Receiving holiday cards from ‘no contact’ people.

photo of red mailbox mounted on wall

It started up again. During the season of ‘Christmas Cards’ my BHH is tasked with sorting the mail in order to filter out the holiday cards from family members from whom I maintain ‘no contact.’ He looks them over to make sure there isn’t anything I absolutely need to see or know about. You know, just in case someone writes something like ‘I am sorry I assaulted you’ in the margin or something…. Then he gives me a choice on whether or not I want to see it/read it. Sometimes I do. Sometimes not. After I am given that choice, he seems to relish tossing the cards/letters in the trash can.

Witnessing his discarding of the cards actually helps me, tremendously, to get over the boundary breach that is created whenever such cards come into my world.

Yesterday, while looking over the latest card-about-to-be-discarded, my BHH commented, “You know, I forgot to tell you but a few weeks ago I read this article about churches that are incorporating electronic tithing. They recommended printing out paper slips for the pews that say ‘I give electronically’ so that when the collection plates are passed, the people who give electronically can still put something into it. The studies show that offering those slips really boosts the number of people who give electronically in a congregation.”

I wrinkled my forehead. One of the things I love best about my BHH is that he often has these very deep insights into things. Occasionally they are so deep (even for me) that they make no immediate sense.

Seeing my confusion he explained: “Your family must think that if they still send us a card, it proves something. Like people who give electronically to churches but still want to throw something in the plate to either participate or to prove to the people next to them that they do actually give…so voila, they have a slip for that which says: ‘we give electronically’. The truth is those people had already given an offering. And they knew it, and God knew it. Why do they need to use a slip of paper to prove it? Seems like a main reason to grab one of those slips would be prideful — doing it just to show other people that, yes, they actually gave something. I think your family is doing this to us so that they can say, ‘Well we still send them cards. They are the ones with the problem against us.'”

Indeed. Their continued holiday cards are a lot like a ‘we gave already’ slip. My estranged family already gave me what they had to offer. It damaged me tremendously. I told them how damaged I was from it. But their response when I passed their own offering plate right back to them was not a deep digging into the pockets of their past. They offered up no new resources, financial or emotional or relational, which could have helped me heal quicker.

All they offered, and all that they are still offering, are empty pieces of holiday papers. Because they already gave; and it sure seems that they aren’t going to give any more than that.

 

 

 

A Cracked Christmas…and why I am addicted to being in control.

blur close up crack cracker

My mom was a hoarder. Although I didn’t have a word for it in my childhood as the TV show, Hoarders, didn’t exist. I just knew something wasn’t right with her. We had two deep-freezes full of outdated butter and other things. Mom bought more boxes of butter (and fish sticks and ice cream) on every grocery run. When a freezer got too full, she added more freezers.

Each December I would beg to decorate. My school friends’ Moms put their trees up the day after Thanksgiving. Eventually Mom would nod with a dramatic ‘fine’, and I would climb into the attic to the boxes marked x-mas. I would sift through them and only put out the newer decorations. The cracked silver bell door hanger and the dusty choir boy candles from the 1950’s  stayed at the bottom of the box with the burned out lights, broken tree ornaments and stinky wax poinsettias things. Mom hoarded everything she ever received that had anything to do with anything; and especially Christmas. Yet it also seemed she hated everything to do with Christmas–at least when I was around.

I am an artistic type and so I enjoyed the entire process. All alone I would put the tree up–pushing the stacks of hoarded stuff to the corners of the living room. Mom stayed busy in the kitchen. Dad would come home and declare it looked good; and then now you just need to leave it that way. Then he’d turn to mom and tell her she always over did it and put too much stuff out. I would sing inside at the rare praise, hoping that Mom would listen to Dad.

A few days later, I returned home from school to the harsh reality of my life. Mom had oodles of cookies piled up in the kitchen. She’d already done her work in the living room. The tree sagged, overwhelmed with too many ornaments, many cracked, glued together, and dirty. The bookshelves overflowed with grimy candles. The counters in between the two rooms were covered with nut trays and waxy poinsettias (with layers of dust– too old to come clean). She had redone my decorating; putting it just as she wanted it–and how she wanted it was to have the entire house overflowing with broken, old, fused together…stuff.

I didn’t actually process what that felt like, until I started therapy a few years ago. Yesterday I found my therapy notes about my childhood Christmases. It was insightful to re-read. I could still feel the raw emotions that I felt when I first penned the ‘exchange’ between my younger self and my adult self. But the hard feelings were subdued now; less painful.

I also realized, as I read through the memories: this is why I am addicted to control. This is why I became co-dependent.

There was no submission to one another in our household, and no respect. Boundaries were non-existent. There were ongoing power plays and codependency followed by reluctant obedience followed by retaliations to prove who was really in control. Mom hoarded and ignored. Dad screamed and hit. The uncles molested and assaulted. They were all perverse with one another. And they lived, willingly, with all of it. Controlling their own little worlds, oblivious to the damages done to themselves or others. Just so long as they remained in control of something and/or someone. (Children being the easiest to control).

I decided that most things were my fault, or my responsibility. Now I see that was a form of maintaining some sense of control. In reality, I was in danger. I was abandoned and neglected and outright abused. That truth was too scary to realize, though. I chose the easy lie–that I had deserved it all for being bad.

As an adult my efforts to be in control of the narrative did double-duty each Christmas season as the stress and expectations mounted. I tried to make the holiday into a Hallmark movie for the entire family; hosting gatherings and making nice. I had my own boxes in the attic marked x-mas–yet Mom’s tired junk made its appearance anyway in my own home. She reminded everyone of what a fussy baby I had been. She asked catty questions about how much ‘that new bedspread had cost’ (even though my bedroom door was kept closed, and eventually locked, during family gatherings)…but…. So long as the house and the decor looks nice I can make everything inside of me, and others, be nice as well!!

Nope. I could never control my family. They won every time. Sadly, I still let them win sometimes- even though I have estranged myself now.

As a child I fluffed out that fake tree and made things pretty and believed it could work. I thought Mom would let me have some say, that she would honor my need to have a pretty home, that she might honor ME. She let me get by with it for a day or two. Then she showed us who really ran the house. I’d return from school, see those cracked silver bells on the front door and knew I couldn’t win.

Mom sat wordlessly during dinner, ignoring my dad when he yelled, veins popping in his head, because he couldn’t find his reading glasses with all the bleeping Christmas $*^! on the countertops.

I barely touched my dinner. Then I ate cookie after cookie, their rotten butter and outdated flour putrefying with everything else inside my guts. The next day I’d likely have to skip school, again, due to stomachache.

Dad hit with his hands and cut with his mouth. But in her own way; Mom won the fights. She got what she wanted and what she wanted was to hang on to every old thing she could and to insulate herself from everything. Misery loves company; as they say.

But some things are actually better cracked — like nuts. So the real question is: can I let go of my own need to insulate myself from pain; letting the cracked parts of y life reveal the tender flesh within?

I think so. Probably for the wrong reasons though. Oh, I think I have healed a lot in my recovery process. All I have to do is read some old journal entries to realize that. But, well, mostly I think I am just stubborn enough not to let my mother ruin another Christmas.

 

 

 

The Holidays Are Hard

selective focus photo of red turkey head

Every year it is the same. I dread the end of summer. Finally, I get used to fall. I even begin to enjoy it. I love ginger cookies and homemade stuffing and baggy sweaters and stretchy pants and boots. Stores and QVC and mail order catalogs burst with holiday deals. I like all that. At first. But just about the time I start thinking that the holidays might actually be fun this year, I am hit by this incredible, overwhelming sense of loss and sadness.

We Christians like to declare that Jesus is the reason for the (Christmas) season and that Thanksgiving is all about giving thanks to God…But no matter your religious persuasion: the holidays are all about Family. Family gathering. Family bickering. Family going to church together. Family traveling to see family. Family gift giving. Family. Family. Family.

It becomes nearly impossible to limit the thoughts of my family of origin. The questioning (maybe they weren’t that bad? Maybe they’ve changed? Maybe I should reach out again?) starts up again. The aching feelings of abandonment. The loneliness.

adult art conceptual dark

I believe I have something called trauma bonding. Especially with my mom and to a lesser degree with my dad. Going no contact with them was very, very difficult. It remains difficult. It was also something I knew in my gut that I absolutely had to do if I was going to crawl back from the very dark hole I ended up in after a lifetime of denying the extent of my childhood abuses.

I have made such good progress in climbing out of that hole. But I can still get very low and I don’t like it. So lately I have been researching how to break trauma bonds. According to this article, there are chemical reactions in our brain which can take place automatically due to our feelings of love for another. To quote the article:

Through the process of love, our brain will have many chemical reactions, which take place automatically. Therefore, when we are trying to move past this type of painful relationship, we can reduce the chances of the brain having those reactions (of bonding) by limiting the time around the person with pathological narcissism or psychopathy.

And so the holiday season brings near-constant reminders of family which reminds me of the painful reality of my family situation. As well as constant temptations to forego reality and go back into the fantasy land of pretending that my family of origin isn’t completely toxic.

My therapist tells me I can’t outright call my parents, siblings, and other close relatives ‘narcissists’; or I might get sued…but regardless of what actual pathology they may have, I know I had to go ‘no contact’ in order to save myself and to try and heal. That is the hard reality.

And so, when I see all the obvious signs of Thanksgiving, and Christmas…

dachshund dog wearing a red sweater

I wonder if there are just automatic chemical reactions in my brain which occur. I suspect that the holidays themselves, with the constant reinforcement of family ties, are a bit like having actual contact again with the toxic people I choose to avoid. Because I’ve been doing CBT for years now. I’m containing. I’m reframing. I’m counting my blessings and being thankful for what I do have.

And the holidays are still very, very hard for me.

If anyone else is struggling with loss and the holiday season fuels your feelings of loss, then I feel your pain. Prayers and much love to you. And if I may offer some advice (advice which I am saying to myself as much as to anyone else):

Stay in reality. Don’t slip back into the fantasy that just because there is a turkey and a tree you can have a ‘normal’ time around a table with toxic people. You can’t.