Ephemeral Equilibrium: Another Christmas

When it comes to Christmas, I seesaw between avoidance and doing what I think I am expected to do. (Notice I didn’t say embracing it joyously. This was true even before I remember why I had such a rough time with this holiday.) Each year, I try to get the proportions as right as possible: a certain percent avoidance, a certain percent something else.

As a kid, I did what my parents wanted me to do, of course. I pretended I was having a wonderful time and loved all the presents they had given me. I noticed, though, that they never gave me anything I wanted. If I asked why not, they explained in such a way that it was my fault. “We didn’t give you any books because you read too much. You need to spend more time on your homework.” Bullshit.

After I got married, I had a little more leeway. I still gave my parents presents, but fewer, and I put less effort into trying to please them. They continued to give me things I didn’t want. But I didn’t have to be there! I bravely told them I was going to spend Christmas in my own home. They pouted, but I didn’t care.

My husband loved food, so there was always a big feast. The food was great. When the kids came, I got pleasure from giving them presents and from spending a long time figuring out what they wanted, not what I wanted to give them. I think that is called “projective identification” — I treated them the way I wished I had been treated, and it took some of the sting out of past Christmases. Unconsciously, I identified with them and so I mothered myself in the process of mothering them.

Later, there were a few lonely years when I rattled around. My kids were grown, my husband and parents had died. I’d lost the structure and had no idea what “I” wanted to do. I wasn’t even sure there was such a thing as “I.”

Then came the memories. Frankly, I have no idea what the holidays were like those first few years. I had enough on my plate just to get through the day, any day, in a haze of pain, dissociation, and flashbacks. But gradually I got used to being a ritual abuse survivor and took some responsibility for managing my own life.

I told all my family and friends that I no longer was celebrating holidays because it was too painful. And I didn’t. No special food, no presents, no Christmas cards, no carols, no nothing. Instead, I spent the actual day doing a big job around the house. (This was in pre-arthritis times.) I chose things that would take at least a day and that would stay done for a while because I wanted to see the results of my work. One Thanksgiving I painted the inside of the garage and on Christmas Day I took all the finished compost out of the compost bins. (I live in California.) The work gave me pleasure for months, as intended.

The holidays were almost enjoyable! I thought I had hit upon a permanent solution to the problem. But in a couple of years I was once again restless, crabby, and lonely. I had grown out of the perfect solution without even noticing it.

So I started spending the holidays with those I cared about, although I made it plain that I wouldn’t exchange presents. Then I inched into giving presents to the youngest grandkids. It was okay. I could handle it. I could more than handle it; I could have a good time — at least for a couple of hours.

That turned out to be a phase, though, not a permanent solution. Next I tried spending Christmas with a good friend who ignored the day. It was very satisfying — we didn’t even noticed when the day came and went! This year I’ve traveled enough and want to cocoon with my cats. That’s okay. I can visit my friend later.

Thinking about it, I realize that each year I have different needs and wants because I am at a different place in my healing journey. The old solutions were good solutions, but they invariably needed  updating. So I finally have learned to ask myself each year, “What do I really want to do?”

Just being able to ask that question shows so much progress. And being able to answer it really shows mega progress!  What more could I want?

I hope each and every one of you can ask, “What do I want this year?” If the answer, no matter how deep down you ask, is, “I don’t have the vaguest idea,” remind yourself that’s okay, you are giving your selves an amazing new experience. Somebody cares enough about them to ask what they want (maybe for the very first time) and it’s natural they are speechless. If you ask often enough, you’ll start to hear a timid little voice making a suggestion.

If you come up with an idea, no matter how nutty, great! You are getting a sense of the “you” that has been buried so long under all the debris of the abuse. That’s fantastic!

Balance

I’m writing about something I don’t have a lot of personal experience with. I’d like to have balance in my life, but I don’t feel I do as a rule. Sometimes for short periods of time I seem to achieve balance, and it feels real good — so good that I’d like to have it all the time.

I think that many ritual abuse survivors tend to have big swings. We go overboard in one direction and then overboard in the opposite direction. For some of us the swings are rapid, for others it may take years to switch positions.

It’s how we were raised, after all. We had to shift between everyday life and cult life over and over. We were expected to adapt seamlessly to radically different situations and to function competently in each environment. We learned well, or we wouldn’t be here today.

I find it easier to understand huge shifts in belief and behavior in people who are multiple than in people who don’t have discrete alters. One alter may be vegetarian, another may be interested only in meat and potatoes. One alter may be highly sexual, another totally asexual.

It makes sense to me that behavior would change drastically depending on which alter was out. With non-multiples, it feels sort of like a conversion or a relapse experience. You’ll hear people say things like, “I used to eat meat, but then I saw how immoral it was, and now I can’t stand the thought.” Or “I was doing so good. I didn’t have an affair for months and months, but now I’m back to one night stands.”

In either case, the swings are due to ambivalence — we either are drawn to or repelled by things that remind us of our abuse. The attraction to elements of the abuse is often an attempt to “tell the story” or to bring a memory into consciousness. It doesn’t mean that we, in our essential selves, are like the abusers. We aren’t.

I often struggle with procrastination, which is a huge barrier to achieving balance in life. I realized that, today, I am certain that I am not being hurt at any particular moment. But I still have little faith that if I go and do something else I will remain safe. My anxiety is so high that it’s easier to sit in one chair all day than to psych myself up enough to move. It’s better now that

I understand this because I don’t have to spend energy any longer scolding myself for being lazy. I’m not lazy; I’m terrified because I was tortured as a child.

Another barrier to balance is the false belief that I am only worth something if I am being useful to others. Of course it’s great to be helpful to others, but I know that unless I take good care of myself, I will wear myself out and stop being effective. I know this in theory, but my instinct is to put myself last. I need to remind myself that I am worth as much as every other human being on earth — no more, no less.

I need to remember that I count and that I am safe today, and that anxiety won’t kill me. Then I can cook and do my laundry, work on my website, visit the grandkids, go swimming, spend time in nature. The transitions may be creaky, but I can have balance in my life after all.