You Can Love Your Enemies, But You Don’t Have to Invite Them to Dinner.

The holidays can be complicated for adult children from dysfunctional families.


When parents abuse, neglect, or otherwise injure their children through exposure to conflict and parental misbehavior, and force children to protect the “family secrets,” those children develop a host of disorders. Bulimia, anorexia, fire setting, self-destructive behaviors, personality disorders, substance abuse, anger issues, criminal activity, phobias, PTSD, depression–the list is long and exhausting.


Recovery from those conditions is also a long, exhausting, and frequently painful ordeal. Encounters with toxic birth families can cause setbacks and slow the process even more.

Toxic families of origin pose very real dangers to survivors of child abuse, whatever age they might be. Well-meaning people, even therapists (who should know better), may be oblivious to those dangers. Adult survivors of child abuse may be urged to “make amends” with their abusers, to “reconcile,” to “clear the air” with these people who injured them so badly.

Do not approach…back away slowly…

Logically, of course, it doesn’t make sense. The kind of person who would harm an innocent child, a sweet, helpless, adorable little person who only wants to love and be loved, is definitely the kind of person who will, given the opportunity, abuse an adult. The parents, and various other toxic family members, know the former child so well that they have no trouble selecting his or her vulnerable spots. They will be able to inflict severe mental, emotional and/or physical pain.

The holidays can be particularly rough, with their emphasis on families. Conflicted survivors may find themselves lured into horrific situations by their former abusers and family members. It is normal to long for the love and respect denied you as a child. It is normal to desperately want a family to love, and to know they love you in return. But if you are still in contact with your toxic family members and live in hope of a future that never materializes, why not do something nice this year for someone who will actually appreciate it? Why not do something nice for YOU, for a change?


You deserve to be treated with love and respect. Searching for love and respect in a toxic family, though, is like searching for a delicious holiday meal in a dumpster.

This year, instead of reaching out to toxic family members and re-experiencing the abuse you suffered as a child, why not cut yourself free? Why not celebrate with those who truly care about you? Even if the only friend you have in the world is a goldfish, it is 100% certain that goldfish will be kinder, more pleasant, and vastly better company during the holidays than a toxic family. And good news for those who are frowning at the screen because they don’t even have a goldfish–the pet stores are running holiday sales right now on aquariums and supplies.



Christmas Started It, I Swear.

It is impossible to forget about or skip Christmas. It doesn’t matter how hard you try.


Once August hits, the craft stores load up on green, red and gold supplies and ornaments and pre-decorated trees. By October, all the stores have joined in the Christmas extravaganza, and glittery stuff and pretty lights and overpriced bizarre gifts crowd the aisles. The entire month of November is pretty much a run-up to Christmas now, with Christmas radio stations in full swing and Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales flyers showing up in mailboxes (both email and USPS) weeks in advance.

I didn’t always hate Christmas. It forced the issue, and it threw the first punch.

When I was a child, Christmas was the best day of my year. Any impossible present dream could be realized with a letter to a magic elf. The world outside and the world in the television set both became more beautiful, covered in twinkling lights and gorgeous decorations, and a sense of wonder and peace was everywhere. Gorging oneself on cookies and candy and pie was not only allowed, but encouraged–lucky children might even get to help Mom or Grandma make the treats themselves! Seldom-seen family members and friends appeared and slept on couches or in sleeping bags in the living room. Christmas had its own movies, its own music, its own mythos.

nativity clear

It wasn’t just a special day, it was a sacred day. Christ-centered carols were sung, and a baby in a manger remembered. Even church was affected, and there were parties and devotionals. The sacrament meeting closest to Christmas was very short, which endeared it to my child self.

At least once, I’d find myself sitting quietly, usually near the Christmas tree, and I’d feel what everyone called “The Christmas Spirit,” which was mostly the Holy Ghost, but also something additional, some magic peculiar to the season. And I’d be so happy.

I would have loved for those days to go on forever, but they didn’t.

It wasn’t one thing that ruined Christmas for me, it was many things. My father abandoned his family for several months when I was a young adult, leaving Mom with almost no money for Christmas; if not for food storage and kind, anonymous people, it would have been a hungry Christmas, too. Christmas morning we were treated to the sight of our mother in tears; Dad had sent expensive gifts for each child, and she could afford only a few small things. I felt sick as I empathized with her pain, and seethed with anger for my father.

I thought when I married and had my own little family to make Christmas for, things would be different. We didn’t have much money that first Christmas, but we were creative with what we had. Newlyweds are always poor, we told each other. It’ll get better.


Only it didn’t. A couple years in a row, Jim’s employer (and sadistic father, unfortunately) made sure not to pay him for several weeks before Christmas, so that we’d have no money for presents, or even a nice dinner. Christmas was the time of year we took treasured things to the pawn shop, and hoped we’d be paid in time to rescue them. Christmas was the time we had to accept offers to buy things (like Jim’s cherished ’68 Olds) we didn’t wish to sell, in order to pay the gas and electric bills. And when we caught on to the sadistic routine and tried to save money in advance, well, winter was still the time of year when, inevitably, the car would break down, or our child would get sick, and need a doctor’s visit and an antibiotic which we couldn’t afford–unless we spent the meager amount we’d managed to save for Christmas.

I found myself feeling horrible things at Christmastime–anger towards my father-in-law, frustration with the impossible job market, desperation when I looked at my little girl, who was filled to the brim with hope for Christmas presents, treats and a decorated tree by an overwhelming cultural force I could not contain nor protect her from. I could not deny the existence of Santa with everyone around her asking if she’d sent her letter, if she’d been a good girl, what she wanted for Christmas. She knew what was supposed to happen at Christmastime. And of course we wanted to provide everything for her, and it killed us when we couldn’t.

Most of the Christmas presents were homemade out of scrap materials and found items by my very inexperienced and inadequate hands. A $10 check from a cousin once provided us with money to buy a couple of presents, just in time. We swallowed our pride one year and went on food stamps to provide Christmas dinner and treats. And of course, as the youngest family, we were  expected to travel out-of-state to visit our parents, and scraping together the gas money was a misery in itself. Eventually, we stopped visiting them altogether. It was too hard; they had more resources than we did, and could visit us. It turned out we were wrong, though, and the road didn’t go both ways.

How I grew to hate Christmas. When you live at a subsistence level, every extra expense is a tribulation. Just like doctor’s visits and car repairs, Christmas came like a thief each year and stole whatever savings we’d been able to set aside.

But WORST OF ALL, I was completely unable to feel the elusive Christmas Spirit. The magic and wonder and gratitude of the season were gone.


Our finances improved over time, but no matter how I tried, I could never turn our home into a beautiful Christmas Wonderland. We didn’t have money for nice decorations, and the cheap ones fell apart. We’d learned to dislike Christmas music, which was mainly NOT about Christ anyway. The baking and the sewing and the shopping were exhausting, and I always felt inadequate to the task of creating Christmas for my children. Nothing ever turned out the way I wanted it to. I couldn’t even do something as simple as put tinsel on the tree, because the kids and pets would eat it!

But every year, I tried. Every year, I thought, maybe things can be different. Maybe this year, the magic will come back. Every year, I hoped I’d feel that special warm glow. And every year, I was disappointed, and all the work and effort seemed to matter little.

Then at last came the year that I knew the bad luck that haunted us every Christmas was no accident.

I had bought a wreath that year; nothing fancy, just a little grape vine wreath with holly and a plastic poinsettia on it.  I hung it by the front door. Look at me, I thought, extending the olive branch.  Befriending the season.  Meeting it halfway.


The next day, when my family and I returned home from shopping, I noticed an extra decoration on my wreath.

I looked at the wreath, playing ‘what’s wrong with this picture,’ and thought, “I was sure I didn’t buy the wreath with the bird on it.” Well, I hadn’t.  A sparrow had chosen to depart for the heavenly aviary in the sky while sitting atop my wreath.  The feathered corpse hung by one foot from the grape vine, dangling inside my Christmas peace offering.

“You know,” I said out loud, possibly to Christmas, “If I’d wanted the wreath with the bird, I would have bought the wreath with the bird.”

Then I laughed until my sides ached, because good grief, Christmas hates me back.

How many people can say Christmas hates them so much, it gave them the bird?

My biggest beef with Christmas, however, doesn’t involve crude gestures like the one Christmas made with the wreath. It involves the tiny shred of hope I CANNOT KILL that rises every year in response to the carols, and the lights, and the lovely Nativity sets, the hope that says, maybe this year, things will be different. Maybe the magic will come back.


And it never is, and it never does, and Christmas is always a bitter disappointment, and I cry through part of it, and sulk through the rest. I LOVE December the 26th, because the next Christmas is a whole year away.

This year, we’re decorating strictly with Pokemon figures and ornaments and pictures. Forget Christmas? It won’t let us. Focus on something we like better? Oh, yes, that we can do.

Wish us luck.