I could always be counted on to pick up Christmas and New Years’ shifts in college. The holidays didn’t hold the same joy that it seemed to for my coworkers so it felt like the most logical decision. It was either this or… As I sat in the quiet office, rocking back and forth on the reclining chair, I wondered if maybe I should make an effort to make the holidays joyous for me.

I don’t know, though.

It sure seemed like a lot of effort.

Certainly more effort than the reward it felt like I would get out of it.

Whatever the situation, it wasn’t my original goal to become someone who was a “workaholic”. It was a side effect of my escapism. Work created a reason, a logical excuse. It was a lot easier for me to tell my family I couldn’t physically be there for the holidays because I was working a Christmas overnight shift or I had a mounting pile of academic research and assignments with strict deadlines attached.

The most beautiful thing was I was not lying – these situations were also true. By that time in my life, I had learned this strategy was the most effective way to barricade myself from the boiling shame I seemed to encounter during family holidays. I knew it was kind of bullshit. They knew it was kind of bullshit. But it was bullshit that aligned with my family’s values of progress and hard work. And, in a way, I would be better off in some way by engaging with this bullshit.

When I reflect on these years, I feel sad but I don’t regret how I coped. I have a tremendous amount of gratitude and love for a younger me for doing what she needed to do to take care of her emotional health. She hadn’t learned how to be honest and firm about her boundaries. She thought other people’s feelings were her feelings. She thought her feelings – and in some indirect way, her very being – couldn’t exist without being tethered to someone or something else. She knew it wasn’t healthy for her to be tethered to a system that was unhealthy. To eat something toxic doesn’t remove the toxicity; it spreads it. It was a system she loved dearly, but an unhealthy one nonetheless. To be tethered would be to fully take in the impulsivity, the intergenerational trauma, the awful ways of trying to suppress the pain, and encountering her own full-bodied shame. The shame of trying to hold a smile and distract, while throwing a blanket to cover up the imperfections of her hurt family.  

I am fortunate enough that the distance and my own independent healing happened in conjunction with the healing of others in my family unit. I am fortunate that my values and my family’s values are progress and hard work. I am fortunate that the time and distance gave my family opportunities to briefly connect with each other, to process it in our own way, then come back together again briefly. This practice gradually introduced cleansing purities into our system. The charcoal in a filtration system. The better part of a decade later, our love for each other does not ((as often)) come at the expense of our individual needs. We can sit more closely to one another. And we do not sit when we cannot sit.

Throughout the journey of physically distancing myself from my family, I formed relationships that sustain me in ways my family had not been able to and have become okay with it. My partner, who has become the firm ground for me to anchor when the initial anxieties and suicidal thoughts of childhood helplessness resurface for me. My friends, who accept me and teach me how to show kindness towards my family. My coworkers, who just fucking get it. My therapist, who will continue to have my best needs at the heart of all this holiday-togethered-mushiness. My favorite little spots in the city, to hide away and sit in beautiful isolation when it all starts to feel like too much of everyone else and not enough of me. My little doggies, who are happy and oblivious to the constructed conditions of being alive. My paintbrush, which feels heaviest when I first lift it before it completely captures my attention for hours. My bed, which is lovely and comfy and asks nothing of me.

It feels impossible for me to have anything but gratitude towards the girl reclining in that office chair, the one who picked up others’ holiday shifts.