How I Spent My Xmas Vacation

I was going to title this “Why I Hate Xmas”, but I don’t hate it, really. It’s just an extremely difficult time for me. Let’s look at that:

Emotional State

Xmas Emotion Meter

The above is a graphic representation of my emotional state on Xmas day. It didn’t really matter what the trigger was, I kept getting emotionally triggered—angry, sad, afraid. I was aware that my emotions were seriously out of whack. Deep breath, let it go, relax, move on. Don’t hang on to “I don’t want to feel this way” or “This isn’t fair” or “I’m ruining my family’s christmas”. Come back to the moment.

Some moments were wonderful. A child’s face on Christmas morning, full of wonder at the magic that is Santa Claus. And funny too:

  • “You are just so PRECIOUS!” — Brianna to me on opening her Queen Amidala keychain
  • Booting up her computer for the first time “Who’s that ‘Admin’?—he must be Santa’s elf who set up my computer”

I managed not to miss this in spite of the rollercoaster of emotions going on inside. Yay me!

It was really good that we stayed home. This was the first xmas since my mother’s death without Seroquel, the atypical anti-psychotic that I had been taking for years. I can safely report that Seroquel does suppress emotions effectively, albeit with a host of side-effects.

In spite of my emotional free-fall, Bryan reported that this was the best Xmas in years, in terms of living with me and my moods. At least this year I was aware. Not, not “at least”—this was the year I really saw my emotional rollercoaster without jumping on and going for a ride. In terms of steps forward, this is good. Really really good. Yay me!


So, am I just über hung up on the fact that my mother died on Xmas day? Not so much. Yeah, that sucked, and of course the memories of that day arise with the holiday, but I was not a fan of the holiday for many many years. Why?

  1. My first suicide attempt was when I was 15 years old. About two weeks before Christmas, I took two full bottles of my mother’s prescription Valium then lay down behind the couch in the living room. I didn’t know that Valium alone is extremely unlike to kill a person. I ended up an inmate–er–patient on the Child Psych Ward of Mt. Caramel Mercy Hospital in Detroit, Michigan for six weeks. Through the metal mesh over the window, I could see the smokestack from my high school, only two blocks away. The room I was assigned shared a wall with the padded room. I remember watching two grown men (orderlies) hold down a 6-year-old boy, strap him into a strait-jacket, and put him in the padded room. He screamed and threw himself against the wall for hours. I was allowed to visit my family for Christmas, but Christmas Eve was spent on the ward and Christmas Day ended with my return to the hospital. I was released to go live with my dad in late January.
  2. My dad died of a massive heart-attack at the age of 42. I was 21. It was December 12.
  3. I’m not a Christian, I don’t like Christianity—all my family claimed to be true Christians:
    1. Grandpa George, the sexual molester
    2. Grandpa Margaret, the single-most hate-filled person I’ve ever met. Seriously.
    3. Mommy, the child-beater

    Why would I celebrate this Christ-guy’s birthday? I watched my mother attend church week after week, chatting with the ladies, being all pious, then come home and beat the shit out of me, or berate and belittle me to the point of tears.

    I don’t trust Christianity and don’t wish to celebrate it, although I can say that I don’t hate it the way I used to.

And now here it is New Year’s Eve. The season makes me think about family, and in my extended family everyone is dead or gone. Except for my brother, who phoned me to wish us a merry one (though I noted that he did not call on xmas day, but a day later). Of course, Ron being Ron had to make a comment about how Barack Obama is just like Hitler and he’s not a real black man anyway, you can’t be a real brother growing up in Hawaii. I told him that I wasn’t having this conversation. So, like I said, my family is all dead or gone.

My mother used to tell me that I’m too sensitive. She usually said it in a disparaging way, telling me to shut up and get over whatever hurt I was feeling, often caused by her. Perhaps I am. But when my emotions are peaking, this is what it feels like inside:

Kim Phúc photographed by Nick Ut

No, I’m not exaggerating. Welcome to BPD (borderline personality disorder, a.k.a. emotional regulation disorder). When your emotions feel like that, you scream, you cry, you beg for help. But if anyone tries to touch you, you pull away. It’s painful to be raw and open. It fucking hurts like hell.

Xmas day pretty much guarantees that I’m going to be “too sensitive” and that just how it is. I need to feel safe, secure, and loved as I deal with things. Hey, shouldn’t everyone feel safe, secure, and loved on xmas day? Isn’t that the point?

In any case, obligatory dinners with less-than-sensitive relatives are not on my xmas wish list and won’t be for the forseeable future. One of these relatives actually complained about our absence, whining that she wouldn’t get to see Bri until “next Christmas.” Please note that said relative has not invited us to her Toronto home once in the seven years that I’ve known her. If you were me, is this a person you’d choose to be around when you’re at your most vulnerable? Me neither.

So from now on, we’re staying home for Christmas. Me and my family are reserving this day for ourselves. Everyone will be visited and gifted on other days of the xmas week. And that’s the way it is.

Going Forward

This New Year’s Eve is an opportunity to reaffirm my life. One of my bestest friends is coming for the night and I can think of no other folks I’d rather be with this evening than her and my family. Although it was difficult, this was a good xmas. Our little family is stronger and happier than ever before. For that, and all the other blessings we enjoy, I am deeply grateful.

May you and all beings have peace, health, and happiness in the coming year.

P.S. Kim Phúc, the girl in the photo, now lives in Toronto. It seems that Toronto is a good place for survivors. Blessings to her and her family.

Bodhi Day — What’s a Mama to do?

I’ve come to the conclusion that Christmas is not the holiday that I want to build a family tradition around. Oh, sure, Santa Claus will visit on Christmas Day, but I prefer to put my “holiday energies” into Bodhi Day. Last week, I spoke at Brianna’s school about Bodhi Day and why we celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment.

Senior Kindergarten learns about Bodhi Day

So, what are the elements of a family-oriented rohatsu celebration?

  • Bodhi tree — Due to a lack of ficus religiosa at my local garden center, we will substitute an evergreen tree, which are available in abundance
  • Decorations — Coloured lights (like prayer flags, representing the many paths to wisdom); the morning star atop the tree (natch); and ornaments to represent the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha
  • Food— Siddartha ate a meal of rice and milk before beginning his vigil under the Bodhi Tree. Rice pudding it is! Rather than a big turkey dinner, I’d like to keep the meal simple (and light!) so as to best appreciate the subtle and amazing goodness that is homemade rice pudding. Have I mentioned that I like rice pudding? A lot?
  • Activities — Bri’s teacher and I chatted a bit about this. Kindergarteners aren’t gonna sit for 10 minutes, let alone all night. The class ended up drawing a picture of the Buddha under the Bodhia Tree with the Morning Star shining in the sky. Because Bodhi Tree leaves are heart-shaped, the kids liked drawing them. Art practice is good.

Somewhere on the interweb, I read that some folks light up the Bodhi Tree on December 8, then keep it lit every night for the next 30 days. We typically get cut trees, so I’m not sure if it’ll last that long, but I think keeping the lights on until the New Year feels like it fits nicely. Keeping a candle lit for that time also feels right.

Of course, there must be zazen, but that’s for me and the night before.

What are you doing for the holidays and why?

What’s the buzz, tell me what’s a-happening…

Random thoughts on the day before All Hallow’s Eve aka Halloween.

Mental status update: Much improved. Seroquel and its side-effects have been jettisoned, trying an herbal remedy that has been surprisingly effective so far. Still plenty of baggage to deal with. Willing to consider the possibility of happiness in my day-to-day life. Still need to relax and trust myself.

Work update: My first attempt at commercial design, a tall window topped by a half-circle window, was accepted by the customer. Yay me! I’m still volunteering at the studio 2–3 days a week.

Physical: After a round of nasty side-effects that nearly crippled me (see Seroquel reference above), I am greatly improved. Back down to just hip bursitis and occasional flare-ups of achilles tendonitis. I’m losing weight quickly—one to two pounds a week (see Seroquel reference above). Not doing as much Wii Fit as I’d like.

Art: Took a studio drawing class and found out that I can draw pretty darn well. Making time to practice art is more difficult, but remains a priority for me.

Family: Doing great! Bri is frighteningly precocious (shock!) and no longer afraid of me. Bryan finally has a job that actually appears to recognize and appreciate his knowledge and contribution. Yay Bry!

Dog: Has fleas. Much vacuuming, laundering, and combing.

All in all, it’s life, in all its messy gloriousness. Whee!

The View from 20,000 ft

In management, they talk about the view from 20,000 feet; that is, the big picture—the view from high enough up that you see the surrounding landscape. I think I’m beginning to get a view like that on my life.

The past few weeks have been the (usual) rollercoaster ride: sesshin was wonderful/amazing/fantastic, DBT is going well, just before sesshin I completely lost control of myself in a public place and was mortified by my behaviour. Bryan’s contract was extended for 3 months, I had a car accident which will cost me plenty, and Revenue Canada sent a notice to my employer to try and collect money owed by my late father’s estate, which I am responsible for. Oh yeah, the hard drive on my Mac is toast. :^(

I was reading something in Mark Epstein’s book about a guy who was all happy when he was on retreat but couldn’t bring that mind to his hectic family life with all of its associated mayhem. Previously, Sensei spoke with me about how the various challenges in my life have arisen like waves to be a point of practice for me. So, what does the view from up here tell me?

I don’t have to turn my home into a monastery to practice Buddhism. This life, this very life, this going to DBT meetings on the train, this child is whiny, this dog keeps barking at the cat life is my practice. It’s no further than this.

Today, when I received the Revenue Canada letter, I went into a series of anxiety attacks. My mind would spin out, like a car out of control on ice-slicked streets. I’d go for a bit of a ride, watching myself all the while. “Where’s the money going to come from? How are we going to afford it? How could I have got us in such a mess? I’m such a loser for ending up here.” Letting go of judgements, breathing, coming back to “it is what it is”; over and over again. Turning my mind to radical acceptance.

For isn’t that really what it comes down to? In each moment, we have a choice. We can turn our heart/minds towards radical acceptance or we can foster willfulness in our hearts. Zen practice and DBT practice are exactly the same, constantly encouraging us to open to acceptance, to become willing, in whatever the moment brings.

My moments seem to be fairly juicy, but that’s only true when I compare myself with some people. If I compare myself with others, it’s so obvious how blessed I am. The most recent example of this was when Bryan and I heard a radio news story discussing Stephen Truscott. For those who don’t know, almost 50 years ago in 1959, Stephen was a 14-year-old boy. He was accused of murdering his 12-year-old neighbor. He was convicted and sentenced to death. This year, he was finally acquitted. So, if you are ever indulging in some particularly clingy self-pity, remind yourself that you could have been a 14-year-old kid sentenced to be hanged for something he didn’t do.

My day wasn’t really so awful after all.

Snow and lice

Two signs that the year is getting older and solstice is not far off: the first snowfall, which started about 10 pm. Serious scraping of frozen wet flurries stuck to the windows of the car were needed. The second sign is less picturesque: the phone call from the school at about 2:45 informing me that my child has head lice and can I please come pick her up.

Brianna was overjoyed to be going home from school early. We stopped at Shopper’s Drug Mart and got the stuff (pyrethrins-based shampoo, zinc creme, new headbands).

“Don’t kill it! I don’t want to hurt nature!” is what Brianna howled when I found my first nit in her hair. Unfortunately, I could not comply with her request to save nature. But I was impressed with her innate Buddhaness. Way to go kid!

Let me tell you, lice are not fun. Nasty shampoo, lots of detailed combing, and laundry out the wazoo. Pillows, pillowcases, sheets, hats, blankets, coats. Anything that touches the head gets cleaned. She got to bed around 10:30, Bryan and I around midnight.

Happy winter!