Why Christmas is tough for a fractured family

ONE morning, I woke up and started hyperventilating.

I wasn’t unwell, nobody had been in an accident and it wasn’t the anniversary of a relative’s death. It was Christmas Day and I was having a panic attack.

I’ve never liked Christmas. But it’s not because I think tinsel is garish and find mince pies sickeningly sweet, nor is it because I’m Jewish – many Jews actually celebrate it, but that’s besides the point. Let me explain.

Romantic comedies, supermarket adverts and earnest Instagram posts paint a hyperidealised picture of Christmas, one that’s characterised by bustling dinner tables, idiosyncratic traditions, and families coming together. This is great if your life is a Richard Curtis film.

If it isn’t, Christmas can seem like an exclusive, glitter-covered, party that everyone but you is invited to. This representation ignores the fact that homelessness, bereavement and mental health issues make Christmas the toughest time of year for some people.

It neglects to acknowledge that not everyone’s Christmas is, or could possibly be, defined by excess, indulgence and materialism. And it conditions us to think we need copious amounts of presents, a gluttonous fivecourse meal and a harmonious family in order to participate in the celebrations.

For many, Christmas serves only to highlight all that they don’t have. For me, it’s the family thing. As an only child with divorced parents who live halfway across the world from one another, I, like a lot of people, don’t fit the nuclear family mould that is most visible at this time of year.

While I’m quite used to my situation – my parents split when I was four years old – over the years several things have contributed to an underlying sadness that strangely comes to the fore at Christmas, even though I’ve never celebrated it.

In my family – and by that I mean my mum and her boyfriend – we don’t have traditions, we don’t get each other presents and we certainly aren’t five mince pies down by 11am: we just don’t do Christmas. In fact, we often don’t spend the day together.

Sometimes this is because one of us has gone to the cinema in search of some escapism. Occasionally it’s because mum has gone on a long walk alone. But more often than not, it’s because there has been a row.

Of course, lots of families argue over Christmas, but there’s something unifying about it when a big group is involved, when everything can feel resolved after a quick gossip with your sibling over a mug of mulled wine. When you’re an only child, you’re a one-man show: nobody else has your mum for a mum, or your dad for a dad, so nobody can truly empathise with your experience.

I realised this five years ago on Christmas Eve, when a family dispute resulted in me being told to get out of the house. It was 11pm and, in an apt instance of pathetic fallacy, pouring with rain.

Like most people who make a dramatic, door-slamming exit from their own home, I had nowhere to go – ‘twas the night before Christmas after all, which meant all of my friends were tucked up with their families while I was trying to figure out why I didn’t quite fit in mine.

So I walked up and down my road for 45 minutes until I stopped sobbing. When I went back inside, the dust had settled. But walking past my mum in silence and retreating to my bedroom to send desperate texts to friends, which obviously went unanswered, wasn’t exactly the ideal precursor to a day that everyone tells you is about family time.

The next morning, I woke up feeling more emotionally drained than ever, like I was being suffocated by some dark mental cloud. Then I stopped breathing, ergo, the hyperventilating, which has returned viciously every year since. I’ve tried to avoid this situation on occasion by flying to the US to be with my dad, which can feel like the most indulgent of breaks.

When I’m there over Christmas, we go to the cinema, walk around the local town and order greasy Chinese takeaway. But no matter what the activity is, I often wind up feeling even more isolated there than I would at home in the UK. With two young children, a wife and a dog, my dad has established his own family unit.

Everything and everyone is in place – it is stable. People fit. When I visit, as the older daughter from a failed marriage, it’s almost impossible not to feel slightly out of sorts. The result is a strange kind of imposter syndrome, only the circumstance I feel I’m imposing on – Christmas with your family – should be the most welcoming of all, at least, that’s what we’ve all been told.

My anxieties about Christmas start building in November, which is when a lot of people are already getting excited about the various festivities.

The conversations about what kind of Christmas food people will be eating, whose home they’ll be at and what time Love Actually will be screened in the living room aren’t just common, they’re expected, which makes it all the more awkward when you feel like you’ve got nothing to contribute.

I was once asked in a job interview to describe my perfect Christmas day. Surprisingly, my many “erms” and “ers” did not paint me as the most articulate of individuals. I ended up telling the truth, which spiralled into me offering up my family history and confessing everything I’ve spoken about here.

I did not get the job. As a 25-year-old who no longer needs their parents in the same way they once did, I’m optimistic that this year, my Christmas experience might be different. I will be with my cousins, one of whom just got engaged and has invited some fellow nonbelievers over for lunch.

There will be turkey, there might be crackers and there could also be Christmas presents. For the first time ever, I think I will buy some. Although I have left it to the last minute (I hear that’s common), I rather like the idea of spending time thinking about what someone else might want or need at this time of year, when I find it all too easy to get caught up in my own thoughts.

And it’s not just about buying gifts. On the day itself, I will send messages to the friends who have lost people they loved and check in with those who I know suffer from depression. I will also make a donation to Crisis, the charity working to help homeless people at Christmas.

I’m never going to be someone who reels off Elf quotes, wears tinsel as a scarf and starts singing along to Michael Bublé on my commute. But perhaps my family tensions will dissipate this year, the dark clouds will clear and I’ll wake up on 25 December not from a panic attack, but with a sigh of relief. I’d really like to think so.

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Author: Olivia Petter

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