and my prescription for Paxil made such a big difference in my agitation level these past few months, I happily assumed that I wouldn’t have to deal with the return of my annual holiday anxiety. But boy did it turn out I was wrong.
Last Monday afternoon, the week of Thanksgiving, out of the blue all those physical symptoms came back like a punch in the chest. I was so scared. “Not again,” I thought. “I can’t go through the sadness and pain and depression again so soon!” I went home, fell on the couch with the cat and hid under my blanket.
I talked with my therapist about it a few days later. She asked me what I like about the holidays. I like the beautiful, colorful lights and decorations – the more twinkly the better! I love the music – our old family favorites like Andy Williams. and Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians, Robert Shaw and the ASO and Tennessee Ernie Ford. I never miss any of the old Christmas shows on TV – Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Nestor, Winnie the Pooh, Christmas Vacation! And I nom all the food and cherish all the time with my family. These things make me happy.
Then we talked about the dark things the holidays bring up for me. The things I’ve always thought I had under control. The things I thought I was dealing with. The things I thought I had pushed down. There are a couple. And they are some of my bleakest memories.
The last time my molester touched me was in front of a Christmas tree when I was 14. (Fa la la la la la la la la.) It’s the one time he touched me that I feel guilty about. I feel like I was old enough to say no – to make him stop – to yell – to tell. Why didn’t I stop him?
Secondly, this is the time of the year (the day of the SEC Championship game 2003) that my daddy suddenly got really sick with pneumonia, spent three weeks in ICU on a respirator and then on to a long-term rehab hospital where he had a massive heart attack and died in early January. God. I still miss him so much. And I have such regrets about his time in the hospital. I know they’re unfounded, but they’re still real.
While he was on the respirator he couldn’t have anything to drink. Can you imagine how thirsty you’d feel after not having a drink in a month? He asked me one day for a drink of water and I had to tell him no and explain that he might aspirate anything he drank. After he died, I would’ve payed a million dollars to go back and give him that stupid sip of water. The one time I visited his grave after he was buried, I didn’t leave flowers, I left a bottle of water.
Also, while he was laying in the rehab hospital Daddy mouthed the words around the respirator asking us to take him home. My brother explained to him that he was getting better and being weaned off the respirator there and we couldn’t do that at home. But I think he knew he was dying, even if I didn’t realize it. He just wanted to die at home. And instead, he died there alone in that hospital after we had gone home for the night. If we had known, we would’ve brought him home to pass in his sleep in his recliner in front of some old western on the TV with the newspaper open to the Jumble on his lap.
(Whew! I just had myself a good little cry!)
So I guess along with the regular holiday hustle and bustle, I have these things floating around under the surface that are triggered by the season. I want to feel the beauty and happiness of the holidays. I miss the anticipation and the joy. I don’t want to freak out every year.
I just had a moment in the stairwell at work that perfectly illustrates how overwhelmed I feel sometimes during the holidays. It was warm and quiet and suddenly all I wanted to do was put on my winter coat, shut down, quit everything and slump there in a pile in the corner until somebody found me and took me somewhere somebody else would take care of me. (But I assume everybody has moments like this, right?)
I ponder what I can do to make it better. Eating makes me feel better. Just sitting here writing this makes me want to eat a Chick-fil-a chicken biscuit chased with a whole package of Biscoff cookies followed by some General Tso’s Chicken, spring rolls with duck sauce and a Diet Coke. But I know if I take that route I’ll be back to 210 lbs. by January.
When I just pretend it isn’t Christmas, that seems to work for a while. But it’s kind of impractical and a little delusional.
I ask myself if I would feel better if I could just have Christmas without sending cards or decorating or buying gifts or baking. But those are some of the things I love the most about the season. But it’s THINKING about doing all those things that makes me start hyperventilating again. (Having a list of stuff to do doesn’t make me cray-cray any other time of the year.)
So what to do?
I know I tend to look at things in black and white instead of dealing in nuance. I don’t seem to judge others this way, only myself. I feel like if every little thing isn’t perfect with something that’s supposed to be special, then it’s no good at all, there is no “good enough.” And I suspect that’s the way I’m approaching the holidays. I want to make them perfect for me. I want to make them perfect for EVERYBODY IN THE WHOLE WORLD!
I need to accept that everything as a grown-up is suffused with the happiness and sadness of both past memory and the present moment. If we learned anything from Mrs. Garrett in the 80s it was that you take the good, you take the bad, you take them both, and there you have – the facts of life.
So I’m trying to learn this Christmas that the darkness is not opaque and that the light never stops shining. That some sadness doesn’t negate the happiness. That perfection doesn’t equal joy. And if nothing else, Christmas doesn’t last forever.