A Merry Christmas signals the start of a New Year

Christmas tree

Christmas: end of the old and start of the new

Typically Christmas has been fraught with feelings of dread, a sense of underwhelming and a general despise borne out of a lifetime of broken family Christmases which never ceased to surprise by sinking to new levels of low; there were bitter family feuds, car crashes, meals for two in the silence of a big empty house; one of the more “eventful” ones featured a trip to Tunisia, being hounded by Arab men offering my dad copious amounts of camels for me, while  I befriended a baby frog who I turned to after crying about being subjected to the Golddigger and her God-awful old-bag of a mother. Very eventful indeed.

Also until about 2 years ago I had suffered a New Year curse, never-failing every year to be very ill with a variety of different ailments over the years: There was chronic vomiting, fever, tonsilitis, cystitis; and when I wasn’t ill I was just generally having a very depressing time. It is a culmination of these far from merry festive season experiences that had left me anything but festive. Some have taken to calling me “Scrooge”, my response to which is to guilt tripping them for making light of my sorrowful past.

Given that I have been all but merriment in the recent months, with the loss of a treasured era and the gaining of a persistent ailment, I have been most surprised about how I have regarded Christmas this year. Logically I should be especially weary and mournful of Christmas this year as last year was probably the worst one yet and this one has been preceded by a large amount of stress and ill-health. But do you know?! This year it is quite the opposite!

A few months ago I remember discussing Christmas with my boyfriend and I got most over-whelmed and worried – something which he could not quite understand. Yet as time has drawn on, I have become more and more excited for the whole festive period. Not only have I been most prepared when it comes to buying gifts, the allocation of time spent with various family members (mine and the boyf’s) has been done, I believe, to perfection. I am a great fan of perfection and this pleases me greatly.

Rather than feeling resentful about last Christmas, I have found a renewed urge to make things work out happily and have felt really gratified that it seems to have. Usually each Christmas I have felt that I am missing out on what so many others have; a large family, running jokes, fun and merriment. In contrast I have felt very much isolated. I have longed for the “conventional Christmas” with a large table full of close relatives, a traditional English Christmas dinner, hymns on the stereo and mulled wine all around in the warmth of a log fire. In all truthfulness, it has made me very sorrowful in the past and I have often found myself crying or feeling extreme anger and irritation. In that typical teenage way, I have said to myself “it’s so unfair! Why don’t I get to have a lovely family Christmas?”

What is different this year? I think whatever is different, it is so subtle that it cannot be stated. However, what I can say is that something within me has changed. Perhaps I can bestow something positive on the illness I have now long had; to cope with it, I have had to adjust the way I address things in life. I don’t think that this has been a conscious readjustment at all (that would give me far too much credit). But with the help of my family (including extended family in the form of step parents/siblings and close family friends) I have started to react differently to a whole host of challenging things, not least my ongoing ailment. Now, rather than obsessing and agonizing over things that stress or worry me in a big way, I have started to let these reactions go.

There is a mindfulness approach that I try to keep firmly fixed in my head; when negative thoughts or emotions arise, acknowledge them without reacting to them. This means when I get a sharp stabbing threatening to develop into a persistent bout of UTI, I don’t automatically go in to crisis mode and crumble thinking that it is going to ruin all of my plans. Instead I think “oh shit, that hurt. Let’s carry on and see how it goes…” It’s an approach that is very much easier said than done, and how I’ve actually managed to do it, I have no idea. Two things that it may be possible to credit for this changed internal attitude are a visit to Scotland to see the Tibetan doctor (yes, you read right) and becoming more and more comfortable with my free-falling in love (again you’ve read right).

A few weeks ago I took a weekend trip to Scotland to see a Tibetan doctor as means of an alternative cure. We stayed with one of my dad’s old friends, Diana who I have always been very fond of since I was little. Rather than the visit to the Tibetan doctor (will keep you posted on that one) I believe that it was the stay with Diana that did me a world of good. She has a modestly sized house, pretty much in the middle of nowhere and lives with four cats, with her daughter and granddaughter living across the road. There was something so peaceful and calming about every aspect of the visit, that I truly believe has stayed with me since. The food we ate was simple, healthy and delicious, the entertainment consisted of a giant puzzle, a game of Pictionary and “A Good Year” (an amazing film).  But there was something so wholesome about everything that I gradually started feeling comfortable in my own skin again. Perhaps it was the reassurance that even if I don’t end up making heaps of money and charging through life getting to the top, I’d do well in a simpler, quieter existence such as this. I can’t explain it really, but ever since, I have felt happier and healthier and stronger.

Another major internal battle that I have had going on ever since I’ve struggled with my health and the transition from university life, is the feelings of dependence on my boyfriend. I am fiercely independent – to a fault at times – and have had real difficulties surrendering pieces of myself to others in any capacity, especially romantically. The more I have come to rely on my boyfriend for emotional support, the more I have been troubled by this tendency, the more it has therefore created problems in my own head. This too seems to have abated. No longer to I reproach myself for feeling weak when I open up about feeling less pleasant emotions. Long gone are the feelings of caution as I fall deeper and deeper in love; it doesn’t feel thought-out it feels natural and light – the way I expect that it is meant to be. Now there is no more conflict between head and heart, the two are in blissful sync and I feel so much calmer for it.

Whether these two factors are causal or results of another factor is up to debate, but I hardly care. All I know is that I have never felt so  at peace and now all that overwhelms me are feelings of excitement, love and joy. This year although still far from conventional, (we are having a Middle-Eastern feast for Christmas dinner and my dad’s girlfriend’s ex-husband is at ours for Christmas!) it truly has been a happy Christmas, which does indeed signal the start of a glistening brand new year.

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Surviving the cracks of a broken family

It's worthwhile making the break through

As long as I can remember I have never had a “conventional” family. Neither of my parents came from families that were particularly close – emotionally or geographically; my mum’s family having moved to England from India when she was a young age and my father having emigrated from Holland after a substantial period at medical school. Both of my parents were the oldest of their siblings and neither of them maintained much of a relationship with them. As my parents divorced when I was about 4 or 5 years old, there was not much of a chance (and even less of an intention) for them to provide me with any siblings and so I remained an only child hopping across the stepping-stones between parents as they separated and experimented with new partners and families.

In the absence of socialising with siblings or cousins or children from family friends, I was to all intensive purposes a cripplingly shy child. To a ridiculous extent at times. I remember being sat alone at lunch time when I was no older than 5 or 6, surrounded by a lot of other well-socialised kids with their generic packed-lunch boxes. They had the usual: Ham sandwiches on white bread, packet of crisps, fruit yoghurt, chocolate bar, carton of juice. I had salad sandwiches on brown bread (organic no less!), no yoghurt or sweets but a cellophane wrapped mango cut in half and into squares. I had just started to eat the sweet, juicy and delicious fruit when a girl sat to my right asked incredulously “what’s that??” I remember freezing, much like a startled mouse in the presence of a cat and wonder what to say (explaining that it was a mango was somehow not an option!

I remained very still and very quiet, even when she persisted and asked again. Eventually her friend sat opposite to her said, “oh just leave her” and added dismissively, “It’s probably a gone-off watermelon or something”. Welcome to the kids in Toxteth, ladies and gentlemen! I remained rather shy throughout primary school and for the first two years of secondary school, although it subsided considerably to allow me to make some friendships and answer simple questions from strangers.

The thing was, there was no denying that I was always rather “different”. Having been alone to amuse myself for considerable periods of time whilst young, and having quite interesting – if not eccentric – parents, I had a rather active imagination and played acted-out imaginary games in public well into year two, and thereafter, in private. I never felt particularly lonely in primary school, when I wad playing on my own, rather I was in my own little impenetrable world which I suppose now, was a very instrumental buffer for the years to come. Nevertheless, I noticed that certain children slowly gravitated towards me. At the time it unnerved me a little, as I didn’t really understand why. I suppose my disregard for conventions then, was appealing to them. Especially to those that were getting a raw deal in the usual playground politics (i.e. not in “the popular group”).

My mother soon moved in with her former male best friend who turned into a sort of ambiguous step-father-like  role. His two daughters lived in London with their mother, but I had always been socialised with them when possible, from the day I was born. For a period of time, we formed what was known as “The Tough Girls”. I remember fabric painting t-shirts for us all and proudly presenting them to the girls when we were reunited again. The eldest was 2 years older than me, the youngest was two years younger than me. I was perfectly in the middle. My mum’s relationship with their father was complicated  to say the least and my own dear father was left very much alone and grieving. This is not to say that my mother is the villain and my father the victim. The whole affair was very complicated and not necessarily an issue for discussion here.

The result of a messy break, was years of disjointed Christmases; one year I would spend it with my dad and New Year with my mum, her partner and the kids and the next year it would transpire the opposite way round. Although there were some very lovely aspects to those Christmases, they could never really be described as a jolly period for me. There is something so sad remembering back to my dad and I sat alone at the dining table to our solitary Christmas dinners. I was always very much a daddy’s girl, but even at that age I could sense that a daughters love was not enough to keep the spirit’s up at Christmas. Conversely at my mum’s it was not so quiet, but the noise was rarely consistently jovial. The girls lived to wind each other up which would inevitably result in tears which would wind their dad up, which would cause my mum to make some failed attempt at mediation which would wind everyone up. Usually I would be turned on for not having made a problem and “sitting on the fence” at some point. There was also the competition of presents and their value, which was not just a past time of the kids but a preoccupation of my stepdad with my mum: “But how much are you going to be spending on my kids?” 

By my early teens, my mum had left him, I saw nothing of his kids – despite having know them from birth and my dad had found a woman who lived to take his money and make him unhappier. Needless to say Christmases did not improve and continued their non-joyous bearings when my mother kicked me out and moved to another city with her new partner. Ding-dong-merrily-on-high!

Having left home over four years ago, the impact this has all had on my perception of Christmas has been potent. I hate being the “Scrooge” figure among my friends – it really doesn’t suit. However, when I can honestly say that I cannot remember a truly happy and enjoyable Christmas, it is bound to make its mark into future feelings about the over-hyped holiday season. It’s beautifully (if not commercially) painted as a warm, loving, family occasion where people laugh, talk and get merry around burning fire-places. The truth is that I yearn for this. It would be a pleasure I cannot describe to enjoy a feast with beloved family members, playing old-school games like charades and Pictionary while sozzled of mulled wine and merriment. It is the cliché picture that causes me to envy others who do have big families and running jokes that resurface every year when everyone gets together.

Envy and jealousy are such ugly emotions. I rarely entertain them for very long and instead repress the whole concept of Christmas by concentrating on something else. This year, however, I have been consciously concentrating on my whole “Christmas phobia”. I shall never have a “conventional family” but I do now have great relations in the untraditional and eccentric bunches that qualify as family. Although my mum and her husband shall never join with my dad and his partner (not the awful woman aforementioned) this is not necessary. I essentially have two homes; two very loving and supportive homes. Screw convention, that works for me.

Having considered the whole Christmas period I have worked out that I will be able to fit in time with my mum, my dad, my boyfriend and his family and my best friend. Now I can’t think of anything better than this. Having a broken family has been hard, upsetting and unsettling at times, but it now makes me much more grounded and settled in my own skin than I could have ever been without it.

The key to surviving the cracks, is jumping over them and not dwelling on what’s down them.