Holiday times such as Easter, Christmas, bank holidays and mid-August have always been difficult times for me. They are reminders that I have no family and am alone in the world. They are full of painful memories too. I see the messages on Facebook. I receive the cards. They all say “Happy ...” I really appreciate the thought behind the sending of the card and the person who sent it to me.
But for me the “Happy ...” sentiments ring hollow and I find it all rather hard to enter into. Decorations in the shops, adverts on the TV, hearing the plans of friends all add to my feelings of unease and isolation. They are culturally special occasions when family members gather for fun times together.
In my family at holiday times we were forced to wear a false fixed smile. We were forced to pretend we were a happy family doing normal family things together. There would be special trips out planned. Sounds like fun doesn’t it? It wasn’t! Certain clothes would be chosen for me to wear. I had no choice over what I wore. They were usually ill-fitting unflattering clothes which did not suit me. I had to present the image that was chosen for me. That image included the mandatory “look happy even if actually you’re desperately unhappy and want to die”, which I often did feel like.
I have memories of trips out which give me the appearance in my memory of doing normal family things. Such memories cause enormous confusion for me. On one hand we appeared to do normal family things but the reality was very different.
We would go on the planned trip wearing fixed smiles pretending to have a good time. We pretended to enjoy ourselves. We pretended to be celebrating on the outside, but it was all shallow. It was all for show, just like everything else in the family. For a short while I might forget we were pretending and actually begin to enjoy whatever we were doing but then there was tension in the air. I wasn’t allowed to enjoy myself you see and was quickly squashed on. There would be looks or comments that meant I was in for it when I got home but I didn’t know why I was in for it because I didn’t think I’d done or said anything wrong. Sometimes if they thought I was enjoying myself too much the trip was brought to an abrupt end and we went straight home. I was told I’d spoiled the entire day by my behaviour and beaten for my perceived sins.
You see it was all about presenting an image to the world of a happy smiley family regardless of what people within that family unit really felt like but you weren’t allowed to actually enjoy yourself.
The repercussions were huge. The beatings were always worse on these days. It was as if you were not allowed special days with special trips without paying for them in some way.
As an adult I’ve tried hard to recreate these holiday times for myself. I try hard to look forward to holiday times but to be honest I dread them because with the best of intentions they trigger memories that are hidden away the rest of the year.
Memories of family outings that began well but always inevitably ended horribly. Memories of special meals forced down me until I choked and vomited then was banned from the table so I starved while the rest of the family feasted. Often I was also banned from the house with an empty stomach for that. Memories of looking in bins for scraps of food. Memories of feeling totally invisible. Memories of feeling so horribly alone. Memories of wandering the streets looking in windows of houses where families were watching TV or enjoying activities together. It all made me feel utterly miserable. In the end I felt so miserable I couldn’t bear wandering the streets so I’d find somewhere to hide instead.
All I wanted for those days to end and get back to ‘normal’. That sounds crazy doesn’t it because ‘normal’ just meant more abuse. Problem was the pressure and tension of those holiday days was immense. I always hoped this particular holiday, Easter, Christmas, bank holiday would be different that it would be happy. But that never happened instead the day or holiday in question was always darkened by the painful reality of abuse but to no avail, they never lived up to expectations, always disappointing.
In recent years I’ve managed to transform Christmas by going away and having a fun times but even then those trips are over-shadowed by hurt and reminders, memories that are revived just by the fact that it is Christmas. It is the same with Easter.
As a child less fuss was made of Easter than of Christmas. However, my parents made much ado about the religious importance of the festival. It was our Christian duty to be in church at everything from Palm Sunday to Easter Day. Again particular ill-fitting unflattering clothes would be chosen to be worn to each church service. I had to wear a suitably solemn face because Easter was such a “very solemn religious occasion”. Easter Sunday after church we had trip somewhere always followed by a beating and then thrown out of the house for the remainder of the day to walk the streets just like at Christmas. And similarly, like at Christmas, I often had to spend the night out on the streets banned from the house if that was the punishment they decided to mete out.
I never received an Easter egg from my parents as a child at Easter. The only time I had an Easter egg was when I was given one by my godfather. I remember that Easter extremely vividly.
We visited my godparents and their children in Manchester and spent the day with them. My godfather gave me an Easter egg. It was only a few days later that he dropped dead from a heart attack and I was told never to speak his name again. That is why I remember it so clearly.
It was bizarre that for the rest of the year we did nothing as a family except going to church together and being seen to do that but at Easter, Christmas, bank holidays and for 2 weeks every summer we carried out this “happy families” charade. It just didn’t make sense. But then nothing else in my childhood made any sense. Although I was with my family on those days we were 4 separate people pretending to do things together and it felt so wrong. I felt desperate and alone because there was also so much pressure to behave and speak in certain ways. There was so much underlying tension in the atmosphere. There were so many unwritten rules I had to follow. It was impossible!
The only other vivid memories I have of Easter involve rituals, church services, solemnity, more rituals and more church services and more solemnity. The pressure of presenting the image of being happy when inside I was crying and bleeding away longing for someone to see past the fixed smile and see my misery and pain was so tough. I see and feel the memories as if I am back there. The years roll back such is the vivid nature of them. I am triggered back to terrible times and dark places in my mind. There is no escaping the memories however hard I try to make holiday times now.
What also makes these days hard is that my friends are my family now but my friends have their own families. That means I’m still alone just like I was when I was a kid. I come up against that every single time. It’s one thing that is impossible to get around. That’s why I go away at Christmas but I cannot afford to go away during the rest of the year so I just try to make the best things.
I remember some Easters which weren’t so traumatic on the face of it but were still difficult. There is the Easter in 2000 during my second year at university that I remember in particular. When the Easter holidays began my flatmates all headed home. But I had no money and could not afford to go anywhere so I stayed at my university room all alone. The hall of residence I was in was empty, there was no-one around. I enjoyed watching every single match of the Snooker World Championship that year but food wise I had no money so could only afford to eat a handful of rice and a few bits of chicken each day.
As an adult I’ve been to many services over the Easter period. It’s hard to shake off what I was brainwashed with - to be solemn and suitably religious. Even going to church is full of reminders of how alone I am. Yes, church is about remembering what Easter is really about but coming home alone after Easter services was always excruciatingly painful. I would leave friends going out with their families for special meals and go home to a meal for one. Eating out alone at Easter is not a good option for me because who wants to go and eat alone surrounded by families eating together? That’s just too painful and triggering. Avoiding church may seem extreme but I just do not need reminding that I have no family and am alone.
I’ve tried to change the occasions into happier ones but can’t get away from the reminders whatever I do. To be honest whatever I do they’ve not really changed. It’s just like when I was a kid - impossible really. I know I’m going to have to employ strategies to survive them in one piece. I know I’m going to be triggered so I’m careful now to be very kind and gentle to myself. I deliberately don’t plan anything special. If I feel like doing anything or going anywhere then I will but if not then that’s ok. The latter is so important now because I had to do and go what and where I was told on these days as a child. It’s mega important for me to give myself the option to do absolutely nothing and to be ok with that.
So far this Easter I went out on Good Friday. I took myself down to the seafront but the beach was full of people, families, screaming whining children, bikes crowding the pathways, noise, busyness, children playing, running around, it was overwhelming. I had a peaceful few minutes sat in my favourite shelter watching the boats sailing by but when a family of 5 descended on my shelter together with bikes, 3 children and fish and chips I decided to move on. I realised all this was making me very tense and hyper vigilant and that I needed gentle handling. So I headed off to the estuary and my tree and had a quiet hour there until a group of 8, including 5 children with 2 of them in buggies plus bikes and a picnic sat down at the tree next to me. I decided enough was enough and headed home then. Being out and about amongst people proved counter-productive and was not doing me any good.
I had a lovely day on Saturday catching up with chores and watching the World Championship snooker on the TV.
Today I’m back to being hyper-vigilant and have not really slept. What is different this Easter is that I am writing. I have never written so much in such a short space of time. I hadn’t planned to write this, it just poured out of me, so I know it was meant to be written anyway. There is more snooker this afternoon and evening and I have a roast chicken meal for one in the freezer which I’m looking forward to.
So these are my musings this Easter. I am happy doing nothing, remembering and marking the spiritual significance of the occasion in my own way but not making a big deal about it. I decided this year not to say “Happy Easter” but to rename it “Resurrection Day” and to say “Happy Resurrection Day” instead. This year instead of trying to make the best of it I’ve just taken it as its come. That has felt really good and positive. I’m also happy to be writing and finding an outlet for my thoughts and feelings today. That is healthy and constructive. I think maybe this is the first healthy Easter I’ve had, being honest with myself. It may not look or sound pretty but I reckon being real and true to me, myself, is very healthy.