Emotional anniversaries like Christmas can be a risky business because they open the portal to memories, conscious and/or unconscious. The sadness’s and losses and loves that are an inevitable part of life, and which I have spent a large chunk of my life avoiding, begin lining up at the opening and jostling for attention.
My memories of childhood are hazy. And times of celebration even hazier. I was an anxious child. I can’t recall ever having a birthday party even though I know I would have had a fuss made of me on the anniversary of my birth. On the designated anniversary of Christ’s birth I have more conscious memories. Not sharply in focus, more feelings , such as the terror and shame of being forced to participate in the school nativity play in front of parents and nuns and priests. The transcendant beauty of the choir singing Silent Night Holy Night, the smell of beeswax candles and incense and lilies at Midnight Mass. The old man in the red suit with the flying reindeer. The confusing Christmas card images of snow and holly and robin redbreasts juxtaposing with the scenes of the donkey carrying the family to sandy Bethlehem and the green and sunny days in Milton. Waking up on the day to the pillowcase filled with gifts at the end of my bed and the oranges therein. My parents standing there smiling as I unwrapped the presents.
One that does come into full technicolour focus is the year I received a gleaming red and white tricycle. It was a ‘chain trike’ and had a lovely wee white basket in front. And a shiny silver bell. It was flash. How old was I? Old enough to reach the pedals. It was love at first sight and at first cautiously then more confidently, I rode it up and down and around the concrete paths at home. Past the flower gardens, through the opening in the hedge and past the line of gooseberries where the rows of vegetables grew, past the hen house and glasshouse. Back and forth. As I got familiar with traversing the territory on three wheels, the trike became part of me. Together we could do anything, so we branched out the front gate and turned left onto the unpaved footpaths of Johnson Street.I was free.
Then there was the Christmas when I was five. It was a time of anticipated celebration, not just about Christmas. The Queen of England and her Prince were visiting New Zealand. They were coming to Milton a couple of days after Christmas and she was going to stop and speak to us from a stage erected for the occasion and festooned with bunting, on the forecourt of a local garage in the aptly named Queen Street. The local school children, in full uniform, were to be herded in orderly lines on either side of the street to wave at her with Union Jacks. We had been practicing, all of us, the townspeople and dignitaries, including the Mayor and his Lady Wife. Excitement was running high, children and adults alike. First Santa was coming then we were going to see a Queen. Would she be wearing a crown and her velvet ermine trimmed cloak and holding that gold thing with the ball on the end that I saw pictures of in the “Weekly News” my mother used to get from the stationers.
I woke into that Christmas morning and my parents were unusually subdued. Something terrible had happened after I had gone to sleep. They told me there was a train in the North Island full of people travelling home to be with their families for Christmas and it had somehow fallen into a big river and lots of people had died. They didn’t know how many. There were news reports on the wireless and the adults kept talking about it all day. The disbelief and grief was palpable. I was terrified. If a train, that safest form of transport in my eyes, could just fall into a river, then anything could happen. That night I dreamed for the first time of brightly lit carriages full of children and men and women, silently sitting in their seats as the water rose up their bodies and the train slowly sank into the river.
In 1974 I was in England with my partner Chris and my two year old daughter, Alissa. We had left Australia the year before, travelling across Asia then into the UK. We’d been living in Windsor for several months and looking forward to going back to Darwin on Boxing Day after spending Christmas in Gloucester with his parents. Always an uneasy time for me, being with the partners parents. I knew I wasn’t ‘good enough’ for their son. I came into the sitting room on Christmas morning. The TV was on and there were images of blue skies and broken buildings, houses maybe, hard to tell. The commentator had an Australian accent. Chris was there and as he reached for me I became aware we were looking at the main street in Darwin, Smith Street. The guy on the TV was saying a Cyclone named Tracy had come through late on Christmas Eve and devastated the city. People had been killed and injured. The extent of the damage was not known. For Christs sake! Our beloved crazy Darwin. What about our friends, my wee dog, our house in Queen Street, my photos?? What about us, our plans? Having a drug habit meant spontaneity was out of the question – every travel move had to be carefully orchestrated, taking the getting and using into consideration. And the income? We had 1000 tabs of California Sunshine ready to take back to sell. It was all arranged. The commentator was saying people were being evacuated out of Darwin and the airport would be closed for the foreseeable future so that was that.
And the times in the 80’s, the ones I’d rather forget, when I made a right tit of myself at family gatherings. Each Christmas I told myself I was going to do it differently this time. Take the right amount of drugs to be ‘normal,’ so they wouldnt spot I was not good enough. I would be on my best behaviour with the wider family and wait until the festivities were over, the duty done, before I got home and got hammered. But no, there I was again, nodding off at the table with a post prandial cigarette and burning a hole in the linen tablecloth. Oh the shame. And one awful year I nodded off (people used to smoke inside in those days) on the parents-in-law’s lovely couch and burned a hole there. Full of self-hatred and shame and terrified of discovery, I hid the evidence with a cushion, told no-one and pretended it had never happened. It was never spoken of.
My first Christmas in recovery was a big deal. I was scared. How do you do this shit straight? What if I wasn’t able to help myself and I used? Everyone used something at this time of year for fucks sake! I wanted to leave town until it was all over. I also wanted to celebrate Christmas with my daughters and partner. A family Christmas. Our first one where I wouldn’t be an embarrassment. Thankfully, I had some friends who were also new to recovery and they were scared too so we decided to have Christmas together. To cook and eat, to get over ourselves and have a nice time with our kids. And we did it. Turkey, crackers, laughter and some tears, cherries, bad jokes, sunshine and Pavlova. Together, we negotiated our way through the emotional land mines, the ghosts of Christmas past, without picking up a mood altering substance. We got through that first one without harming ourselves or others.Thank the baby lord Jesus.
I didnt know about emotional anniversaries in those days. I didnt know what the hell was going on, only, in the latter years, as Christmas approached, I knew I would begin sliding into a black hole and the drugs didnt help any more. Terrifying times. I didnt know that being aware of the feelings as they arose and taking tender care of them was the wise action. The years have gone by and anniversaries bring what they bring. I’m able to be present to and not engulfed in the feelings. They come, they go. I’m okay. I woke up into this Christmas Day morning at ease with my self and knowing I do belong. I’d stayed the night in Thames with my beloved family. We hugged and exchanged gifts and ate, and later, as I was driving back to Auckland on the quiet Christmas roads, I reflected on the changes that have taken and continue to take place. I can give and receive love. I have enough. I am enough.
May we be well
May we be happy
May we live with ease