Americans love family Christmases. According to the Pew Research Forum, 91% of Americans celebrate Christmas. According to the same study, 86% of Americans plan to spend time with their family, and the vast majority reported that spending time with family is what they anticipate most about the holiday.
Since family is so ingrained in the season, everyone has to talk about it. Proud boasts of Friendsgiving celebrations are met with, “But you’ll be seeing your family in December, right?” Every season has a few quintessential small-talk topics -- the weather, a sport team, long weekend plans -- and from November through mid-January, polite conversation involves this question (or its past tense equivalent): “So, what are your family holiday plans?”
So, what are my family holiday plans? What did I do with my family over the holiday?
Frankly, they’re inappropriate questions to ask.
From November to mid-January talking about my family just isn’t a way I want to pass the time. For me and everyone else who, for whatever reason, has no interaction with their family, getting asked about family is like getting a loaded grenade dropped onto our laps.
Take my friend Michelle* for instance. Michelle lost her mother, her only parent, to breast cancer a few days before Christmas four years ago. Her grief never fully leaves her, but during December she feels it might swallow her whole. Asking her about family is like a sharp reminder she’s alone.
She’s not the sole person without family during the family holiday. Death, abandonment, abuse -- they’re more common than they should be. Not every family is happy, and some aren’t functioning anymore.
Comparatively, I’m one of the lucky ones. The family I was raised in imploded years ago. I haven’t seen or spoken to my abusive alcoholic parents in well over a decade. They wouldn’t stop drinking, and I couldn’t continue to take their manipulation, cruelty, and malicious actions. Given how little effort they’ve put in to contacting me, I have reason to believe they prefer our relationship this way, too. Alcoholics don’t have the time or energy for outside interests. When we stopped talking I didn’t lose anything; I gained a sense of balance.
What am I doing with my family? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Nothing is a hell of a lot better than what I suffered as a child. The holiday season was never a happy time for me. It’s different now. As an adult without family, ’tis the season of a constant reminder: familial love skipped me altogether and made other people oblivious.
Why do people think it’s okay to ask about families? Because no matter how stressful their own can be, they assume everyone has a caring one? I’ll never fully understand that kind of kinship. I was never under the delusion that loving family ties happen to everyone. I can tell you the top two reasons you shouldn’t ask about mine.
1) I can’t tell you the truth.
Imagine a buddy and I waving at each other over some tomatoes and potatoes in the vegetable aisle. I ask if she’s making it through the cold snap. She asks what my family holiday plans are. And then I tell her my parents and I don’t speak to each other because they still love alcohol more than me and my childhood was a whirl of getting smacked around and having to emotionally and physically clean up after their alcoholic-infused rampages. I’d go into a few gory anecdotes involving crashed cars, broken bones, and what have you. Maybe I’d wrap it all up with a funny description of how bad their hangovers were before admitting those hangovers are probably worse now that they’re both older. I can’t be sure, I’d say. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them I don’t even know what state they live in!
Where are we going to go from there?
There is no okay reaction to hearing a sudden onslaught of intimate information about a non-functional family.
At best people who hear it are uncomfortable. Even if they want to, they’re unprepared to open up in a similar manner. They weren’t expecting to receive an intimate response after such a nonchalant question. They also have things to do -- dinners to make and dishes to wash.
They might invite me to their house for the holiday, but being an outsider involved in someone else’s family traditions is devastating and alienating. I’ve tried several times. Happy families never seemed natural to me, and seeing them is worse than imagining them. In their house I spend hours watching exactly what I never had. Their holiday is a checklist of what my parents’ addiction took from me.
Often people find empathizing and sharing is impossible. Not many people experience a trauma capable of obliterating a family structure. As an example, only 7.2 percent of the population is an alcoholic, and not every alcoholic is able to cut through all kinship ties. My friend Michelle also has an unfortunate distinction. Due to earlier diagnoses and better treatments, fewer people die each year from breast cancer – only 40,000 so far in 2014.
Families that dissolve entirely are rare. Without even second-hand knowledge, most people can’t sympathize. They definitely can’t sympathize with a sudden onslaught of information in the middle of a grocery store.
So what happens?
People give advice. They’ll say I should get back in touch with my parents because according to ill-informed advice-givers forgiveness always looks the same, like the kind of feeling I got when a roommate ate my chocolate chip cookies (“No biggie! I can get more cookies. What matters is your behavior will in no way alter how I act to you.”). To quote Emily Yoffe’s Slate article, my advice-givers “fail to take into account… the potential psychological cost of reconnecting, of dredging up painful memories and reviving destructive patterns.”
My parents have not stopped drinking. In the space of many years their addiction hurt me in more ways that I can articulate. I’m getting poor advice (to put it mildly) when someone urges me to risk my own mental health to emotionally and perhaps financially provide for two alcoholics as they unrepentantly drink themselves to death. I didn’t pick my childhood, but I do get to make peace with my childhood on my own terms as an adult.
People also offer my friend Michelle and I all kinds of clichés. You’ve heard some version of them if you’ve ever experienced any difficult time. “This will make you stronger.” “Everything happens for a reason.” You also might know how infuriating these supposedly placating words are. They belittle all emotional struggle before brushing the entire situation under the carpet. They’re not tokens of sympathy. These words are a blaring sign the listener wants to ignore the entire situation.
Both Michelle and I get pity, too.
I don’t need pity. I’ve spent years recovering from the insanity my parents raised me in. Why pity me now? I’m strong. I’m a survivor. Pitying me now is just spitting in the face of all the hard work I’ve done to separate myself from the horrors I was raised in.
So everything from inviting me to join a holiday gathering to ignoring my response are out. There’s really no okay way for my small-talk grocery store buddy to react.
2) I shouldn’t have to lie to you.
Let’s go back to that vegetable aisle. My buddy waves, and I wave. She asks “What are your holiday plans this year?”
I answer, “Mom and I will be making gingerbread houses on Christmas Day!”
She laughs and says, “The same thing happens in my house!”
And then she’s on her way.
The problem with this scenario? I’m hurting myself.
Don’t get me wrong: telling someone all about my family’s dysfunction isn’t great either. Telling means reliving. Regurgitating trauma every time an acquaintance wants to pass the time is not particularly healthy. Exposing those events to people ill-prepared to react to them? That’s a recipe for disaster.
But making my past a secret does all sorts of horrific things to my physical and mental health. I’m stressing my body. I’m telling myself I should be ashamed of events that weren’t my fault. I’m still reliving trauma, but if I lie I’m still not confronting it in a productive manner. I’m just burying it deep inside.
Lying means I’m socially isolating. Small-talk is supposed to be the social interaction that reminds everyone we have each other. Lying means I’m telling myself the only way I can be in society is if I protect others from me. Lying means I can’t receive the emotional care other people get just from being nice to each other.
Also I’m not fibbing about a minor point, like my favorite color. If I lie about some of the most defining moments of my life I’m drawing a big line. My acquaintance and I will never be better friends.
So, please, no more family talk. Families are emotional minefields and not just for the people who don’t have them. Let’s all find something else to chat about.
* Michelle’s situation is real, but I changed her name.