1982 and my cake read “Happy Birthday Kari and Jesus”
It’s the holiday time. Oh goodie. Time to gather the family. Whether you like each other or not is irrelevant. We get together because we’re supposed to. Ads on TV and pictures in magazines of smiling, beautiful families (cast in the most traditional roles) surround us, and even though I yearn to be a part of those pictures, that is not my reality.
I worried at family gatherings that my mom would drink too much. I fretted that my sister would say something that would cause mom to cry. I brooded over the fact that, even though it was my birthday on December 25th, this day was not about me. Instead of birthday presents, I received Merry Birthday combination gifts. And they were never more special than what everyone else received.
Those feelings and memories seem so trivial when I consider what I have been given. But to a young girl, those memories created the limiting beliefs I now embody: “Everything will be alright if I don’t make a fuss or say what I want. My job is to monitor how others are feeling, to consider what, if anything, I need to do for them, and put my needs aside. (How selfish to consider my needs when there are so many other needs out there.) And my endless confusion over wanting special gifts but feeling that wish is selfish at the same time.” I’ve always figured I’ll deal with what I want later.
Later rarely comes when you’re taking care of other people’s feelings before yours. I scan a room and take the temperature of how others are doing. I then decide how I need to feel based on the feelings of others. Just writing this makes me realize how crazy this is!
So I’m stuck in stage one of “Emotional Slavery”: believing I’m responsible for the feelings of others. As I dig deeper into the work of Marshall Rosenberg on Nonviolent Communication, I begin to put more intelligent words to the feelings I’ve carried for years. If others aren’t happy or don’t appear happy, I am compelled to do something. To fix the situation at the cost of ignoring my needs.
This is what I learned being a child of an alcoholic mother. I learned to enter a room cautiously, to look for potential danger (generally disguised as a thermal glass that smelled of pine needles), and to either tiptoe past the room or engage in cheerful conversation about mindless things or cut myself down in an attempt to raise her self-esteem. As if I could.
I continue doing this today. Only now I do so with my partner. I measure his mood before I either share news of my day or stumble through an uncomfortable conversation because I’m not stating what I need; rather I’m attempting to “make him feel good.” Whatever that means.
This is a crazy making! And after doing this for nearly 50 years, this way of life feels so normal that even thinking of making a change scares the hell out of me. If I speak my truth, I will hurt others and will cause pain and will be a bad girl. So I skirt around my truth. I say, “I don’t know,” when I really do know what I want. If I am honest, people will think poorly of me, “How could she be so selfish?” I clumsily try to take care of myself, but more often than not I slip backwards into this dysfunctional normalcy that makes sense and feels familiar.
And why does this all have to come to a head at the holidays? Is it the darkness that draws me naturally to examine my interior? Is it the body memories of a sour stomach every December 25th as my mom, sister, and grandma reprimanded me for feeling sorry for myself? No doubt it’s that and knowing that once again, I enter the holidays with too little money, too little work, and an unsettled feeling about my role in the world. And I feel ashamed of feeling these thoughts. It’s the holidays, for criminy sakes; cheer up!
We have a placard on our fridge that reads, “Notice! The beatings will continue until attitudes improve.” Seems to fit with the ridiculous pressure many of us embrace in the journey to becoming “a better person.” I see the issues that need attending in my life. I uncover ugliness about myself. I read about healthy communication tools, which I clearly lack in my attempts to express myself. Instead, I understand expressing my needs as selfish. And once again I want to run away from the burden of being a conflicted “Christmas Angel” (as my mother named me) and go off to some deserted island and forage for my holiday dinner. At least that way, I wouldn’t put anyone in the awkward position of having to do something for my birthday.
Having struggled with these feelings for much of my life, I often feel that people are just plain sick of Kari’s issues. “Get over yourself!” I hear people say, even though their mouths aren’t moving. And if I could find that magic eraser to remove the etchings in my bones, I would have already cleared out the messages and moved on. But that is not where I am. I am, once again, facing a past that is messing with my present and clouding any future dreams.
I even played Jesus in clown worship.
It’s the holiday time. Whoopi. Even my attempts to decorate the house fall short of my expectations. I’m trying to embody advice from others (and advice I’ve been known to dole out): Be gentle. Be kind. Be real. Whether or not you choose to spend holidays with your family or feel you have no choice, be present to what is. I can recognize reality and not have to like it. Reality is what it is. And for this Christmas Angel, reality is that I am unsettled, restless, and searching. I don’t like it, but it’s where I find myself.
How about we not fight with ourselves this holiday season? Huh? I’m going to try to be present in the moments, accept and love myself as I am, and create pockets of time to meditate, do yoga, and hike outside in the cold. The best gift I can give my family, friends, and the world is to be healthy. Instead of being an angel this year, I will strive to be as real as I can, with as much kindness as I can muster.