“It’s getting near christmas and the geese are getting fat. Time to put a penny in the old mans hat…”
My mom used to sing this around Christmastime every year when we were growing up. I could get into a whole side note about my mom and her singing, but I’m going to restrain myself.
I have been feeling extremely anxious these last few weeks. And it’s only been increasing in intensity as the days pass. Initially I thought maybe it was because I was on a search for a new therapist, and naturally I would be anxious about that. But I’ve since found someone, and someone quite good. If my anxiety was stemming from that, I think it would have subsided by now.
I think the source for my anxiety is Christmas. I’m not sure why, however I’m determined to try and find out.
In order to determine why Christmas might be a source of anxiety for me, I must delve into the complex web that is my family. I get anxious around my family. And yet I continue to see them and spend time with them. Why is that?
It’s because I’m still playing the good daughter. I’m still playing along that our family is a regular old family who laughs together and who cries together. And yet… we never cry together. Crying was never accepted or acceptable in my family. Never have I cried in front of my family, and never has a family member cried in front of me. Ever. We don’t cry. We don’t argue. We don’t even disagree. Slight disagreement while still being able to maintain a jovial and light-hearted spirit is acceptable. As soon as you begin to express real disapproval or discomfort at anything that is being said, suddenly the family system beast wakes up from its deep slumber and very quickly and effortlessly buries you under its hideous and grotesque laughter. If you fail to laugh along, but rather continue to challenge the family system beast, you are then turned away from, left to speak only to the wall, since everyone will have moved on without you, leaving you in the dust of your own desperation.
There is no authenticity. There is no honesty. There are fake smiles plastered on fake faces. There is fake happiness gripping tightly to disconnected words. It’s ironic that our family calls themselves a family – it’s more a congregation of individuals existing in individual bubbles, gliding around each other, careful not to touch, but speaking to one another across the vast space that connects the individual lonelinesses.
I put on my individual bubble and show up and do the dance and pretend like any of the trivial conversations we have is actually meaningful. It’s the only way to make it through – by pretending. By pretending we are connected. By pretending we love and care about one another. I love and care about my family only as much as I am glad they aren’t suffering or dying. That may sound harsh but it’s true. I spend so much effort in playing along to the little game of pretend that it is just getting harder and harder to do so. Just the fact that I’m aware of this game of pretend makes it exceedingly painful to be around my family.
I will share with you a little Christmas anecdote that aptly conveys this game of pretend we all play. Several years ago, I asked my parents for some flannel sheets for Christmas. Come Christmas day, presents are being tossed our way and wrapping paper is flying through the air, and I am handed a gift from my parents. I pulled out of a bag a pair of flannel sheets. Used flannel sheets. Flannel sheets that I had slept on for many years as a child and were old and faded with years of wear. And yet I knew that this was not a joke. My mother wrapped those sheets hoping that she might fool me into thinking they were new sheets. She probably didn’t have the time or the energy to go out and purchase a new set for me from the store. So she figured, what the heck, Brandic will never tell the difference. Of course I could tell the difference. I had slept on those sheets for years. They weren’t even in a proper package that new sheets come in. How did she possibly think I wouldn’t be able to tell?
So what did I do? Did I laugh and tease her for giving me old, used sheets? Did I get angry and tell her how insulted I was that she couldn’t bother actually buying me something that year, or that even just a blank card would’ve been less insulting than an old pair of sheets? Of course not. I plastered the fake smile on my face to hide the disgust that was inside, and thanked her profusely for such “nice sheets.” She smiled warmly in return and said you are welcome. And that was that. I probably still have those old sheets tucked away somewhere.
I have to say that trying to pass off used items as new is not something my mom does on a regular basis. In fact, that was the only time I know of that she did that. But this example embodies the types of interactions that take place amongst our family members – specifically, what we are thinking and feeling and what we are saying and doing are almost always different and contradictory.
I just wonder how much longer I can continue to wear these masks and play this game. Will I continue doing it even if it eats away at my insides? That’s the ultimate sacrifice, isn’t it? To offer up one’s own happiness for that of another. And yet, none of us are really happy. We are all losing. We are all suffering silently, each one of us refusing to break the cage of denial in which we have locked ourselves.