by Daniel Reeders
I’d hold out against it as long as I could, but each year in early December, I froze, giving way to that familiar feeling of dread. Then a couple of years ago I began seeing a therapist, and that year I raised with her the plans I was making to get through the festive season: dinner with Mum and boyfrang at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas eve, talking pretty much exclusively about television to avoid the emotional history Mum loves to discuss; lunch on Christmas day with Dad and my sister and step-mother, hoping he wouldn’t drink too much, before going home to start drinking myself.
My therapist doesn’t shake her head, but she gently pointed out that going into ‘survival mode’ – priming your fight or flight response – pretty much guarantees misunderstanding and conflict. No matter how much you try and anticipate what your parent might do, she said, you can’t; they’re too good at it.
Christmas that year was a doozie.
I wound up in emotional deep-freeze afterwards. I finally cracked through the ice in March, with an email asking Mum “did you really mean to say that?” Afterwards, I felt so relieved, I thought I was having a manic episode, and I went and got myself assessed for bipolar. Turns out I don’t have it: just recurring episodes of major depression with relatively predictable triggers.
Christmas is the perfect storm: family, end-of-year exhaustion, and repetition.
Every school holiday after their divorce, my parents had the same fight: over the meaning of a single word in the access (custody) agreement. Mum argued Dad must take his children for an extra three days every school holiday; Dad pointed out it said that he may – and he chose not to. Apart from the message that your parents are fighting over not having you around, the difficult thing about this fight was the repetitiveness of it, its viciousness and the impossibility of averting or resolving it; if I intervened I became a target for Mum’s invective, so all I could ever do was freeze, go numb, play dead.
As anyone living with multi-episodic depression will know, there’s a certain ‘not again’ panic about the onset of an episode. One of the ways the past traps us in the present is through our re-enactment of strategies that worked for us as children in the face of challenges in adult life. Like putting on a mask and getting through Christmas. But as Brené Brown points out, you can’t selectively numb: it’s all or nothing. And when I go numb, I lose emotional perspective – feedback on whether my behaviour is consistent with my values – as well as motivation. In a word, depression. The coping strategy now sets up the problem.
My counsellor, Carol-Ann Allen, argues for an approach that recognises how the situation has changed since our childhood experiences (and the strategies we devised to cope with them). As children we were powerless: as adults we are not. She reminds me that I now have much wider scope for agency and my own skills for dealing with people being difficult.
One possible strategy, recommended by Carol-Ann, involves keeping your sense of humour in play – via the slight detachment of a conscious appreciation of how perfectly in-character the difficult people in our lives are being when they throw us a curve ball. When you see it coming, instead of freezing, you might think, ‘Damn, that remark is so perfectly you. Five stars!’
Helpful tip: don’t verbalise this thought.
Carol-Ann Allen will be giving a talk on ‘Making peace with your parents’ at Midsumma Festival in Melbourne (February 3) with a particular focus on queer and trans experiences of coming out. This article reflects what I’ve taken away from our sessions and any errors or omissions are mine alone.
About the author
Daniel Reeders is a PhD candidate looking at stigma and public health. He blogs about these topics and many more at Bad Blood.