Christmas is a funny time of year. There really is no other time when we are all expected to be happy, happy, happy and enjoy time with our family. Yet really it is no different to any other month and now it seems to have trickled into the latter part of November, it isn’t just the day itself. Real life doesn’t just stop: people still die, people still experience horrific trauma, people still get seriously ill, people still live with PTSD. Fundamentally people still get traumatised and triggered and may well do for the rest of their life. December and Christmas are basically always the same year in year out: the same music is played in shops and on the radio; decorations and lights go up; the shops compete for your money and the same ritual parties, food and drinks are served up. This means that those of us for whom the time is traumatic, for whatever reason, are exposed to the same triggers year in, year out. I know that for me it isn’t just the triggers themselves, I also feel the same and everything kind of looks and feels ‘off’. It is impossible to get away from. Yet for a month or so each year life is meant to be ‘perfect’.
In my family Christmas was never a pleasant experience, what I remember are not fun times with others, food or presents. My memories are of arguments, fighting, stress, undercurrents of resentment, bribery and manipulation. Presents were never as simple as they should be, they were often more akin to bribes, assuring that I behaved the way my parents wanted me to. Money was spent to make up for a lack of love and support; how can you fight back when you have the guilt of having had so much money spent on you? We children were manipulated into a place of being grateful for how ‘lucky’ we were when really we were anything but.
One Christmas that stands out happened when I was as a young teenager. That year the predictable argument during dinner escalated to a full-on slanging match and my mum standing up and throwing and smashing crockery. She then ran from the room followed by my dad and grandmother. My sister and I were left in silence at the table as the argument raged upstairs wondering why we had to go through this every year. It was the same arguments, the same resentments and to be honest the same hatred and family fucked-up-ness. The only thing we could think of to do was to finish off the food and drink the wine, which we were far too young to be doing. My dad came back downstairs leaving my mum and grandmother to slug it out to tell us that while he didn’t wish that my grandmother was dead he would like her to live as far away as was possible. Australia was top of his list and to be honest I was never convinced that he didn’t want the former.
The stress of Christmas didn’t stop once I had left home, it continued into my adulthood. In my thirties it was typified by manipulation, one of my dad’s favourite tools for garnering favour and acceptance. After I moved to France my mum liked to come and visit during the holiday season; although I wasn’t keen to see my dad, I did want to see her. Two years after we moved to France my dad refused to come and bullied my mum into submission as he always had, this is something we were all used to. To make it up to me he spent hundreds of pounds on a very extravagant gift. By this time I was conditioned to feel like I had to be grateful, I couldn’t speak up and tell him how angry I was in the face of such generosity, fake as it was.
The upshot of a lifetime of Christmas hell is that I hate the holiday season with a passion. It starts as soon as the all the things that make up Christmas appear. It isn’t helped by my first nervous breakdown also happening at this time of year. Since then the Christmas season, which was bad enough as it was, has also brought back memories of all the fear and confusion I felt then. Each year I relive the panic attacks, crippling depression, dissociation, suicidal thinking and deal with near constant triggers and flashbacks. I start drowning and I can’t seem to get myself out of it; everything looks, sounds and feels the same as it always has. I lose my appetite, my sleep goes to pot and I have nightmares. Every year I think I will have another breakdown. The fear is very very real, it is PTSD in its fullest form.
Despite this I always felt that I needed to do the Christmas ‘thing’, that I was obliged to be with family and all the Christmas trimmings. Simply put it is what ‘one does’, society expects it. I don’t think that anyone in my immediate family has ever really enjoyed Christmas but every year the tree went up, presents were bought and we ate all the Christmas treats. I hated it every single year. It was draining mentally and physically. It was traumatising and it has always taken me until a few weeks into the new year to feel more like myself again. Can it really be worth it?
Now though I have redefined Christmas to work for me. Finally. One year I went skiing over the holidays and everything changed. My husband and I ignored all the traditions. We didn’t see family, we didn’t bother buying gifts for each other, we didn’t have turkey with all the trimmings, mince pies or Christmas pudding. Instead we spent every day on the slopes and ate soup and homemade bread for dinner. It was a revelation; it was liberating and it was the first year that I actually enjoyed the holiday season; it had only taken 35 years for me to do so. Ironically this happened despite being in a winter wonderland, the stuff of Christmas cards, but then this is quite the contrast to the typical wet, grey climate of a British winter. There was no going back.
Without fail every Christmas since has been spent either skiing or climbing. I haven’t eaten a traditional dinner in a decade. And I don’t feel guilty about it. So how did I get to this point? I realised that I am an adult, it occurred to me that I had choice, that I could prioritise my needs. It didn’t need to be as it had always been; I didn’t need to play happy families when my family was anything but. In the end it was easy; after that first-time skiing there was no question of doing anything else. I think that if anything my family was relieved that they didn’t have to keep up the pretence and I am lucky that my in-laws are understanding and don’t have expectations of us; Christmas for them is about their grandkids and we don’t have children.
Despite redefining what shape Christmas takes for me and my husband I can’t say that it is an easy time of year, it just culminates in a happy time. I am still terribly triggered which is no surprise seeing, as I said earlier, it is always the same. I relive my mental breakdown and all those bad experiences with my family; I am catapulted back into my past and my anxiety mounts day by day as December marches on. I want to stay in bed and hide and my ideal would be to sleep until it is all over.
So ingrained is the idea of a ‘perfect’ Christmas that nobody really wants to say that they don’t like it and yet statistically there must be so many people in the same situation as me. I am often asked why I am not visiting family and generally I lie. Many people say that they find all the family time stressful but I have yet to encounter anyone else who says that they find it outright traumatic. Over time I have started to say that I don’t go home as I am not close to my family; once I did admit that Christmas was always traumatic when I was growing up. Every response has been pretty negative for me, nobody really seems to understand. I think we are conditioned into thinking the season has to play out as society has defined it, but why?
I am generally not good at prioritising myself and my needs so I am very proud of how I have made Christmas work for me. I realised that I deserve to look after myself and this was one way in which I could, most of my trauma is much harder to deal with. I have learnt how to minimise the impact it has on me, I recognise now that the triggers will never go completely so only I can only influence how I deal with it all . It is now the sixth of January and yes, I survived but I am still not calm.