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.