Everywhere I go now, every social media platform, every radio station, every retail outlet, the faint drumbeat is getting louder – it’s coming on Christmas.
Of all the holidays and happy event occasions we traditionally celebrate, Christmas is the hardest. Etched deep within my aging brain are all those images of childhood Christmases spent living on the edge of hypervigilance with its associated anxiety and the feeling that at any moment the worst was about to happen.
By the way, it never really did. Instead, Christmas was a mixture of unseen, yet ever-present discordant notes mixed with failed attempts at being happy. Generally speaking, my parents were able to keep it together long enough so the day passed in relative calm. But happy? No, we were not happy.
All the classic 1950’s scenes of trees adorned with tinsel and lights, wrapping paper strewn across of the floor, and Christmas stockings overflowing with treats – I have those images. But the overarching unseen doom, the atmospheric tension that in an instant the illusion would be ruptured by a scream, held us all in suspended animation just trying to get through the day. Our family motto was, “Don’t make a wave.”
My mother’s mental health issues ruled our lives. But we didn’t call it that back then. Truthfully, I didn’t call it that until I was well into my own adult struggles with dark moods and throbbing migraine headaches. But clearly I didn’t suffer as she did; clearly I had learned how to right my own ship by way of new ideas, an active maintenance of mental health and therapy. I talked and stumbled and talked some more. I was highly motivated to make a better life for my child, while repeating the very things that had hurt me so much when I was a kid. So many missed opportunities.
I did make a huge effort to give my son happy holiday experiences, saving a few dollars each week year-round so that I could surprise him with that longed-for toy. There was the Christmas I wrapped up a new wardrobe of summer clothing that he, with as much dignity as a 10-year-old boy could muster, responded to with a “thank you.” Finally, he opened that slim envelope that held the Disney World brochure. February school vacation at the Magic Kingdom was a great surprise. I hope I never forget the look on his face as it went from total dejection to complete delight. That memory makes me smile, especially when I need it the most.
It’s coming on Christmas. I have time to adjust my thinking.
When the grandchildren were little, our home became the Christmas epicenter. There were trips to Edaville, followed by a sleepover weekend, dress up, impromptu parades through the house, hide-n-seek, baking cookies, craft projects, and if there was snow, sledding. I’d fill a weekend from morning to bedtime with the stuff that makes happy memories for children, as I lived a second childhood of my own making and laughed, laughed, laughed. My inner child in recovery.
It is wonderful when those now grown women recall a happy childhood memory of fun with Grandma. For it wasn’t only Christmas that I claimed anew, it was any time I was with them. Every single opportunity to play, sing, dance, shop, go on adventures, pack the mini-van and head out, I grabbed at the chance to be happy and spread joy. Their happiness was all that mattered. I was healed over and over again.
My mother didn’t want to be the way she was. In later years when she was more stable, when raging hormones and rollercoaster mood swings were dramatically smoothed out due to age and a little medication, she grieved over having been a lousy mother. I assuaged her self-loathing by telling her we turned out okay. But it was a lie. One she wanted to hear. I told her that any residual psychological problems her children had were their responsibility to repair. She’d cry and I’d be right back to being a 6-year-old kid trying to comfort my mother. I reminded her that her grandchildren, who revered her and on whom she lavished every ounce of love she had to give, were all successful people doing well. That didn’t make her happy. She mourned a wasted life. Habits of thought are so hard to break.
Today we understand mental health problems. Today there are many choices for living with and improving the lives of people with depression, anxiety, and its many manifestations. In my mother’s day, there was little that medical science could offer other than tranquillizers that she abhorred. And all my father would say to her is, “Knock it off!”
We rode the anger, tears, compulsive meticulous cleaning, inability to sleep, desire to stay in bed all day, overeating, not eating enough, and yes, those peaceful interludes – we rode them with her, and for me, I some days ride them still.
“It’s Coming On Christmas” is a Joni Mitchell song with heartbreaking musical passages that sets the tone of the season for me. That sense of wanting to be somewhere else, be someone else, lifted up on the high notes and gently placed beside a manger on the low notes, and holding tightly the knowledge that if I can hold on long enough, this too shall pass.
This Mattapoisett Life
By Marilou Newell