A few days before Christmas last year, I sat in my therapists office, sipping in the lavender flavored air and her warm sage advice. I was in a good place. My job wasn't killing me too much, I hadn't had a hangover in what seemed an eternity, I was in yoga teacher training and continually becoming a more dedicated and regular practitioner, I knew what self love meant (really!), and my apartment was clean (this is a really big benchmark for adulthood for me). I actually remember sitting there across from her feeling…together.
We were talking about my upcoming trip home for the holidays to my mother's house. I told her that while in the past these holiday gatherings had tended to undo me in the worst possible way, and that I was actually looking forward to this time home and this big holiday affair. I was severely optimistic because this time, I was a grown up. A spiritually progressed grown-up by Oprah standards.
This year would be different because I was different.
So three days later as I sat in my childhood home living room in a ball on the floor sobbing uncontrollable hate tears, a string of "fuck-you assholes" hanging thick in the air somewhere between my mother and sister and I as they continued on unaffected in their game of cribbage, their normal "there she goes" giggling eye roll routine only stoking the hate fire further - I couldn't help but wonder.
What. The. Fuck. Happened.
It wasn't that I didn't see it building up. There was the fact that I was the only adult relegated to the couch which started the simmer of crazy. There was the tongue-in-cheek "okays" my sister and mother gave as I went to my yoga mat instead of joining in a family game or some other communal event that kicked the simmer of crazy to a low-boil agro-bitch vibe. I was on edge, they were setting me off, that was for sure. But this was our old song and dance and it wasn't new. Any American with a family knows what I'm talking about.
There was something more painful about it this time, something more defeating.
I felt like I was regressing.
I was outside of the boundaries and progress I had so carefully crafted from the safety of my San Francisco studio. And I wasn't just regressing to the mess of a bitch I was before the sobriety and spiritual path. I was regressing to my 17 year old freak self. I was overly sensitive to the criticism - overly sensitive to EVERYTHING - and I was severely focused on WHAT THEY THOUGHT. In this perpetual state of need for them to acknowledge how much I had grown and treat me differently than they had in the past and grasping for approval.
I might as well have been saying "HEY assholes, can't you see how fucking zen I am? Can't you see what an ADULT I am?!?! Say it bitches!"
I felt small and insignificant and even worse - completely questioning that I had made any progress at all. As I sat on the train home I had this deep sense of unreality. Had I been kidding myself the entire time that this was progress? Had the light that was shined upon me within the four walls of my childhood home by those who know me best revealed that I was more than anything just the same mess of a jerk I had always been?
The answer is, of course, no. The answer is, of course, that what I experienced over Christmas 2013 was nothing that proved how fucked up I was, how little I had grown, how inherently bad I was, or how I would be perpetually stuck in a specific state. What I experienced was a sensory reaction to stepping into an environment thick with memory, replete with individuals that remembered me as such and such way. What I experienced was not a regression or a loss of development or a testament to how fucked up I "really" was. It was a normal physiological and psychological reaction that every HUMAN experiences when going home: family dynamics, replaying out patterns and roles, and recreating memory.
So what to do.
In January 2014, the answer was simple. I'd never go home again. A solution, but unrealistic and also unnecessary.
Because the danger wasn't in going home for the holidays or being with my family in my childhood home. The danger was going home with unreal expectations that things would somehow be different because I had changed. The danger was going home unprepared.
I've since come up with and implemented a set of tools to help me not just deal with this flip, but also thrive amidst my family in my childhood home drama free (I lived with my mother on and off this summer...THEY WORK.)
7 Practices To Keep You In Your Power.
1. Establish boundaries, and do it before you leave. I can't stress this enough. You must create the kinds of boundaries you expect to enjoy. This means that if certain conversations or topics are off-limits, you are prepared to say so. This means that if you can only be home and with family for x amount of time, you make it clear up front and stick to it. This means that if you don't want to engage in a particular behavior or set of behaviors you always have (like drinking or smoking cigarettes or gossiping), that you are prepared to disengage and hold your ground. Your actions, your words, and your reactions set the tone for what is acceptable and what is not. For me, this has meant letting some comments go unanswered, being clear that I can only come home for shorter periods, that I need to have my own space, that I need to practice yoga, that I need to spend time outside my home with friends. I've become incredibly good at affirmatively stating what is okay and what isn't, without drama. This has also meant being okay with disappointing my family, or perceived disappointment. Which is what point 2 is all about…
2. Your oxygen mask first. There is a reason that the airlines tell parents to put their oxygen mask on first and then put it on their children second. Because if they don't, they die. And then everyone dies. Or something like that. The idea is that you can't help another single human being if you don't take care of yourself first. If you are like me and a people pleaser, this is HARD. You're likely to feel guilty for not doing what other people need when they need it. You're likely to tiptoe around saying no even when that's what you really want and need to say. You're likely to feel bad if you don't take care of everyone and do what everyone wants you to do, regardless if it is good or bad for you. You're likely to sacrifice yourself and not advocate for yourself and do things like take the last bath of the day or sleep on the couch or feel weird insisting you have alone time or that your life depends on your yoga and so you need to do it before you open presents. But understand that when you don't take care of your basic needs first - however selfish you may feel - you are making the choice to deplete yourself, and soon you'll be on a ball in the living room throwing a tantrum calling everyone selfish bastards. Don't do let that happen to you.
3. Don't engage, and find your power in your defenselessness. If you tend to have a few familial relationships that set you off, or a relative that "pushes your buttons", you have to understand that you will never be free of this dynamic if you continue to engage. You don't disarm a relationship or a pattern like this by continuing to throw energy at it - that's how you STRENGTHEN it. Your engagement is putting energy right back into the dynamic. Your reaction and reactiveness and response gives them something to keep swinging at and fighting with because their actions are getting a result. If you can imagine you're in a fist fight with this person, just picture you stepping out of the way as they are swinging. If you move out of the way and give them nothing to punch, eventually they'll tire of swinging at air. Yes, they may punch harder at first - everything does before it dies. But they will tire. Guaranteed. Disengage, move out of the way, find safety and PEACE and GROWN-UP-NESS in your defenselessness.
4. Remember what anyone says to you or how they act towards you is NEVER about you. It's about them. Their perception of the world, their judgments, their story. Your reaction to them - however - is about you. Keep focus on that. It's the only thing you have control over. How you REACT. Not what happens to you.
5. Be mindful of what you need, and give it to yourself. Don't rely on other members of your family to applaud your sobriety or your progress or make note of what a responsible adult you have become. In fact, don't rely on anyone for that. You have the power to give yourself everything you need, exactly how you need it, exactly when you need it. Write down a few things you are grateful for about yourself - your accomplishments, the things you value in yourself. Go to this list when you find yourself needing, and let it go straight to your heart.
6. Witness. No matter how off the deep end you feel, or how crazy you are actually acting, allow yourself to witness. Meaning, identify the situation as best as you can from a third-party perspective. See what part you played that you have control over, and work with THAT. To own the parts you have control over you must be willing to see. Be a crazy bitch, sure. But note it, and then later think through how you could have done differently. You can also use this mantra, "How do I want people to remember how I handled this situation?"
7. If all else fails, be willing to take a break. Here is the truth - all of this failed for me last year. I didn't take care of myself, didn't set appropriate boundaries, I engaged at every opportunity, I took everyone's criticism to heart, I didn't give myself what I needed (I expected everyone to KNOW), and I didn't witness. In the end, I had to step away from some dear relationships - set them free, cut off contact, and remove myself entirely from the situation for a few months. Until I was stronger.
When you are growing and vulnerable, it takes time for your roots to dig into the earth. You're just a little seedling and you can't withstand all that much at first. For me, this was the case. I saw the roots, they were shallow, they were green and delicate, and they couldn't take on what I was asking them to. So I walked away, I strengthened my root system, I fortified. And then I returned, walking back in a boundaried, non-reactive, self-caring, defenseless queen. Be willing to take a break - even from your mommy - to flip the script. To grow. To reinvent. The space I gave both of us and the re-entry as the me I am now made our relationship advance over a few months what would have taken decades. Yes, it is hard. Yes, it can feel like death. But in the end, the gain is worth it. The gain for me was peace for all of us.
Here is a beautiful quote my lovely friend Amber sent me last year when I was going through this...it brought a deep sense of peace to me. I plan to write more on this last point, but for now, enjoy this thought.