For me historically, holidays, anniversaries, birthdays and other marked dates that cycled around every year laden with hopes and expectations, fantasies and even magical prayers were always a terrible trap. Particularly those that were supposed to be occasion for lavish and abundant presents. In our family they of course usually were not. I certainly longed for that special gift on that one special day that would symbolize and communicate that I matter, that I was indeed seen, heard, and even cared for, at least for a minute. The non-Jewish kids thought that because Hanukkah has 8 days, we got 8 presents, one each night. Not so in our family, where it was more or less one. Invariably at least one of us wound up in the bathroom crying every year.
As I got older, my refuge came in being an impassioned creator of gifts. My little world became a lively whirlwind of craft, the sewing machine buzzing, the floor littered with colorful threads, scraps and wisps of the flighty tissue paper of Simplicity sewing patterns. It was happy little workshop, although it also failed in the quest to feel special, loved, seen, and valued. Nonetheless parts of that set of rituals persist to this day, although the media have rolled over many times. And a variety of craft has become an activity of absolute and unadulterated joy or I won’t do it. In our little cosmos of childhood neglect and trauma, however, the holidays approached with a family tradition of hope and dread. Norman Rockwell was most definitely MIA.
Although she never spoke of it, our mom must have had some sort of strong feeling about the holidays too, or at least some of them. She always told the story that she and Dad got married on Christmas Day in 1949, so they would “always have something to celebrate that day too.” And I am sure it is from her that I inherited my hopeless case of Christmas tree envy, as she also loved the glittering trees, and of course we could never have one. In my twenties when I lived with my “gentile” partner, every year we got our Christmas tree the day after Thanksgiving. I loved watching the lights twinkle each night. Fire hazard or not, reluctantly we took the tree down on Valentines Day, swept up the little carpet of dry pine needles, and said good bye to the sweet smell for another by now only nine and a half months.
My husband and I emulated my parents just a bit, getting married the day after Thanksgiving, 1991. This year marks our 30th year of marriage, which is for so many reasons unimaginable. Between the trauma-neglect brain’s confusion surrounding time; the surreal blur of the Pandemic years, and the incredulity of not only living this long, but achieving and sustaining a joyful and lasting partnership… Well I never thought it would happen to me.
The nature of trauma and neglect is a surreality of time. The dorsolateral right prefrontal cortex which understands and regulates a sense of time, is one of the areas highjacked or knocked out by trauma of many kinds. It leaves a person feeling that this will never end. In a trauma ridden family home that is often true until the child gets old enough to get away. If you find it challenging or even impossible to practice affirmations and tell yourself something positive about tomorrow being another day, don’t compound it with self blame and censure. Just know that your poor old bushwhacked brain needs a hand and can get there. The cycling of the seasons, the inevitable approach of the seasonal markers of time getting away can be painful. It may seem to signify more loss: “life is passing me by…” Then the holidays threaten an even greater burden of weight.
And there can be the additional blight of anniversary reactions, another mysterious bearer of the trauma story. The body, emotional and sensory apparatuses log events in a wordless, impressionistic way such that even just the arrival of a season or time of year can bring a wash of felt experience or mood that may appear to “come from nowhere.” Perhaps the brain is summoning an emissary, like a “Ghost of Christmas Past” to deliver another chapter of the trauma story unknown to ordinary autobiographical memory. “Why do I feel so bad?” That may be why. It is easy to feel guilty or ashamed about not being cheerful and happy around these annual events. It is a ready reflex to sink into self-recrimination and compound the lousy mood with self-blame and self-hatred. That is one reason why I like physiology so much. I never imagined that science would be such a source of comfort! Repeat, “It is not your fault!”
It seems that every culture in the world, throughout time, has created its own repeating ritual traditions. They contribute to identity formation and a sense of continuity and even faith. It is often said that the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expecting a different result. However to keep doing the same thing and expecting the same result might be very sane indeed, and an adaptive practice. That has certainly been true of my little craft workshop.
When I got old enough, and blessedly have the resources and the privilege, my husband and I make a ritual of escape from the winter holidays. I despise what I call the “Three C’s” of these holidays: Commercialization, Consumerism and Commotion – at least in the US. The ever-present reminder to buy; what is certainly in the Bay Area off-the-charts traffic, not to mention the pressure to have families and loved ones to celebrate with… I find it all unbearable. We leave town and head for somewhere quiet, out of the way, and warm. One of the ironic perks of the COVID Pandemic, for those of us lucky enough to be healthy, was that all of that holiday uproar was perhaps tempered a bit. We just couldn’t mob the stores. Perhaps people did something parallel in the privacy of their own cyber worlds, but it was not as much “in my face” so to speak. I don’t mean to heartlessly and Scrooge-like disparage the ritual of gifts. I do also love them, when they have heart; are not obligatory or “transactional;” or part of some insidious unspoken “deal.”
I also like the annual reminder of charitable organizations, who toil tirelessly throughout the year, often doing the most difficult of work, and often on an underfunded shoestring budget, needing and requesting support. I feel better about their doing what I either can’t or won’t do myself, by helping as much as I can. I remember how some years ago now, San Francisco Mayor London Breed first got my “vote,” (not the most astute way of making political choices I’ll admit!) She wasn’t even running for anything yet at the time. I heard an interview where she told the story of growing up poor in San Francisco, raised by her grandmother. Without running water in their apartment, of course there was no money for Christmas presents. And then came Toys for Tots. “I got a present! I became that happy little girl who got a Christmas present!” Breed has loved Toys for Tots ever since, and certainly put it on the radar for me.
Although I am not religious, I do like the Jewish New Year tradition of self reflection. The Jewish New Year comes in the fall, usually in September so it coincided with what for me was the start of the school year. Nowadays I believe school starts in August which I view as a “crime against nature” as August to me represents high summer and is no time to start school! Anyway, the start of the school year was a laden annual marker in itself, and the injunction to review the past year and think ahead to the next one was a worthy and even somewhat natural practice. Cycles of the year, and known dates and events seemed to provide a welcome jog to my often-addled memory. Where was I last year on this date? And because it is a recognized date it may stand out in some way. Perhaps I can picture how I observed it then, which might open the flow to what my priority was then, what happened then? Where do I want to go in this next orbit around the sun? I used to journal. For some reason I don’t do that anymore although it can be a very useful practice.
IF we can do it without a whip I find self-reflection to be my go-to holiday observance. By whip, however, I mean self-reflection that is tinged with criticism, harsh regret and aspiration; or that smacks of judgment, even punishment. These are no way to celebrate a holiday! Hopefully I would never treat anyone else with tidings of judgment, blame and pressure to shape up! Why would I treat myself that way? There is even a contorted grandiosity in the expectation of exaggerated achievement or perfection; and there is a blessed humility in the act of heartfelt, realistic self-reflection, and flexible, fluid goal setting that allows for the unanticipated, which is often even better than what we planned.
Let’s Make a Miracle
Many do not know that the Hanukkah story is the story of a miracle. The “eternal light” is the ceremonial lamp that burns continuously in every Jewish sanctuary, symbolizing the eternal, unfailing presence of God. As the story goes, the Jews were embroiled in war with their then oppressors, and the eternal light in their Temple ran dangerously low on oil. At the key moment, there was only enough oil in the lamp to last one day, with the danger that the light would be extinguished. Miraculously the oil for one day lasted for eight, so the light burned on until the Jews were victorious, and able to replenish it. So besides being another celebration of victory over oppression, this miracle represents unending, uncompromising protection and comforting presence, maybe even hope? Not a bad symbol for our purposes I figure.
Milestones may also be a chronic rhythmic reminder of how painfully long recovery takes. One reason why I have been on an insatiable quest all these years, to learn all the newest and best evidence based treatment approaches for trauma, is that. It incenses me that after a childhood ravaged by overwhelming experiences not of one’s own making, survivors then have to spend years and seemingly endless amounts of money and time, to in effect, climb out of a hole and arrive in life. That is a tragic injustice as far as I am concerned, that I have dedicated my life to at least attempt to rectify. It is also important to know, that the devastating and seemingly endless duration is not your fault! Not your sloth or ineptitude.
Much of the deepest of injury is in the attachment systems of the brain and date back to developmental stages in infancy. This is not to make the duration appear worse or hopeless, but rather to “normalize” it. And I can honestly say, and this is one of those annoying things that therapists might say, every bit of my own journey which often felt (and even occasionally still does!) feel endless, serves me. As Bruce Hornsby says in his wonderful and timeless song Swan Song “To be sure I don’t regret much, not much at all.”
I believe recovery is a kind of miracle in itself. I do think of mine that way, replete with the many angels who entered my life as healers, teachers and helpers of all sorts. It is a good time to remember that, at least for me. So my wishes for all are Peace, Health, Love, and with luck, even some Joy. And because I can’t help myself, I must add:
Cheese on Earth!
Best wishes of the season!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.