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Rev. Ed Bird

Home For Christmas: When “Not Going” Is Healthier Than “Going.”

I won’t be home for Christmas.

Those probably weren’t the exact words said.  It has been twenty years. But the sentiment was just that.  I won’t be home for Christmas.

There wasn’t the usual reason to miss this important Western, semi-religious if misappropriated holiday: the job or geographic limitations.  I wasn’t in rehab or the hospital or jail or any other institution that reserved the right to restrict my movements.  I certainly wasn’t dead.

But Christmas was.  I had come to the realization that Christmas as I had known it—or really as I wished it had been—was dead.  Probably not recently, but I had just become aware of its passing.

Our family had made a go of it. With some great success over 45 years, even in my own 26 years’ worth of family Christmas memories, we had made a respectable showing. But there was no sense in pretending anymore.  In fact, it was killing me to do so, emotionally and spiritually. The death of Christmas was much less horrific than the psychological beating of the façade.

Some think, and will think, it was just the spoiled, attention-seeking antics of the baby of the family. There is room for that. Misbehavior finds its rationalization and hides the sad truth from us often. Perhaps more sadly, my insight hasn’t enhanced over the 20 years since, not much.  I still make the excuse I made then.  I have to be okay with that, even if it was or wasn’t okay.

My brother’s rampant alcoholism, his untreated mood disorder, and some very evident disordering of his personality had gone unchecked for as long as I could remember. And it was all so inconsistent, so haphazard, that when you had a “good day” with him (by that standard) it was at best like hugging a Fabergé.  It was only a matter of time.  Sometimes it made sense just to push the envelope and get it over with, take some sort of control. “You will go off when I say you go off; your outburst will only be at the time of my choosing.” Resisting it, mentioning it, these were futile and treasonous and selfish.

I was early in the process of dealing with this variety of family dysfunction, which to some counselors would be garden-variety dependence/ co-dependence.  The only thing I knew was that the next step beyond awareness was preventing further harm to myself.  I hadn’t figured out how to be one in a room of seven to ten people—still the “new kid on the block” in terms of family history—who said “this stops now” and made sure that it did.

So I avoided. I stayed away. It didn’t feel good but it was better than the awfulness of unchecked inappropriate behavior, the charade of “everything’s fine,” and the trauma of “if you can’t tolerate this, there must be something wrong with you.”

I didn’t miss anymore holidays after that. The family showdown I fantasized didn’t materialize in any way or form like what I probably envisioned. There isn’t really a “here is the awesome obvious and tangible resultant event that made a crappy experience worth it.”  But it was a necessary gift to myself, as ill-advised and unprofitable as some might see it.  It was important to self-differentiate.  But I would be lying if I said that it felt like a victory or an accomplishment to be proud of at the time.

Today I still regard skipping Christmas it as something necessary—not a necessary evil so much, but a necessary muddle of tedium that represented a break from “not-so-healthy” to “a little bit better.”  I’m tempted to make it sound more rewarding, because ultimately it is, just to persuade you more convincingly. I realize though that probably isn’t any of my business.

Still, I think it’s healthy to separate from “what-harms-you-more-than-it-helps-you” even though it’s all you know. It’s all you know and you have to stutter-step into something you know nothing about and do it clumsily and haltingly. Like learning a new activity, like a dance, or a language, or to do something completely foreign to you, perhaps rock climbing or kayaking, you have to decide to do it and start that new trail. Often, you will want to go back to the road more familiar. Under stress, you will go back and do what was natural. A heavy-handed boxer with one-punch knockout power necessarily begins to learn to box more Ali-style, to stick and move, lest he die in the ring. Knowing this is saving himself from more brain damage, that boxer will often revert to “stand and slug” when feeling the power shot and the fear of nearly being knocked out.  Humans go back to what is conditioned under stress, unless and until the new way of coping is the conditioning and no longer the cognitive.

Over time, I kept going to family gatherings and quit insisting on being there only when “he” wasn’t.

I can tell you, it’s harder without the obvious and immediate reward of some happily-ever-after result. Someone will have to remind you of the “pie in the sky” you are reaching for, because alone you are apt to lose sight and faith in what you are doing.  Do it anyway.

Whatever your “don’t go home for Christmas” is, do it just once for the right reason, in the right season. No one will like it, not even you, probably. There really isn’t any other way to do the right thing that I can think of.

 

The Rev. Ed Bird is the Assistant Rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Park Ridge, IL. He holds a Master’s degree in Social Work. He received his Master’s of Divinity from McCormick Theological Seminary and his Diploma of Anglican Studies from Seabury-Western. He was ordained to the priesthood in September 2012. He and his fabulous wife, Beth, were married in April 2012.
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