Merry Christmas from Therapy
I am not going home for the holidays. Instead, I plan to take care of myself.
Afew weeks ago I decided, in quiet catastrophe, to not go home for Christmas. It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this summer, when I began seeing my current psychotherapist — a sweet yet stern black woman from Mississippi, voice warm as chamomile tea.
I’ve wanted to make this decision for the past few years. But as winter nears with its cinnamon nostalgia, I’ve always decided to grit my teeth, convince myself that my anxiety is a charade, and travel home despite the ache that has always told me otherwise.
As of late, this ache has swelled because of loss. In July, my mother’s elder sister — who was also my godmother — passed away several days after an unexpected fall in her apartment. And two years ago around Thanksgiving, my mother died, suddenly, due to heart failure. The heart failure due to alcoholism.
My aunt and mother were both in their 50s when they passed. Black southern women who loved vodka, the kitchen, toy poodles, and with great difficulty and estrangement, their children.
Home, what it was and is now, hurts.
I am not on good speaking terms with the ghosts dwelling there.
I am 24 years old, and I still have nightmares about my mother and the abuse that riddled my childhood. My dreams, to any stranger visiting, might be reminiscent of a halcyon holiday: the living room is warm with a sun beaming through the windows, music flows from the kitchen, my mother is alive. But like most dreams that mark my struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the mundane is more a trigger. Always in these dreams, I am rushing into rooms searching the house for my siblings and someplace to hide, a door to escape from this place that annually calls for my return.
My therapist tells me I’m stuck in my grief.
I’ve become stationary and motionless. Bound by guilt. This is fairly common for children who have been abused. This feeling of responsibility for the person who hurt us, whom we loved and for whom we hold fury. My family does not know how to speak about what has happened to me or to my siblings. We do not have a language for our trauma, for mental illness, for how we have failed one another. This silence has become our own black, Southern gothic tradition.
When my mother died, the phrase I heard most often when friends and family offered condolences was “take care.” Yet taking care still silently necessitated that I come home each holiday. Taking care meant I was allowed to cry about losing my mother, but when it’s time to open presents I can’t speak about the scars she gave me. How do survivors of abuse take care when home is the source of our grief?
For so many of us, the holidays are arduous and lonely. Yet each year, we push through because it is unthinkable to not return home.
Bearing through the holidays shouldn’t be the only option for those of us who don’t feel safe at home. Bearing pain is already our burden. And while we may not have chosen this pain we bear, survivors deserve to prioritize ourselves and our healing.
There were many days after my mother’s funeral when I needed help undressing, bathing, and eating. I received books of poetry from friends, friends’ handwritten letters in the covers of those books, and food. Death had arrived, and the response was bread for melancholy. At the time, I didn’t feel like it was what I needed. It took time for me to realize these gifts were all reminders from people who loved and knew me: Take care of yourself.
It hurts me to accept that I won’t be headed home this holiday. I worry my absence will be felt most tenderly by my 12-year-old brother. I will miss his laughter and joy early Christmas morning. I will miss the sound of my uncle humming with his snowman cup of coffee. I will miss my little cousin jumping around, practically launching presents like missiles at my sister and aunt in their pajamas.
This holiday, I won’t be going home. But I am going to heal. It’s the most important gift I could give myself.