Celia Kramer is a writer living with debilitating anxiety. In her weekly column, Celia will write about the horrible and hilarious world of fear, dread, paranoia, phobias, panic attacks, and trying to function as a halfway normal person. Some names and inconsequential details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people in her life.
It probably wouldn’t surprise you to learn that I’ve had a panic attack every single Christmas for the past five years. Jesus. I’m so freaking high maintenance. I’m afraid this might turn into a bit of a rant about my family (who are by and large delightful, but not at the holidays), but maybe your family is like mine, too? Maybe, you too are stocking up on anxiety medication and wine because no one, I mean on one, can trigger your anxiety like your family can.
I know I’m not special. I know that the holidays are a god-awful time for everyone, everywhere, and so pretending that my anxiety makes Christmas uniquely unbearable for me and not everyone would be silly. All I can say is that some of my very specific anxieties are triggered by the holidays–more specifically, when I spend them with my extended family. To be clear: it’s not my entire extended family, nor the entirety of people that I even have to spend time with at Christmas. It’s more of a loud minority.
My extended family, which includes a slew of aunts and uncles, seven or so cousins, and grandparents, are all very health conscious. They know exactly how many calories are in each Christmas cookie, and volunteer that information without being asked. For a person tenuously hanging onto recovery from years of disordered eating, I can’t hear talk about calories while eating. So I don’t. I find that around my extended family, I revert to some of my disordered behaviors, like not eating at all, or sneaking food into my pockets to eat in the bathroom, alone. Food quickly becomes something shameful again, and so an internal fight starts between my healthy brain and discorded past.
Additionally, my extended family has a bit of an obsession with fitness. They all run every day, have participated in multiple marathons with excellent times, and all look like Olympians. I have reached a tentative détente with my body, and don’t wake up immediately filled with self loathing as I used to (now, I wait until I say something stupid and then the loathing sets in). While their accomplishments are incredible and certainly pride worthy, can we all just shut the fuck up? My soft and sedentary body, while normally strong enough to propel me up almost 20 flights of stairs daily and walk around and do things that make me feel proud, is nothing compared to these Greek gods, and they know it. I could have the most glowing personality, active social life, fantastic career, and a Nobel Prize, and I’d still be just a bit lesser, because I’m not a fast runner. Feeling physically inadequate and guilty about eating isn’t a great mix for holiday cheer.
What may be the worst part of all of this is that my extended family doesn’t particularly like me. They beg my family to come every year, asking my sister and I to entertain them with jokes and funny stories and then after an hour, realize they are tired of our shtick and don’t like us very much. They don’t care for our humor, don’t understand our lives, and think our chosen careers are silly. So we spend the week trying to keep our heads down, and fight the urge to remind them that we came because they asked us to.
As I’ve mentioned, I tend to not handle it well when people don’t like me. This dovetails nicely with the fact that I’m not hugely likable, so I’ve developed a slew of coping mechanisms so that I don’t have to deal with people who don’t like me when I’m forced to be around them. I make jokes, I deflect, and my sister and I take turns making fun of each other so we can take the heat off of ourselves for a moment. The problem is that these mechanisms aren’t meant to last forever, and when you’re trapped in suburbia with nothing to do but hang out, eventually the real versions of us come out. So we’re stuck, with no transportation, no exits, and no options, with people who don’t like us. There’s nothing to do but to think.
For an overly anxious person like myself, this combination leads to a contemplative week of self loathing. While some days I can quiet the loop of humiliating moments playing through my head and constant obsessions over tiny things, over the holidays there’s nothing else to focus on. Add in the fact that self worth and physical fitness are interchangeable in this environment, and I’m a basket case.
Without fail, I end up having a gasping, dizzy panic attack, hidden in the downstairs bathroom. It started 5 years ago, when it seemed like my years of Christmas anxiety just exploded out of me. A few years ago, I forgot Xanax, but luckily my grandma had plenty so I made my sister steal it out of her purse for me. Recently, I’ve been able to recover faster and they’re less severe, but I’m tired of the upkeep. Call me a wimp (you wouldn’t be the first), but I’m tired and don’t want to have to deal with the constant maintenance and upkeep that goes with my anxiety. I’m just going to opt out.
I think for most people, the holidays are about feeling inadequate around your family members, who either hate your job, hate your partner, hate your single life, or want you to have kids already. It’s an anxious nightmare for most people, and it’s a constant reminder that your family isn’t from a movie. This year, I’m not doing it–I’m staying put with a few friends and possibly, just possibly, making it to New Year’s without a panic attack. I’ll let you know next week.
Merry Christmas from my anxiety ridden heart to yours!