Keeping track of it all
Last weekend I was at a Christmas party at the home of a couple who have two children with special needs. Stephanie, age 7, was born with only one hand. Christopher, age 5, has Down Syndrome.
The parents warmly greeted their guests. You could see exhaustion in their eyes, and yet here they were hosting a party with homemade soup and a bounce house. Their home was beautifully decorated for the holidays. Set off in one corner of the dining room was a ceramic manger scene, with a tiny shepherd’s arm and the head of a wise man carefully placed just on the perimeter.
We all know – in our own way – how hard it is to keep track of one tiny arm and an even-smaller head. And yet, this couple had done it. But not without a cost.
The father was stressed about work. The mother was even more stressed at home. A few days before the party, thinking she was having a heart attack, she had asked Stephanie to call 911. The paramedics said she was suffering a full-blown panic attack. “It was the holidays,” she said. “Trying to do Christmas has sent me over the edge.”
Sitting in traffic last night, I thought about this couple. I am a holiday procrastinator and I had spent hours in stores, trying to “do Christmas” in one fell swoop. Crowds and last-minute sales and holiday music and hundreds of dollars later, I was in my car exhausted and spent – literally and figuratively. I now had bags of new stuff and a growing certainty that it was not the right stuff.
I thought about the tiny arm and head and the couple who are trying to keep track of them. I thought of the many friends and family I have whose lives feel just-this-side of out of control. We all seem to have our collective breath held, waiting for the other shoe to drop. For many of us, the holidays can feel like that long-awaited shoe.
“We have to find a wiser way to live,” says Jack Kornfield, the Buddhist monk.
Tending our lines
This pace we keep – not just at the holidays, but every day – is not sustainable. We are operating on the expectation that we can deliver joy and completeness to others, and in doing so we rob ourselves of those very things. As someone shared in a meeting recently, “We cannot give to others what we do not have to give.”
What I need in my life – what my family needs – is not going to be found under a Christmas tree or inside a gift box. And teaching my children to look in those places for anything of importance is the worst kind of lesson. A few months ago, I drew a very deep line between myself and a multi-generational legacy of family addiction. “It stops with me,” I said. “No more.” Since that day, I have done my best to constantly tend to that line, making it deeper and stronger, defending myself and my family against the Addiction of More in all of its incarnations.
I don’t know what your life looks like. I don’t know what tiny arms and heads you are trying to keep track of. But I do know that in order to do that, we must first tend to our lines – practice “radical self-care” – no matter what. Maybe that means we leave the New Year’s party early or we don’t go at all. Maybe it means we go for a walk alone or take a nap while visiting the in laws, despite how that is interpreted by others. Maybe we return all that stuff we got from Target and start cleaning out our closets. Or perhaps it means we finally surrender to hard truths about our drinking or our relationships. Whatever it is, you will know it for yourself. Trust your voice. Follow it through to the next right thing. And be the bringer of peace to you and yours.
Erin W. is the managing editor and lead writer for the She Recovers blog. She lives in Virginia where she has been working on and blogging about recovery since 2013. After years of trying to do recovery alone, she discovered the beauty of connection and friendship through She Recovers in 2017.