November 13, 2019

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Guest Author

Trusting My Mouth: Grieving During The Holidays

I can feel the weight behind my eyes and the heat in my throat. I know exactly what I want to write. And yet, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea how to write about the holidays because I can’t seem to remember a holiday that wasn’t traumatic.

I was asked to write a piece about the holidays. Sure! Sounds easy.

It would take me an hour to write an eloquent, informative piece titled, How to survive weight and diet talk during the holidays. I’d present research, give actionable advice, pull on your heart strings, and leave you feeling empowered, seen, and ready to take on your most unforgiving relatives. You’re welcome! And don’t forget to follow me on Instagram!

But I can write that piece anywhere. In fact, I do write that piece every year to my email list and people love it. It’s one of those easy pieces that keeps me busy and helpful, even though it’s not the piece that really matters.

So I asked for clarification on what I already knew…

“I just want your voice and your story.”

Okay cool. I’ll write it tonight.

I’ll just clean my apartment, play online solitaire, drink coffee, order some food, order more food, pay my bills, try to write, text my friends, bite my nails, and then I’ll start writing. For real this time because it’s Sunday night and a draft is due. I’ve officially waited until the last possible second to write this story because I’m pretty sure my subconscious agreed to writing it before my conscious brain had a chance to hide.

I can feel the weight behind my eyes and the heat in my throat. I know exactly what I want to write. And yet, to be honest, I have absolutely no idea how to write about the holidays because I can’t seem to remember a holiday that wasn’t traumatic.

We stopped spending the holidays with my dad when I was in middle school, after my parents got divorced.

Some years, I would go by his place for a few hours on Thanksgiving or Christmas with a sweet potato pecan pie (his favorite) and some extra food. He’d be sitting alone in his apartment in his brown leather recliner watching sports, patiently waiting for the chance to talk to me (even though he’d never tell me that because he didn’t want to be a burden in my life).

After a few hours sitting next to his brown leather recliner, I’d go back home, help my mom and her boyfriend prepare dinner, get all dressed up for people I never really connected with, eat until I couldn’t physically stand to be in my body another moment longer, and go to bed.

Other years, I’d call my dad from Mexico or Colorado or wherever my mom and I had escaped to and I’d do my best not to think about him sitting alone in the brown leather recliner watching sports and waiting for the chance to talk to me. I knew he was lonely, but he’d never tell me that because he didn’t want to be a burden in my life.

I don’t remember much from the holidays because my unconscious mind was busy focusing on anything I believed to be “socially-acceptable” pain. The presents were never good enough, there was never enough food, there was way too much food, and the pictures were never good enough. I remember intentionally taking way too long to do my makeup before holiday dinners as my soul shut down and prepared for defense by building concrete walls around my heart… at least until I got enough food and alcohol in me to relax (read: dissociate).

Without therapy or the tools to talk about what I was going through, my coping mechanisms ran the show. I fell deep into a diet/binge cycle, controlling food and my body when I couldn’t control my life and using food to fill a void I didn’t know I had. I realized early on that obsessing about changing my body was one of the greatest distractions around, if only because every single message I received said the same thing: your body is too big, so if you want to be loved, fix it.

Emotional suppression combined with on-and-off food restriction and a side of teenage angst turned out to be the perfect recipe for feeling trapped in my head and at the mercy of my volatile emotions.

I think on a subconscious level, many of my coping mechanisms were a silent cry for help. I felt chronically isolated, alone, misunderstood, and abandoned, and I walked with the belief that nobody would ever want to or be able to help me in the way that I needed. I misinterpreted my mom’s lovingly misguided attempts to support me as untrustworthy, and I was unable to receive support from others because any attempts to connect with me felt intrusive and unsafe. In other words, there’s something about the overly concerned looks from family friends when they asked, “How are you?” that made me want to scream, I’M FINE AND I’LL ALWAYS BE FINE SO STOP TALKING ABOUT IT WITHOUT ME.

My mouth was a major theme during this time, in that I didn’t trust what I put in my mouth, and I definitely didn’t trust the words coming out of my mouth, either. When I wasn’t shut down and giving my mom the silent treatment, I was sad. But sad didn’t feel safe, so I was “tired”, or I was angry, or I was loud, or I was drunk and tired and angry, or I was loud and angry and mean. Really, really mean. Intentionally mean. Mean to my mom, mean to her boyfriend, and mean to family friends whose political views felt like a personal attack. But no matter how mean I was to everyone else, I directed even more of it at myself.

And even though I don’t remember much from the holidays, I’ll never forget the year I brought my toxic relationship home with me for Thanksgiving.

In hindsight, a lot happened that year to make me want to escape into a relationship that validated my brokenness. I graduated college but stayed in Boston an extra semester to finish classes without any of my friends. My dad spent a couple months in a hospital in Nevada, swearing up and down that him getting pneumonia on a bus when he was supposed to be in New Mexico had absolutely nothing to do with him sneaking off to Vegas to gamble. I was carrying the weight of my dad’s gambling addiction relapse, and his rapidly declining health without anyone to talk to or lean on. And to top it all off, I spent most of my nights on the phone with my long-distance boyfriend, hysterically crying and questioning my grasp on reality.

It was... a lot.

This Thanksgiving was supposed to be different, though. My dad was back in New Mexico and finally had some friends to spend the holidays with. My amazing, “love-of-my-life” (read: unpredictable and emotionally manipulative) boyfriend agreed to come home with me for Thanksgiving, which meant we could self-isolate and avoid my mom and her boyfriend together. I had all the pieces in place to make it through the week unscathed.

Would you believe that the night of Thanksgiving actually went better than expected? The four of us played card games, cooked dinner, laughed, told stories, and drank together, and it finally felt like the tension in the house had melted away.

That is… until I got a call from my dad’s friend in New Mexico. He had a seizure, threw up at the table and had to be rushed to the hospital.

I thought about what would have happened if my dad was alone in his brown recliner chair waiting for the chance to talk to me. I thought about how embarrassed he would be and how much he hated being seen as weak. I cried to my mom in the kitchen while my boyfriend laid down in our room, unbothered. My mom fed me an ambien and I went to lie down while she pulled him out for a “talk”.

The next thing I remember was yelling. He yelled at her about being a bad mother, saying she had no right to tell him how to love me. Then he yelled at me for letting my mom talk to him like that and I spent the next hour crying in a drunken, ambien haze trying to convince him not to leave. It probably not a surprise that I don’t really remember the rest of that trip.

Less than a month later, as I prepared to say goodbye to Boston for the last time, I drunkenly kissed the worst possible person I could kiss the night before I was supposed to fly home and introduce my boyfriend to my dad. It was only after he broke up with me over FaceTime just a few hours before my flight when I realized that maybe I could trust my “uncontrollable” mouth after all.  

My dad died the following year.

In the summer before he died, we moved him into an assisted living home in LA. I would visit him for a few hours every week, blaming the infrequency of my visits on being busy. He hated seeing me cry so I did my best to stay busy instead.

In the few weeks before he died, we organized legal documents, applied to donate his body to research institutes, and my mom and I said our goodbyes. I knew it was real because after years of joking about his death together while I tried to hold it all in, this was the only time he ever gave me permission to cry.

The week before he died, I spent a few hours sitting next to him in the brown leather recliner. We talked about his funeral, I told him about the music festival I was going to in San Francisco that weekend, and we made plans for me to visit the following week.

Sunday morning I got a call from his favorite nurse. He asked her to stay with him after her shift ended on Friday and she sat with him for two days to keep him company. He died sitting in his brown leather recliner, except this time he wasn’t alone and he wasn’t waiting for the chance to talk to me. In fact, I think he waited for me to leave. I don’t know if he wishes I was there or not, but even if he did want me there, he never would have told me because he didn’t ever want to be a burden in my life.

In retrospect, he might have been waiting for my mom to leave too, considering she was quite literally at the top of Machu Picchu when I told her the news. As my mom desperately tried to get back from Peru, I threw myself into planning a memorial, fully aware that 22 is far too young to single-handedly plan your father’s funeral.

A few weeks later, I moved away from home again to finish my last stretch of school and work requirements to become a Registered Dietitian. Busy was my most comfortable survival mode, so it honestly couldn’t have come at a better time. I just had to survive 10 months, and then I could come home and completely fall apart.

The irony is that when you spend most of your life avoiding your feelings and believing that it’s safer to stay busy, the idea of coming home and asking for help sounded like the riskiest and scariest thing I could possibly do. To be honest with you, I don’t know if I would have started grief therapy as soon as I did if it weren’t for my brain literally shutting down (hello unexplained brain fog, lack of focus, and fatigue). I physically had no choice but to get help, and it was one of the best gifts I’ve ever given myself.

While I’d like to think that the holidays will be a little less lonely every year, I don’t know if that’s true. And honestly, I don’t even know if I want that to be true.

What I do know is that therapy gave me the space to calm down my nervous system and process emotions that I didn’t even know I was still holding onto. For the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t just constantly fighting to survive. I was healing.

It’s now glaringly obvious why tears felt so unsafe, why I focused on every other emotion except for sadness, and why I still find myself using hilariously specific coping mechanisms when I stop allowing space for grief.

The thing with coping mechanisms is that none of the pain associated with these patterns was ever actually about food or my body or losing myself in someone who doesn’t know how to love me back (although I definitely had to repeat that pattern while in therapy before I figured it out). I learned to release the shame about these coping mechanisms because I was just doing my best with the information I had. With new tools, I learned how to recognize my subconscious brain’s distraction patterns and practice curiosity about the feelings hiding underneath, knowing that I still have a lot more healing to do.

And most importantly, even though I feel deep sadness thinking of all those years he spent sitting in a brown leather recliner waiting for the chance to talk to me, I now know that can’t keep holding onto guilt of not being there for someone who never even asked me to be… even though that person was my dad.

When the holidays are clouded in emotional trauma, I don’t know if they ever get easier, but they definitely can be gentler. I’m allowed to feel sad, scared, lonely, and shut down while also recognizing that, no matter how deep the wounds run, everything I experienced happened for me, not to me. My healing journey feels divinely timed because it brought me here to this moment, sitting on my couch with a laptop, crying into the keyboard so that you might feel safe enough to explore your own story.

At the end of the day, no matter where you’re at or how many coping mechanisms you’re holding onto for comfort, remember that you’re exactly where you need to be.

I know how hard this is for you, but I promise you’re doing your best.

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About the author

Whitney Catalano, RDN is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist helping people break free from the diet/binge cycle, heal their relationship with food, make peace with their bodies, and take the power back from their inner bullies. Whitney has a podcast called Trust Your Body Project as well as an Instagram @TrustYourBodyProject where she educates people about how to ditch diet culture and transform your mindset around health. She also works 1:1 helping aspiring leaders and entrepreneurs heal emotional wounds, cultivate a growth mindset, and learn to lead with confidence so that they can make a powerful impact in the world.

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