The Holidays, Dealing with Guilt and Fear

The poster that was hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid
The poster that was hanging on my bedroom wall when I was a kid

For years the holidays left me feeling lonely and empty.  I can remember hiding in the bathroom when I was a kid, looking in the mirror to make sure it was still me reflected back.   It felt less lonely to be alone than to be around the whole family.

For the past few years, I stopped going to the ritual family dinners and Jon and I have been making our own holidays.  But by the time Thanksgiving comes around I’m usually a mess, racked with guilt for not spending the holiday with my birth family and pissed off trying to understand why I feel the way I do. I’ve work at it every year, sometimes getting professional help and sometimes kidding myself that “everything’s fine”.

Yesterday morning  I work up at 4am racked with guilt about the holidays.   I laid in bed, a part of me knew I had nothing to feel bad about, so I wondered what was really going on inside me.  And when I went to the place inside of me where the feeling came from, below my stomach, I felt fear.   A deep old fear that something was terribly wrong, that I was in danger.

Jon was awake and I told him what I was feeling.  As we talked I remembered being a kid and believing that if I wasn’t “good” if I didn’t do what I was supposed to, my family would abandon me.  I remembered being around 5 or 6 years old, getting in trouble for doing something (I don’t remember what)   and  being so terrified that I was pleading and begging to be forgiven, promising to be good.  It felt as if my life depended on it.

It wasn’t literally true that I’d be abandoned by my family, although I didn’t know that at the time.  I wasn’t even a bad kid.  It was more of an emotional abandonment.  If I didn’t behave the way I was supposed to, I wouldn’t belong.  I’d be left out of the only thing I knew and had.  This is when I began to learn how to be who they wanted me to be and not who I am.

As Jon and I talked I came to see that what I needed to do was talk to  the little girl who was me.  I needed to let her know that she was safe and didn’t have to be afraid.  It’s known as the integrated self.  The scared kid inside of me was not integrated with who I am now.  I’ve done this before, gone back,  talked to myself at different points in my life and it’s always helped me to let go of those traumatic moments.

So yesterday morning I lit a candle in my studio, kneeled on my yoga mat, closed my eyes and went to visit five year old me.  From that moment on what I saw unfolded in front of me like a movie.

Me, as a girl  was standing  inside her bedroom alone.   The  doors that led to the living room were  closed and there were twin beds and a crib in the room.  So I was younger than five.  This was a time when me and my older sister and brother shared a room.  I could see my favorite black and white poster on the closet door of the Lion and the kitten.

I stood next to the girl and told her she was safe.  I told her she didn’t have to be afraid, that I was there and I would take care of her and protect her.  Then I told her  we could leave, she could come with me.  That I had a nice place to live  with animals.  But she was scared and didn’t want to go.  So I told her I would stay with her, that I’d always be there and never leave her.   And if she ever wanted to go we could leave together.

Then I thought to do something to make her less frightened.  So I asked her if she could go any place,  where would she want to go.  And suddenly we were in Africa with Elsa the lion from the movie Born Free.  The people were there too, the real people, not the actors from the movie. I think her name way Joy, I don’t remember her husband’s name.  They weren’t surprised to see the little girl  and  asked her to go get the lion cubs who were in a kennel.  It was time to feed them.

Joy and her husband weren’t parents to the girl, but she lived with them and the lions.  And they taught her about the lions and how to live in the wilderness.  The girl grew up kind of wild.  She rarely bathed and her hair was never combed, always knotted.  When she got older she started to draw the lions, she was an artist.  She learned some of the ways of the native people from a nearby village and they taught her their art too.  When she was a teenager she had sex with the boys from the village, as teenagers will.   She became an artist and moved between life in the wild and the cities.  When she was older,  in her fifties or so, she was at an art opening or a book event and met Jon.  She took him to her home in Kenya and they traveled back and forth between there and New York.

I was with the girl through the whole journey.  Integrated.   Her life wasn’t ruled by misplaced emotions.  She was independent and brave and liked being alone as well as having a community.  She  knew true love when she finally found it.

When I opened my eyes, I felt as if I had lived another life.  I didn’t have all the details, but I knew what it felt like to live the life the girl chose.  I knew what it felt like not  to be scared all the time.  And to make my own decisions and choices not out of  guilt and fear  but  from my own instincts.

I slept for hours yesterday afternoon and went to bed early.  I was exhausted from my journey.   For now, the guilt I was feeling is completely gone.  I don’t know if that will last, but I know I let go of one thing and gained something else.  And I feel ready to enjoy my holidays the way I want to.



13 thoughts on “The Holidays, Dealing with Guilt and Fear

  1. It’s a beautiful story of a beautiful journey. I too was very influenced by the story of Born Free as a child and have been a bit obsessed with lions since. The one you featured here really took me aback. Her name was Little Tyke, and I’ve been researching her and the other local pet lions of the Puget Sound. There was a glut of them after WWII, and, at the time, few exotic animal laws to prevent people from keeping them as backyard pets, as was the case with Little Tyke. She lived her entire life on a ranch in my hometown of Auburn, Washington (1946-1955). I’ve written about her for our local museum and even put up a “memorial” on one of the genealogy sites. It coincidentally features the same picture you chose here. Elsa the lion had a very different story, but Little Tyke’s was fascinating in its own way. Anyway, thanks for sharing a reminiscence of here this Thanksgiving!

    1. Oh Kristy, I’m getting chills reading this. I haven’t read your article yet, but I know reading about Tyke will be like getting to know an old friend. Thank you so much.

  2. This was the most emotionally charged life that …I cried through it all. The other girl beside you was me. You verbalized my soul that was so frightened. I have never in all my years ever had someone visit my psych and show me how to escape. This self made prison is becoming less confining this morning. Thank you, thank you for holding this spiritual hand and letting it know that it can breathe without fear of abandonment. I am exhausted from my journey through this life of pain and fear. I really don’t think people care as you do about the importance of our emotional and spiritual well being. I’m so grateful for being led to this piece this day. Only you could know the impact this has. God Bless you and have a safe and joyful journey with your precious John as I am having with my 89 y/o Bill.

    1. Thank you for writing Eva. As much as I had to write about my experience, once I posted it, I did get nervous about putting it out there. So reading your words is a helpful to me as mine were to you. Best to you and your beautiful Bill.

  3. Wow, Maria. Thank you for sharing your story. I could feel your confusion, your pain, your relief after spending time with your younger self. I am glad that you were able to examine the life she would’ve lived if she had felt that she was able, if she hadn’t felt confined to live the life other people expected her to live. You’ve been set free, in a way, just in the knowing. And aren’t you lucky that the little girl Maria gets to be herself today. I’m so happy for you.

    I see myself in your journey. I grew up in a house filled with the pain and chaos of my alcoholic father with stolen moments of joy and hope with my mother, whose religion got her through the day. To be good meant we wouldn’t end up like him. To be good and to do what was expected meant not incurring his wrath. It taught me to live my life for someone else, and I did that through many many years until one day, I had had enough and had to be true to myself.

    The journey did not end there. I’m 55 now and know that if my family, whose religion keeps them on the path of the straight and narrow, knew the ‘real’ me, that I would be abandoned. So, I, too, either stay away or pretend to be just like them, to be good. Most of the time, I just stay away.

    We are not alone. I know of others. And isn’t that sad. I realize now that the relationship that I would like to have with my family is an idealistic one, that it is one that I will never have. I’ve let that go. There is nothing wrong or bad or even misguided in me. I feel I see the truth and am open to that, whether they choose to continue to wear their blinders out of fear or devotion or tradition.

    We’re stepping out together, Maria. We are not alone.

    Again, thank you for sharing. And thanks for listening to me. You helped me today.

    1. Thank you too for your story Pam. It is the same as mine in essence. And that freedom to be who we are, I’m beginning to think that’s my work in this life. For our true selves to shine.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your life and your insights about yourself. I am always so happy for you when you confront long standing emotions and resolve them, or at least, start on understanding and banishing them.
    Thank you for your blog…

  5. Thank you for sharing this..I could relate on several levels..especially not wanting to be my family and later by other ppl.
    How powerful that you were able soothe your “little girl”. I need to try this..

  6. Dear Maria, Thank you for your courage to look so deeply into your past and heal it. We can all learn from what you have written. Annie

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