image credit: Virgie Tovar via Instagram
I used to watch movies like "Mixed Nuts" and "Christmas Vacation" with a kind of biblical zeal. If Chevy Chase is telling me it’s funny that family members loathe each other, have no boundaries and experience screaming meltdowns then it must be true! I finally had to admit to myself that these were romantic cinematic renderings meant to naturalize an emotionally damaging reality so many of us deal with. Dysfunctional families are not funny, quirky and ultimately harmless for many people who grew up in them.
Today I’ll be heading to my friend’s place in Bernal Heights for the second year in a row to attend his Friendsgiving celebration — a practice I’d heard about years ago and contemplated jealously while descending into despair in the lead-up to my family’s Turkey Day.
The friends I knew who spend the holiday away from blood relatives were mostly people whose families lived thousands of miles away. My family lives about twenty miles away, and I didn’t think a family defector like me had any right to have nice things like a meal with people who didn’t trigger me into full-on regression.
This is the two-year anniversary of coming out to my friends about opting out of communication (and consequently all holidays) with my family of origin. It’s a vulnerable share because it’s a taboo decision — especially when you’re a woman of color. Unless your family does 1 of roughly 3 heinous, socially-sanctioned-acts-of-abuse-worthy-of-family-abandonment, you’re kind of on your own in convincing yourself that bad stuff happened and that it was traumatic enough to justify a big, life-altering action.
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For years I white-knuckled the celebration of this (albeit totally shitty in every imaginable way) holiday. Thanksgiving morning began with a sinking sense of all-encompassing dread, followed by the feeling that I was metaphorically dragging my 5-year old self kicking and screaming across the Bay Bridge back to my childhood home. All the while I’d try to steel myself against the experience by imagining every possible bad outcome:
What horrible thing is going to happen this year? Is my aunt going to touch me or someone else inappropriately or make sexual innuendo? What terrible thing is my mother going to say to my aunt about her internet boyfriend who steals chicken from my grandparents’ garage freezer in the middle of the night? Is my grandfather going to lose his damn mind and call my grandmother a “donkey” and then insist that they love each other when I ask him to stop? Am I going to babble and overshare compulsively in hopes of doing literally anything to avoid the implicating silence that reminds us that this is a shit show? Am I going to leave in tears and need to process for four hours with one of my friends afterwards?
Sharing this day with friends has taught me a powerful lesson that changed the tradition I’d learned from my family. It taught me that I can come together intentionally with a group of people and feel good:
First, I don’t feel dread when I think about going to Friendsgiving.
Second, I feel safe while I’m there. I don’t feel like anyone is going to be volatile or hurtful, and if someone were to do something inappropriate it would be addressed and reconciled in the moment.
Third, I’m encouraged to take care of myself and prioritize my needs. I’m not pressured to stay longer than I want, and I don’t feel guilt when I need to step away from the festivities and get some air.
Fourth, I don’t need to process (or cry hysterically) after the meal because I don’t feel gaslit. My family’s insistence that our toxic dynamic was totally normal always left me feeling like I was over-reacting.
It took a long time to feel like I deserved to have something better than what I grew up with. Honestly, I don’t particularly like the holidays, but getting to spend them with friends helps me feel supported in the midst of a time year characterized by unending nuclear family propaganda. Prioritizing my safety and joy by spending Thanksgiving with friends allows me to interrupt the toxic pattern my family created for me and reimagine a future on my own terms — and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.