They’re playing Christmas music in the Walgreen’s near my house, so, here you go.
Hi Captain & Co.,
I need a script for my dad for the upcoming holidays on why I am not spending it with him, and I need a script for my in-laws on why I am likely to be pretty emotional while I try out spending it with them.
Both my parents are alcoholics and my mother is abusive. I stopped going “home” (300mi away) for the holidays at 20 after a physical altercation with my mother on Christmas Eve the previous year. My mother is ill; I spent my teens caring for her, as well as serving as my dad’s only emotional crutch for her abuse (which was worse toward him) while he drank, making him unavailable to me. Among the features of her abuse was to habitually threaten suicide and dramatically self-harm, primarily as manipulation tactic, whenever someone did something she didn’t like.
As their only child I have found those codependent bonds extremely difficult to break. After hashing it out with a therapist I found the thing that was least taxing for me was still to visit, but to put firm boundaries on those visits. Accordingly we have done a strictly sober “Christmas” a week early, which largely avoids the worst of the manipulative nonsense from my mom, and I have spent the holidays themselves blissfully alone for the last five years.
I am now 26 and this year I moved 3,000mi away, which makes travel times more difficult to arrange. I have to go back to my home state to wrap up my graduate degree at the end of December. I do not want to spend the holiday with my parents for obvious reasons. My dad (now sober for five years) is aging and is struggling to remember some of the features of my childhood, and he and my mother have both denied my abuse before, so I do not want to cite that as my reason for not going in case it raises that conversation. He doesn’t have much in his life and I don’t know how to tell him I’m not coming without turning the interaction very negative and conflict-oriented, because I think we both deserve better than that.
On the flip side, I have an incredible, loving boyfriend. His family loves me and I them, and they are *all about Christmas*. I feel great joy and great sorrow when I think about spending the holidays with them. After talking very frankly with my boyfriend about my conflicted feelings, we agreed that I could try to spend the holiday with his family, and I can always bail if I’m not feeling it. He is very supportive of this plan and of whatever I may need, but I feel unsure how to present my potential for ill-timed breakdowns and need for escape plans to his family, who, bless them, could be the default photo in picture frames for how ignorant to struggle they seem to be.
What’s the best way to say “the holidays are triggering for me” to both these parties without saying those actual words?
How Do I Holiday
For your parents: “I’m going to _______ for the holidays this year.” (Don’t tell them what you won’t be doing, i.e., going home, tell them what you will be doing, and don’t treat it like a big important talk about the underlying issues. Treat it like “hey you should know this so you can make plans.”)
Tell them the information.
Let them intuit the reasons.
And let their reactions be theirs. Him: “I can’t believe you don’t want to spend Christmas with your old man!” You: “Sorry dad, not this year, but I hope you and Mum have a nice day.” + HANG UP PHONE.
Since you’re going back to town anyway, go ahead and have sober holiday (observed) on another day if you want to or don’t if you don’t want to. Take your dad out for breakfast or some other small event if you want to see him (or don’t, if you don’t want to). His memory was selective to begin with and will only fade as he gets older and that’s a hard thing for an abused kid to carry into adulthood, that knowledge that parents can just forget the things they did to you and that that resolution and real honest discussion is probably never coming. When the monsters of your childhood become faded old people with the fight gone out of them, what do you do? How do you find a way to relate? Do you forgive and try to find a way to interact with who they are now or do you hold onto the tight little ball of yourself you’ve been protecting all this time?
I don’t know.
I don’t know.
I think maybe you take it day by day, year by year.
This year, you could send them a nice holiday card (and think about sending them the info about your travel in a card or an email) and remind yourself that it’s not a negotiation. This is for everyone reading: You can spend holidays with whomever you like, including just yourself, if that’s how you want to roll. Family members will have feelings about it, and that’s understandable, but their feelings don’t automatically trump your own. The first time you break tradition is the hardest time, but people do adjust.
Letter Writer, for your boyfriend’s family visit, I suggest that you do your best when you’re there, and if you need to bail, you let your boyfriend smooth it over and explain. If set-up needs to happen, he can do that, too. “You are all so great, but this is LW’s first holiday away from her family and it’s hard for her. She just needs a little space for a bit.” You could also plan time during the visit that is just for you or just for you and boyfriend so that you have some quiet built-in. Or go for one or 2 days, not a multi-day extravaganza, and spend the rest of the time alone. When you’re there, volunteer to run lots of errands at the store, for example, or have your boyfriend take you to see That One Cool Thing In His Town. Be the person who goes to bed really early. Nobody has to know that “bed” is “you quietly reading a book in bed.” Let yourself be a guest, take care of yourself, bring a nice host-gift for his folks to observe the ancient rituals, and let your boyfriend take care of you. Let his care include smoothing over anything that might need smoothing over.
People from fucked up families do not owe people from ‘normal’ families the performance of ‘normality’ or happiness, especially around the holidays. The hot shame and terror you feel when people ask “What are you doing for Christmas” or say “But what about your faaaaaamily!” without realizing that their small talk is your stuff of nightmares is real, and I’m sorry. It’s such a shitty combination of feeling put on the spot, shown up for not being ‘normal,’ maybe with the stab of grief for the memories you *should* have had, and anger at the happy obliviousness of the questioner. Sometimes the best answer is a non-answer, like “we like a very quiet Christmas” (who’s ‘we?’ who cares?) and sometimes it’s “that’s not a very happy time of year for me, but I am glad it is for you” and sometimes it’s “haven’t really made a plan yet, but tell me all about yours?!?” and sometimes the best answer is the naked truth: “My parents are alcoholics and all my worst memories are of Christmas with them. I’m trying really hard to make a new tradition for myself, and thanks to boyfriend I’m happy to be a part of yours this year.” Or “The holidays are triggering for me, and sometimes I can’t always predict how I’ll react.”
Whatever answer is your answer is good enough, and your holiday celebration (or “just another Thursday”) is good enough, and you are good enough, and there are a lot of people out in Awkwardland who feel you and get you and root for you and love you. This year we’re going to have Thanksgiving and Christmas (and other winter holidays that you can nominate in comments) Open Threads on the actual days for people who need a place to vent and collectively off-gas some winter feelings. <3 <3 and <3.