Merry Christmas Trauma, Part One

. . . in which the author recounts her Christmas trauma and liberally dispenses advice . . .

May the force be with you. I have complete faith in your abilities . . .

May the force be with you. I have complete faith in your abilities . . .

How to survive another f***ing Christmas

 Yes, I know “Christmas Trauma” is not in your old (or brand new) psychology textbook. Nor is it in the DSM, the American Psychiatry Association’s coveted manual that names, describes, and legitimizes mental disorders. But last time I checked, Complex PTSD wasn’t in the DSM either, and Complex PTSD is real, too. It’s a form of post-traumatic stress disorder that many people experience, particularly if they grew up in unstable, chaotic, or violent homes where neglect was common.

Sound familiar?

If you’re nodding and saying, Yeah, that sounds like the kind of childhood  . . . um, uh, a really close friend of mine had . . . then read on. My list is scattered throughout this article, so if you want only practical tips on how to survive Christmas, just read the numbered highlighted list. If you want a little more perspective—from me, of the wacky religious, dysfunctional family kind —read the whole piece.   

1.)    Remind yourself (as I remind myself) that you’ve survived every Christmas from birth up until now. Write it down. Say it out loud. Say it to the mirror. So far, neither our dysfunctional families nor the poisonous commercialism of the season have killed us. Those childhood Christmases were probably more psychically and physically dangerous than the one we’re going to experience a few days from now.

 2.)    Barring, of course, the tragedy of stepping off the curb as that proverbial fucking bus careens by. Always look both ways when crossing the street. Please don’t read this article on your phone while walking in a semi-catatonic state across a mall parking lot. Sit down somewhere. Chill.

 3.)    But if you are or if anyone you know is facing a Christmas that may become physically dangerous due to domestic violence, please read the linked article just below and consider acting on at least some of its suggestions. Being prepared can save lives or prevent grievous harm.

Of course “Christmas Trauma,” as a clinical term, sounds ridiculous. Humour is one of the ways I deal with my own Complex PTSD symptoms during this merry, joyful, infuriating, nauseating, wonderful season. 

Certain forms of humour depend on the tension between the idealized image of something (‘our most joyful day of giving, full of peace and love”) and its grossly contrasting reality (“our collective struggles with addictions of all kinds and with healing our old and ongoing family wounds, including the wounds we inflict on the planet.”)

Christmas truly is a special day—no, a whole month, if we’re honest—of unbridled, immoral consumption. It is like continuously vomiting backwards, a physical and commercial gluttony that crams our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our spirits, our roads, our cities full of stuff that (most of us, if we are honest) do not need. It is truly the signature festival of the rich, colonizing, thievery-based, capitalism-exporting North and West.

No wonder it triggers many other painful events of the past, even for those who did not necessarily have harsh childhoods. The ENTIRE PLANET experiences Christmas as a traumatic event. Over-production, overconsumption, murder: forests, waters, animals, humans. Our beautiful earth is exhausted, raped and pillaged by us, her favored children, her highest IQ babies. So perhaps the term “Christmas trauma” is not so ridiculous after all . . .

 4.)    In an attempt to integrate my Christmas trauma, I’m letting my inner child swear a lot, as you may have already noticed, so please don’t be offended. In general, let us try not to be offended, even when random people show us their offensive side.  Let it go: those three impossible words. Smile. Laugh. Fake-laugh for several minutes a day. Try it right now.

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Did she or did she not sight a cougar?

5.)    Seriously. Smile and do a fake laugh, right now, for ten or twenty seconds. Thirty seconds. Come on! If you press weights at a gym or run around fucking Central Park for an hour in tights every day, you can fake-laugh for forty seconds. Even fake laughter trips the body’s mood switch; happy chemicals flood the bloodstream. If you need the laughter to be real, and if you ever do yoga, this video is hilarious: (it’s about a couple minutes long; just put up with the brief advertisement.)


Christmas as Ideological Warfare, Or, A Religious Childhood

Despite my issues with Christmas, that little child part of me still comes out every December, hoping it will be different. And it is different. I am no longer a small child torn between two murderous ideologies—Catholics (my father’s side) and Jehovah’s Witnesses (my mother’s side). These ideologies shared an identical promise, though: if I did not do what each different version of the One True God wanted me to do (to celebrate or not to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus in the manger), I would experience eternal death. The Catholics believe in hell; the J.W.’s just believe in death everlasting. Like all ideologies, both of my early ones promised that if you are bad, if you are not a true believer in the creed, then you are condemned.

(Meaningful tangent: Has anybody else noticed that a lot of university campuses are disturbingly fundamentalist-religionist-be-good-or-die these days? Censorship, vicious self-righteousness, all the things students are not supposed to say, do, ask, think. Or is it just me? I will never be at ease with people who insist on how good they themselves are while pointing to those other fuckers over there who are so bad. Anyway—)

the grinch stealing toys.jpg

As a child, all I wanted to do was sing Christmas carols like the other kids, and believe in Santa Claus, because God was a murderous psychopath. I wanted to colour pictures of Rudolph: but then I would die at Armageddon. I used to have burning, tearful night-time conversations with Jehovah about how I was sorry for wanting to sing “The Litter Drummer Boy” and, especially, “Silent Night.” It sounds funny now, but when I was eight, I thought singing Christmas carols was literally going to KILL me.

            Isn’t that fucked up? Why, yes. Yes, it is.

I identified at a soul level with Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, because the JW’s got my soul (for a time). I looked forward to the animated story that appeared on T.V. every December. My mother (Thank Jehovah!) relented, and let us watch Christmas specials. Boris Karloff, who narrated The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, has a smoky dark baritone: his will always be the true voice of the season for me.

I lived under the reign of the Grinch—a grump who nefariously tries to steal Christmas from Whoville. My dad was as lapsed a Catholic as you can get, an alcoholic, an occasional brawler and a gambler: it’s not like he ever took us to church. My mother, however, dragged us to Kingdom Hall meetings three times a week. I drank Watchtower Koolaid--because I was, after all, four, five, six, eight, ten years old, prime Koolaid drinking years--and became a devout believer, a door-knocker, a Bible thumper.

As a precocious and wary child, I was very worried when the original Jim Jones clan killed some federal agents in the jungle, drank the cyanide-spiked Koolaid and died. All of them, even the kids. I asked my mother a lot of uncomfortable questions about that whole tragedy. Nevertheless, I continued to drink Watchtower Koolaid until puberty and books tapped me right between the eyes (and, well, between the legs, too.) Soon enough, I had to face Armageddon and my impending death on my own terms. Thus I became a writer.

But before I made it there, I had to get through early childhood, where we all lived and fought together in the same house, my parents and five children, damaged to varying degrees by their parents’ battles. I contained the opposing ideologies for all of them. I was the middle child of the family, a bridge between my parents and often in between my parents and my siblings, and between my siblings and my siblings. I was a translator and carrier of messages; I was the silent recorder of disasters.

During my parents’ passionate drunken arguments, during the fist fights my father had with my older brother, during the horrific beatings he gave my older sister, through the bullying and God-mongering and the hidden-not-hidden sexual abuse, I witnessed all, forgot half, and buried everything until many years later—post suicide-of-the-sister, post-addictions-of-the-brothers, post-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-major-intrusiveness—when I started to dig it all up. The first serious archaeological dig into my own past took place was over twenty years ago.

 And here I am, still a writer and more recently (surprise-surprise) a therapist specializing in trauma.

End of Part One. Part Two Will Be Delivered Early by Santa Claus Himself.

making your family life happy.jpg

The most confusing and impossible fairytale collection of my childhood.

(notice how it’s dented? top, toward the right side)


Karen ConnellyComment