Finding Joy in Difficult Times
The Christmas I was thirteen my aunts challenged my brother and me to a sledding contest. Our elderly neighbors had a steep hill that they allowed us to sled on. I grabbed my favorite blue plastic sled, lay on my belly (obviously the most aero-dynamic and therefore fastest sledding strategy), and took off. My uncle and his new wife, my parents, and grandparents watched as we flew down the hill and trudged back up in the snow. My grandparents' and our two Golden Retrievers joined us for the fun.
We'd had a few practice runs and were ready for the face-off. My brother had the red sled and my aunts were on inflatable tubes. Mom counted down and off we went. I was flying, way ahead of everybody else, when my grandmother's dog, Meg, came barreling up the hill towards me. I figured she'd get out of the way when I got close. She didn't. We collided head-on and both went tumbling in a flurry of snow. My hat had flown off, I had snow down my loose snowpants, and my nose gushed blood onto the white snow. My aunt dubbed my sled "Bloody Blue." The race was called off and we went inside, where everybody else had cocoa and cookies and I stuffed tissues up my nose.
I stayed inside the rest of the day, and decided I wanted to go to church for the midnight caroling. We weren't churchgoers; my mom had taken us to Sunday school in the Episcopal church a few times when we were younger, because she wanted to support the first female pastor (or do they call them priests?) and I had starred as Mary in the Christmas pageant for three years in a row, but that was about the extent of it. So I think everybody was surprised that I wanted to go to the Christmas Eve service to sing. Singing was one of the few things I loved that I could still do reasonably well; hockey and snowboarding had become difficult, even painful, especially since I was always cold.
No one else wanted to go to church, so my uncle's wife, my new aunt, took me. We made it through a few verses of "God Bless Ye Merry Gentlemen" before the blood came again. It poured from my nose down my face and I had to clutch my nose to control it. My aunt took my free hand and led me downstairs to the Sunday school room and handed me wadded-up toilet paper to stop the bleeding. I tilted my head back to staunch the flow and we sat on child-sized chairs while "Silent Night" sounded above.
It had been a difficult year for all of us and (I was convinced) it was my fault. "I have ulcers because of all of this!" my dad had accused recently, as I bawled (everything set me off those days). "Look at what you're doing to us!" He didn't realize that this blame game made me feel a thousand times worse, that my troubled self had made things difficult for my family who, for some reason, still loved me. I didn't feel worthy of love, worthy of food, worthy of existing.
I had lost more than 20 pounds the first two months of eighth grade and didn't have 20 pounds to lose. Like my mom, I had always been slender, but, a few months before, the mirror started showing a monster. I couldn't stand how disgusting I looked and felt. I felt worthless. How could anyone love me? I stopped eating snacks, then breakfast, then lunch, then tried to eat 100 calories or less a day. I didn't need anything, I was sure, couldn't possibly gorge myself on Christmas cookies while people starved all over the world. I didn't deserve everything I had, and hated myself for being ungrateful. I hated myself for a lot of things.
I'd been released from the teen psychiatric ward at a state hospital two-and-a-half hours from home about a month before Christmas, just in time to force down Thanksgiving dinner. I'd gained four pounds in the week I'd spent in the hospital (now over 80 lbs), and the doctors believed I'd continue to improve at home. I didn't. Every meal was a battle and I regularly ignored the diet the nutritionist at the hospital had created. My parents constantly threatened to not let me do things like play hockey games or go snowboarding, saying I was running on fumes and had to fuel myself to be able to work out. I would sneak in runs in the freezing cold before dawn, do a hundred crunches in my room after eating a piece of cheese. Teachers were monitoring me eating (or, more frequently, not eating) in the cafeteria and, after repeated reports of refusing to eat my lunch, my parents began taking turns eating lunch with me in the principal's office. It was humiliating, but I felt I couldn't do anything to stop this dark force taking over me. I didn't yet have words for the thing that felt wrong in me - depression, bipolar disorder. Those words would come later. What I was left with was overwhelming feelings of self-hatred and guilt. I couldn't engage in anything, but, that Christmas, for the first time in months, I actually wanted to go out in public, be around people, to sing.
I felt bad that my aunt had to spend most of the service with me in the church basement, watching me bleed. I'd ruined Christmas. I was convinced my family would be better off without me.
Despite the torturous past few months, Christmas had finally given me something to look forward to. It wasn't the presents (for which I knew I would feel guilty since I had so much and didn't really need anything), or the cookies I helped Mom make and usually ate, though didn't this year. The lights, the music, the movies; it was a source of joy in an otherwise dark time. Despite the nose-bleed incident, Christmas came the next morning with my younger brother bouncing on my bed to wake me up before dawn to open our stockings. On Christmas day, I ate Mom's toffee bars - my favorite - and mashed potatoes and cheddar cheese, things I wouldn't dare touch most days.
And so now, nearly 20 years later, in one of the universally worst years in history, I once again turn to the joy of the holiday season to bring a little light in the darkness. I've thrown myself into decorating the tree and shopping and wrapping presents and making cookies and watching old Christmas movies. It's given me something to look forward to in a year where everything's been cancelled, where seeing family and friends is out of the question, when all we have is each other and Home Alone.
So, whether/whatever you celebrate, I hope the season brings you some joy in a difficult year. This year, there will be no midnight caroling sessions, but my brother and I did record ourselves for a special Christmas surprise. I can still sing, however badly. I can appreciate the small things, peanut butter balls and stockings and winning at Rumikub (and losing at Scrabble). I am grateful for my husband, my companion in this otherwise-lonely pandemic, for the family I can only see from a distance this Christmas, for my friends' and my dress-up Zoom Christmas party. And I hope that you can find small things to look forward to and be grateful for, joy in a difficult time. Happy Everything!