Family estrangement and the holidays

TW: family abuse, estrangement, mental health, emotional abuse, abuse 

When you’re estranged from your family, there are certain times of year that can really suck, like birthdays, Mother’s/Father’s Day, high days and holidays. Any day when family traditionally gathers to exchange gifts, eat food and hang out can become a gaping chasm in your life once you split from family. But what do you do on birthdays when the people who are supposed to care the most aren’t around to celebrate? Who do you spend Christmas with? How do you get festive if there’s no one to share it with?

It doesn’t matter if you’re formally estranged from family or not. Maybe you just have really crappy relatives who treat you like shit, so you distance yourself but not break completely away. Maybe some of your closest family live very far away, or aren’t living any more. If you find high days and holidays difficult to deal with because you don’t have the traditional family setup, this blog is for you.

I’ve been estranged from my parents for nearly four years. You might judge me badly when I say that they have been some of the happiest, calmest and most liberating four years of my life, but that’s fine. You don’t know the whole story, and I don’t need to justify my reasons for cutting them out of my life. I did what is right for me, and I don’t have any regrets.

That said, it’s not been an easy road. The early days were tough, and when people are accustomed to being able to pull emotionally manipulative shit on you, it takes a while for that to stop tugging on your heart strings. Liberal use of the block function helps. A year of firsts go by, and things get easier. Once you’ve done one birthday, parent’s day and festive period without them in your life, you know you can cope. You can survive. It’s just a day. Tomorrow will be easier.

But I refused to spend the rest of my life feeling moments of sadness, loneliness and grief on birthdays, Christmas and such every time I remembered they weren’t a part of it. My worth and value as a person is not related to my parents’ view of me, and I no longer need to tolerate their abusive behaviour just to avoid the pain and grief of separation. There are other loving relationships in my life to have and to cherish.

After a year or so of just holing up and riding the day out for fear of being upset in public or ruining a social event, it was time to forge my own way of celebrating things. Christmas is one of my favourite times of year, because I am a big kid at heart. So I began to hold as many festive celebrations in December as I could – seeing friends, my siblings and in laws. Drinking in the loving family and friend connections I had, and seeing how they were joyous compared to the stressful and toxic environment of parent-dominated situations of the past.

I am very lucky that I have partners, friends, siblings and in-laws to count as family. Chosen  family – and that’s the key difference. Because I know I can cope spending celebration days alone, I have a choice. I am no longer bound by duty or obligation to attend anything, I no longer act out of fear of being alone. I never have to stay in a toxic environment ever, ever again, because I know I have the strength to walk away, at whatever cost.

This year I’m spending Christmas at home, with the husband, the cat and my sister in law, who is coming to us for the first Christmas away from home. We’re going to open some presents, take a flask of tea and walk round our park, then come back home for a delicious, non-traditional Christmas dinner and play board games. I’m thankful that I have this, and that I’m at a place where this feels like a genuine celebration, and not a runner up prize. I’m grateful to have people in my life that are chosen family.

If you’re estranged or have shitty family and are dreading the holidays, here’s some ideas for you to survive the festive period:

  • If you’d rather hole up and be alone, that’s totally cool. Do what feels right for you at the present. Self care, do whatever makes you happiest and relaxed. Get some fancy M&S ready meal for yourself, rent a movie you’ve never seen, go for a walk with some awesome music and just enjoy the solitude and lack of expectations on you.
  • Organise an outing or festive celebration if you’re a part of a social group. Could be a works outing/dinner, a society you’re a part of, a club, anything! Any gathering of people with a mutual interest plus any excuse to go do something fun.
  • Escape for a mini-break or longer, if you have the resources and beans to do so. It could be a couple of days in a hostel in the Dales, or it could be a week in Thailand. Choose your own adventure. Get away from the tinsel, the sprouts and the never ending loop of Mariah Carey.
  • If you’re wanting to spend time with folks, ask around your friends or extended circle to see who is holding more informal or open invite festivities. Many of us without the ‘traditional’ family set up have some kind of waifs and strays thing for folks who don’t have anywhere nice to go.
  • Volunteer at one of the many, many good works organisations in your local area. Maybe you want to help dish out food to the homeless and needy? Maybe you want to go hand out cards and small presents at your local care home? Maybe you can spare a few hours for your local food bank? Helping others is a fantastic way to feel valued and worthwhile at a time you could otherwise feel invisible.
  • Consider starting your own event if you have the resources and space to hold something. You’d be amazed at how many people don’t  want to go to their families, never mind those who can’t. Maybe you have other friends who just don’t enjoy being at the parentals any more, or whose folks live too far away. Whatever the reason, you can totally surround yourself with people if you want to. Create your own festive tradition.

However you spend the festive period this year, I hope you have a happy one. If this is your first year estranged, know you are loved. Every estranged person in the world will think of you at some point and wish you well. If you struggle, know that it will pass. Normalcy will resume. Balance will be restored. Things won’t feel quite so bleak. You’re not alone.

Sending you all love, support and solidarity