CW: emotional abuse, threats of self-harm (made by others, not me) and references to past childhood abuse (without details)
I have a tradition I like to call ‘Crying on Christmas Eve.’ In the Before Times, when Americans were still welcome in the rest of the world, it was an annual pre-trip ritual I had to endure before I could engage in my chosen ritual of the fleeing the U.S. each holiday season to somewhere far enough away that my so-called “family” (of origin) couldn’t (further) ruin the most wonderful time of the year. Christmas Eve was more often than not the cheapest day to fly over the holidays. As such, it was the day we called those friends and in-laws we actually cared about to wish Happy Holidays from the airport gate. It was also the day we took care of required business and called group home staff and my sibling’s co-guardian – who is also my sole other remaining family (of origin) – in Hell to ensure they knew our itinerary and where we could be reached in case of emergency. (Emergencies of the Hellish variety have happened enough over Christmas – and my birthday, and the rest of the year – that better safe than sorry!)
“Taking care of business” with Silent Night, which is what I shall henceforth call that co-guardian because I’ve been on a nicknaming kick on my blog recently, inevitably involved a torrent of humiliation, shame and verbal abuse levied over the fact I dared to have a life instead of returning to Hell each year and pretending we were anything other than family of necessity.
Hell is entirely too Hellish to ever want to spend time in voluntarily, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t well and truly absorb the lessons of my childhood that my only lot in life was to stay silent about the things that happened to me because the things that happened to my sibling were more important. I was raised to believe that I was to be the perfect martyr for my family. Endure anything. Stay silent about everything. Because if I spoke up – if I could even have gotten anyone to listen – I’d have been putting my sibling in danger from Hell’s broken system. His life was (and is) worth far more than mine ever was to any of my so-called “family” (of origin.) I don’t blame my sibling for this fact. It is what it is, and it was no more my sibling’s choice to be born into the intergenerational family and systemic trauma dynamics of Hell than it was my choice. I talk to Silent Night only because of Sibling, and I don’t regret my decision to do so, even though it inevitably causes me pain at each conversation. The systemic trauma part of Hell is as real as the childhood trauma part, and, thus, I have accepted talking to Silent Night for Sibling’s sake – instead of going No Contact for my own sake – is the lesser evil in Hell.
That doesn’t mean it didn’t (doesn’t?) still hurt to be reminded each year as my required penance for leaving an emergency contact that I have never been viewed as a person worthy of any happiness in my own right by anyone in Hell. I was re-indoctrinated each Christmas that I had abandoned my family by choosing to build a life for myself outside Hell. My duty was to remain in Hell and to caregive for others (including those who were abusive.) To have left was a permanent black mark that I deserved those experiences that I had had in Hell that I fled from in the first place. Because I hated myself for being so “self-centered” and “never having cared about anyone besides myself,” each Christmas Eve call “home” inevitably ended in waterworks.
Silent Night is great at not-so-silently belaboring my own rottenness to me. I’m selfish, stupid, a freak who will never fit in anywhere, an attention-seeker who fakes her own chronic illnesses, an up-jumped shell of a real human being who will eventually be unmasked and lose her fancy career and all of her pretend status when the rest of the world finally sees what my “family” has always seen in me. (Though, simultaneously, I’m also so bad at my career that this is why others have already seen through me and never promoted me to any meaningful position yet? How does that work?) I’m a horrible human who doesn’t care about her sole remaining family. (Because spending at least half of each conversation reminding a girl of all the ways she is unworthy is great incentive for that same girl to want to spend her one yearly vacation with her “family” of origin! Right? Of course! That’s just logic!)
But, Silent Night was also great at remaining silent to everyone else. Specifically, at remaining silent about family secrets throughout my childhood. When even one “family” (of origin) member saying one comforting word about my reality being real might have done wonders for my mental health in my childhood, Silent Night was always there instead to twist my memories of my own ACES until I believed they weren’t ACES at all whenever I naively sought out comfort. Silent Night was always there to feign sympathy that I had had to undergo those justly deserved corrections so that I could eventually “learn” to “stop being so self-centered” and be worthy of wanting to be around voluntarily, instead of because my family “had to” be around me because they were legally stuck with me.
Silent Night was always great at silencing me and closing both eyes to what was happening to me. At least, that is, until Hell finally proved itself too Hellish even for them and they cracked under the cumulative strain of the Crisis of 2018 and the stir-craziness of the rural One-Horse Townhouse. At least, that is, until they unintentionally confirmed that they had known about my ACES all along (and chosen deliberately to stay silent).
Though I have chosen never to reveal to Silent Night that my Partner taped their offhand 2018 confession for the sake of my sibling, the simple fact that such a recording exists at all leads Partner and Therapist alike to unequivocally insist that – far from being the proof of my fundamental brokenness that Silent Night insists it is – my ritual to flee the country each Christmas instead of returning to Hell to endure more verbal and emotional abuse represents the floor, not the ceiling, for the self-respect I deserve to show myself.
It also provides a comparative floor, not ceiling, for just how wild things can get with Silent Night whenever my dearly beloved family member (of origin) feels ‘trapped’ or ‘alone.’
The last time Silent Night nearly broke under the strain of systemic trauma, PTSD symptoms, hopelessness, fear and a bit of social-isolation, they blithely confirmed 8 out of my 9 ACES like they were dinner party gossip.
So you can begin to imagine just how well Silent Night has been handling our global pandemic. In Hell, a state that reopened in early May just like every other idiotic Red State. In a county now facing exponential growth rates of new corona cases and tight hospital capacity just like, well, the entire rest of the U.S. except for the Northeast (where I currently live.)
As a so-called “unicorn zebra,” to boot.
Because, oh yeah, did I ever mention that chronic illness of mine (that I am totally overplaying for attention), Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, is genetic? Or that, while Silent Night refuses to admit it, it is pretty darn apparent they live with a less severe symptom presentation of the same autosomal dominant disorder my sibling and I both do? Yet, because they have it (though won’t admit it), and it is fine for them compared to something truly serious like others deal with, it must be nothing for me.
It isn’t nothing for me.
But, while it sure as Hell isn’t nothing, I will be the first to admit how lucky I am, especially in a global pandemic, that I only inherited the “zebra” part of my family’s “unicorn zebra” genetics.
Sibling and Silent Night (among others) also inherited a rare genetic lung condition that makes them very high-risk should they ever get covid-19.
I did not inherit the second of the two separate NIH-classified rare chronic illnesses that run in my family. I only inherited the first one. I am used to forever being the guinea pig for my sibling when it comes to what they might face medically because I am usually a “less severe” reflection of Sibling’s own EMR. With covid-19, however, my prior experience provides very little forewarning of what either Sibling or Silent Night are likely to face if they catch it. They are both unicorn zebras, and I’m only a zebra. I do not have the compromised lung capacity they do from that second rare chronic illness, and thus I was never as high risk as they are. In the case of covid-19 specifically, Sibling probably isn’t anywhere near as high risk even as Silent Night is, and that’s saying something.
My Partner and I take that very seriously. We both feel that it is more risky to attempt to visit Sibling or his other vulnerable housemates during the One-Horse Townhouse’s exponentially growing meatpacking-linked outbreak. We live in the Northeast, so we could reasonably expect to get tested before we leave. Unfortunately, preventative testing (even for those aforementioned vulnerable residents of group homes themselves) is still too difficult to get in Hell after we would arrive. And, the One-Horse Townhouse is far enough away from all of the nearest regional airports (which are all in areas with high case rates themselves, of course), that we are concerned that the simple act of getting to that One-Horse Town might already turn my Partner and I into contact vectors. We aren’t willing to risk exposing vulnerable populations to covid-19 when there is still so much uncertainty over whether those who have been previously exposed can still expose others even while they later fight off secondary infections themselves. We’ll go to Hell (of course) if one or both of them get sick. But, the risks and time involved in doing so when they are both healthy do not currently seem worth it. Hell is a whole different level of overall risk and time commitment than the simple “mini getaway” to another state past its Surge that my boss was proposing.
Hell is enough of an overall risk that, realistically, Silent Night (and Sibling) are going to be stuck in quarantine until the U.S. gets its act together. They are entirely too high-risk to mingle among the mask-less masses.
This introduces a very Christmas-like dichotomy. My Partner and I live in a state where testing is now available for those who plan to travel out of state, and my boss encouraged me to take a mini vacation before the rest of the U.S.’s chaos spreads back to the Northeast again. We have an opportunity for a bit of joy, while Silent Night is feeling claustrophobic and anxious both about being cooped up for four months already and about how much longer it likely will be until they can safely be around others (who don’t care enough to wear a strip of cloth for their own safety, mind you) again.
The pandemic equivalent of my crying in airports appears to be Silent Night threatening self-harming actions and blaming them on my personal failings as a go-to form of self-soothing. The U.S.’s globally botched pandemic response has become an – “interesting” – personal case study into impossible decisions around how to handle the potential serious illness of an emotionally abusive “family” (of origin) member who enabled further abuses in my childhood, but with whom I am also stuck with in adulthood ‘co-parenting.’
Silent Night is incredibly high-risk for covid, not the most mentally stable in their expressions of trauma in general, and particularly fond of labeling everything that is ever upsetting to them (like being very high risk for covid while cases exponentially increase in Hell) as further proof of my fundamental brokenness. I’ve gotten a lot more ‘proof’ of why I’m fundamentally selfish dished out (to me and to my Partner as well) these past four months than I have dealt with in the past two years (at least since I had adapted a form of Limited Contact after that 2018 recording.)
For the past four months, Silent Night has been threatening a new way in which I will “fail’ them both if I don’t keep in way more frequent contact than is truly healthy for my own tear ducts. Namely, since Silent Night’s “only remaining family” who is verbal (aka me) “cares so little about” about my high-risk family that I “can’t even be bothered” to ask after their health like a “normal person,” would, Silent Night might as well just go walk up to the nearest local mass gathering, catch covid-19, and die from it. Because, well, it’s not like someone like me actually cares. There’s no point in staying around when someone like me is all that is left of our once-loving “family.” Apparently, I’m such a horrible person for abandoning my family in Hell when I ran off to pursue my own selfish desires anywhere but in Hell that the best way to prove what a monster I am to the world would be for Silent Night to, uh, end up in the ICU with covid-19 and make sure I know it’s because I didn’t care enough to protect my family? (Please note, I am in contact at least once per week with Silent Night, even though conversations with Silent Night have at least a 50/50 chance of leaving me sobbing afterwards no matter how much I try to mentally prepare for what they will profess I am.)
I suspect that at least some of my readers are going to comment that I am not responsible for any other person’s poor life choices. And, those readers aren’t wrong (and will have the backing of my Therapist and Partner for their comments.) But, hearing that and believing it when I’m still dealing with someone very high-risk who has a history of impulsive decisions and seems to absolutely have convinced themselves that I really did betray my family by trying to break the family cycle in the middle of a global public health threat that won’t be as forgiving of hasty decisions as I have historically been is easier said than done.
My family of origin has never been what I would call “stable.” Unfortunately, that lack of stability played directly into why I only have two remaining “family” of origin members in the first place. Untreated mental illness has also contributed a lot to the abuse in my family, and one of my historical family roles has always been to keep that instability from being noticed by the outside world lest Sibling end up at the mercy of an equally abusive system. Hell is not the kind of place I trust to distinguish between my being resilient under stress and, for instance, Silent Night being quite a bit less so. I know intellectually – and because my Partner and Therapist keep telling me – that even if Silent Night somehow makes good on those threats to court death by covid-19, it won’t actually be my fault. I know intellectually that my Partner talks to his family in one of the major Southern epicenters of the current wave of this pandemic even less frequently even than I talk to Silent Night, but no threats are levied upon him as a result (and at least some of his family members care about him.)
I know all of this. But, it’s hard to break old patterns. And, one of my patterns has always been to be the one to have to save my “family” members – both abusive and not abusive – from themselves. It’s not easy to break that pattern in a pandemic when those “family” members truly are incredibly high-risk and have demonstrated erratic enough behavior throughout my childhood that I can’t quite trust Silent Night might not impulsively make good on one of their threats at some point.
Which makes going away on a “mini vacation” significantly more fraught than it should be for a girl with covid antibodies, ready access to pre- and post-trip testing, and her boss’s blessing to self-quarantine and work from home the required two weeks after traveling to another state that isn’t a current epicenter but isn’t quite in our regional “travel bubble” either. In hindsight, maybe our trip will be for a short enough time I shouldn’t have said a damn thing to anyone in Hell about why we’ll (presumably) be out of cell phone range for a period while traveling, but did I mention that my equally old habit of fearing to ever be out of phone contact is also hard to break in a pandemic? And, thus, I defaulted to “business” as usual?
My Partner and I have connections via mutual friends to someone who has their own sailboat and has offered to teach us to sail as part of our mini vacation. No need to contribute to the cost of the trip beyond providing a physically adept and willing deckhand to help out with manning the, uh, I’m going to say ‘rigging’? Whatever one “mans” on a fancy sailboat, at least! (That ‘physically adept and willing’ crew mate will be my Partner, of course, while I chill out with a fizzy water and a cane because being a zebra means I am not “physically adept” at anything!)
I have been reminded this entire week that my “responsibility” as a “good” family member is to come to Hell and remain there, working remotely, for as long as it takes until it is safe for my high-risk “family” to emerge. My duty is to be there for my family at all costs. Yet – just like I have always chosen myself over my family ever since I first moved away from Hell – accepting an invitation to go sailing while being so indifferent to Silent Night’s well-being is further proof that I really am as selfish as they have always claimed. It’s further proof that I don’t care about anyone but myself. I’ve always just been “pretending” that Hell was abusive to avoid taking the responsibility for my family that “any normal person” would. (My Partner, for those wondering, has been dismissed in all of this as, “You two deserve each other. He’s just as selfish as you are, so it’s good you two found each other so no one else has to deal with your toxicity.”)
Did I mention I absolutely would go back to the 9th Circle of Hell if either my sibling or Silent Night caught covid? In a heartbeat? Even though most of the time I wish I never had to speak to Silent Night again, I don’t actually wish to see them fall victim to those very foolish threats they so wish to lay at my feet. And, I wouldn’t trust that god-forsaken state to provide proper care to either of them in a pandemic unless I was there to scream at the hospital directly. (I mean, I’ve already had to do so in the past. Why would a pandemic somehow provide better care?) So, of course, I would go.
But, did I also mention that neither of them is actually sick? So, isn’t there is no reason why my Partner and I shouldn’t be able to take a long weekend sailing without having an abusive family member that we literally have on record confessing to turning a blind eye to my own childhood abuse deciding to threaten to catch covid-19 just to prove what a horrible person I am?
In 2018, I still felt more sympathetic to Silent Night’s own childhood ACES, untreated mental health problems and shared fear of Hell’s broken social services as justification and excuse for their poor treatment of me than either my Partner or Therapist thought was healthy. In 2018, I still felt like the fact that Silent Night was an ally against that broken system for Sibling – even if never an ally to me – meant that I should attempt a relationship beyond just coordinating Sibling’s care. In 2018, I still felt like I actually was the cause of a lot of my family’s more erratic past and present behavior because I had failed them, instead of just that I had to clean up after those erratic decisions because there was no else to do so.
In 2020, I still have that inherent fear that if I don’t “manage” my family, horrible things will happen. But, for a Christmas in July with 100% more actual working on actual water, I’ve had 100% less public – or private – waterworks. I don’t know how to break those old family dynamics that forever lead me to fall back into the roll of family clean-up crew. But, it seems a little clearer that “shame” is maybe not the appropriate emotion I need to be feeling over my designated family role.
Wish us a few days of outdoor, socially distant waterworks free from Hell somehow tainting it all for us.
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out my Glossary of Terms