DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #59: The Holidays are Hell(ish) Edition

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Dear Sugar,

Kind of crazy, but my girlfriend is seriously turned on by Santa Claus. The old dude, big belly, white beard, his power to find out if you’re naughty or nice, etc. The whole thing just gets her going. It’s our first Christmas together. We’re both in our early thirties. We started dating about ten months ago and now we’re in love. She rocks. Great sense of humor, sweet personality, intelligent, hot, and the best sex I’ve ever had. She told me about the Santa fantasy a few weeks ago when Santa started to pop up all over the place. She gets especially turned on when she sees an actual Santa, which starts her thinking about sitting in his lap and what could happen next. You get the picture.

So here’s my question. My sister has two young sons. A few years ago, she bought a Santa suit and I’ve been dressing up in it and going over to her place to give my nephews a thrill on Christmas eve. I don’t have kids of my own yet, but I love my nephews like mad and it’s cool to see how excited they get when “I” (aka Santa) walk in the door.

Anyway, you know what’s coming next, right? It occurred to me that if I keep the suit an extra day I can give my girlfriend a thrill too. I wouldn’t tell my sister about it or anything, obviously. I’d just put the suit to a little extra use before I returned it.

Creepy? Good idea? Bad idea? It’s not my fantasy personally, but I guess it would be fun enough. What does the sweet and sultry Sugar make of this plan?

Thanks.
Sexy Santa

Dear Sexy Santa,

It’s letters like yours that make me happy I’m Sugar. That’s beautiful. That’s hilarious. Your giving spirit is genuinely what this holiday is all about, isn’t it? I say let her have it, sweet pea. Stuff that woman’s stocking the way only Santa knows how.

Yours,
Sugar

Dear Sugar,

My grandmother is 90 years old and in a nursing home five hours away from me. Growing up she was always very good to me, even taking me in during college and co-signing on my first car. It’s been years since I last saw her. She desperately wants to see me and every time we talk she asks me to come visit. Unfortunately, I’m out of work and money is tight. What do I do? Should I say “Well, it’s Christmas and she might not be around much longer,” but risk getting further behind with my utilities?

Sincerely,
Distraught Grandson

Dear Distraught Grandson,

I think you should go see her. She’s 90. You love each other. You haven’t seen each other for years. She’s close enough that a visit—while financially taxing—would not be exorbitantly expensive. Maybe you can’t get the dough together in time for Christmas, darling, but I hope you’ll do it very soon. I know it’s no joke being broke. I know it all the way down to the very tips of my toes. But I also know that in the fight between money and love, love wins every time.

A year from now you won’t remember all the stupid crap that rained down upon you as a consequence of the bills you didn’t pay on time. You’ll only remember that look on your grandmother’s face.

Yours,
Sugar

Dear Sugar,

I’m Jewish. My wife is not. It’s probably worth noting at this juncture for clarity’s sake that I am a woman too. I just turned 26. My wife and I have been together four years, though we married only a few months ago, making this our first “married holiday season.” Our families were not present at the wedding, but only because we didn’t invite them (or anyone—we eloped). When I first came out to my family six years ago, my parents thought my being a lesbian was just a “phase,” but after that initial skepticism/disrespect, they have been supportive. My wife’s family has been supportive as well—again, in spite of some initial reluctance/doubt. My partner and I are both the oldest of three siblings and we both love our families very much.

In the past, my sweetie and I have spent the holidays apart. In the four years we’ve been together, I’ve gone home to celebrate Hanukkah with my family three times (though they live across the country and making the trip is expensive/difficult); the one time that I didn’t go home, I stayed in the city where I now live and celebrated Hanukkah with my wife and several of our friends (my mom was sad about that, but she understood). Each year my wife has gone alone to celebrate Christmas with her family—they live only a three-hour drive away, so it’s easier/cheaper to get there.

This year I am not traveling home to celebrate Hanukkah with my family, but for the first time ever, I do plan to go with my wife to her family’s house for Christmas. To my surprise, my mother is very upset about this. We’ve argued about it twice now. The first time she said that she thinks I should not celebrate Christmas because I am Jewish, end of discussion (this, even though she’s only moderately religious). She thinks my partner should go home alone to celebrate Christmas, as she’s done in the past. She doesn’t understand why our being married makes any difference.

The second time we argued, my mom dropped the “no Christmas for Jews” stance (which I never really believed in the first place) and instead said the reason she’s upset is that it isn’t fair for us to go see my wife’s family over the holidays unless we are also going to see my family. She says we need to keep our visits “equal,” so one family isn’t “the favored one.” I understand she wants to see me—and I want to see her too—but the reality is because we only live three hours from my wife’s family we are going to see them more often. We can’t afford to fly across the country several times a year just so my mom won’t feel things are unfair.

I think she’s being unreasonable and yet I do not want to hurt her feelings. I love my mother. Aside from this, she is basically a great mom. We’ve had our conflicts, as people do, but she’s never been like this—almost irrational, I hate to say.

What do you think, Sugar? Should I skip Christmas with my wife this year in order to keep the peace? If I cave into my mother’s wishes am I being weak or am I being loving? How do I make my mother understand that joining my partner for a Christmas celebration is not a betrayal of her?

Yours,
Torn Between Two Holidays

Dear Torn Between Two Holidays,

I agree that your mother is being unreasonable. You absolutely should do what you want to do and celebrate Christmas with your wife and her family, sweet pea. This doesn’t mean you should disregard your mother’s feelings. Instead, I encourage you to use this as an opportunity to initiate an important discussion that could strengthen and deepen your relationship.

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It’s obvious to me that your mom is feeling threatened. She’s jealous that you and your wife are sharing a holiday with a family that isn’t hers. She’s fearful that she’s losing you in ways that may have something to do with religion and culture, but probably have more to do with love and allegiance. Until recently her home has been your base. Your family has been hers. She’s been the bonnet around which all the little bees buzzed—and likely she’s invested not only the greater part of her adult life in that, but also her identity. Your choice to celebrate Christmas with your wife and her family is evidence to your mother that she has to shift her investments. This is a difficult transition for some parents—mothers especially. It seems to me that your mom is reading your marriage and involvement with another family as a distancing from—and perhaps even a rejection of—her. She probably feels sad about your new independence and maybe a little scared. That’s okay. She has a right to those feelings, but she has no right to use them to punish you.

Sometimes we respond irrationally to situations that only later can we muster the ability to be reasonable about. You aren’t responsible for your mother’s sorrows and insecurities, but you have the power to help her through them. Please tell her what you told me: that she is a great mother whom you love deeply and are loath to hurt; that you’re making a life that includes two families now, but that doesn’t mean you love her and your family of origin any less. It’s entirely appropriate that you and your wife would choose to celebrate holidays together. Your mother’s shaky and shifting arguments in opposition to that choice convince me that—with some time and a dose of loving kindness from you—she’ll soon come to that conclusion too.

Yours,
Sugar

Dear Sugar,

For the first time ever, I think it is a distinct possibility that I will not see my family for Christmas. This isn’t due to a geographic distance (they are a 45 minute drive away), but an emotional one. You see, my mother hasn’t spoken to me since a few days before my birthday in early October. The reasons are superficially minor—I was in a hurry when picking up my sister. The actual reasons for her anger are deeper. She felt I didn’t care enough to make time for her on my birthday. She felt this way even though I explained weeks beforehand that I had my entrance test for law school the day after my birthday. I told her that though I couldn’t drive up to her house to make time for her on my birthday, she could certainly come see me or we could figure out something for another day.

Her response to this was to not speak to me until I can offer her a sincere apology. As the most sincere I can get is “I’m sorry you are choosing not to be a part of my life,” I haven’t been able to bridge the gap.

My response to this situation is numbed by the fact that I’m just so tired of sacrificing my position, my sense of morality, and my sense of reality in order to keep things running smoothly between us. This fight is only the most recent in a lifetime of verbal abuse, extreme control, and general dysfunction. It’s a cycle I have always played into because I know the source of her emotional instability. She has PTSD and (very likely) borderline personality disorder stemming from a childhood of physical and sexual abuse. I feel like asserting my boundaries comes at the cost of further damaging a damaged person, therefore I have only done so at do-or-die moments—like when I chose to move out against her wishes at the age of 21, after I’d graduating from college and secured a job. It could be that my independence is what throws her into these fits—she gets along far better with my 30 year-old sister who has never left home—and I am on the verge of moving to a new city to become a lawyer.

I’m torn, Sugar. I want her (and my father and sister) to be a loving part of my life. But it seems like that is only possible when done on her terms. I’m tired of paying my membership dues in tears and apologies. I’m tired of constantly having to prove that I am not a selfish, evil changeling. I’m tired of the cognitive dissonance between the rules of dealing with the real world and dealing with my family.

Beyond my hurt for the way my mother is treating me, I’m upset that my father and sister keep telling me to apologize to her, even though they originally agreed that her reaction was out of proportion and hurtful. Am I a bad person for feeling like this? Should I apologize in order for her to talk to me again? Is there a way to still save Christmas?

Sincerely,
Not Even Getting Coal

[Editor's note: Sugar answers this question, as well as the one following it, with one reply below.]

Dear wise, gracious Sugar,

My older brother has terrorized me for as long as I can remember. The worst physical abuse was probably the time he gave me a concussion when I didn’t answer the door quickly enough, after he rang the bell because he was locked out (I was 8, he was 12). The worst mental abuse was probably the time he killed my pet rat by cutting her neck and stomach open, then put her on my pillow (I was 11, he was 14). There were all kinds of mini-cruelties in between. I literally have no happy memories between us—I have happy memories of my childhood, but none between us. The closest I felt to a brother-sister love was the time he called me a fat greedy cow for eating the last of the cheese. I either hadn’t eaten the cheese, or was trying to deflect his anger, because I protested that it wasn’t me, and he replied that he knew it was me because I was “the person in the house who most loved cheese.” I remember that exactly, because I was shocked that he knew that about me (I did love cheese, still do). So deep was his disdain for me that the realization that I even existed to him when he wasn’t berating or beating me blew my little mind.

My parents did what they could, punishing him when they saw it, but I learned quickly that telling was worse than not telling. If he was punished by them, I’d be punished by him. His behavior worsened as he got older and it also extended beyond me. He had his first trouble with the law in his early teens, got into drugs, dropped out of high school, and has been in and out of jail, rehab and mental institutions. By the time I was 18, my brother had been arrested multiple times. He had one child and another on the way. I went to college across the country (and stayed after college) partly to get away from the havoc he wrought.

Now I’m 29. About a year ago—after ten years of living away from home and learning that just because my brother doesn’t love me doesn’t mean I’m unloveable (something he would often tell me, by the way)—I moved back to my hometown. I’d been living in a big city, with no hope of moving up in a soul-crushing career. I love my parents and my niece and nephew and I missed them. My hometown has a good master’s program in a field I’m interested in and I enrolled. It’s been great; I like my masters program, I love my parents and niece and nephew, and I have an amazing boyfriend. I feel energized living again in a town I love.

My brother hasn’t changed, but I don’t have any contact with him unless he calls for me for money or needs help with the kids. My parents aren’t so lucky. They support him in every way possible. He has horrible credit, so they bought a house for him to “rent” from them (of course he never pays). He can’t get a job with his felony record, so they buy him food and pay for daycare and anything his kids need (their moms are okay, but can’t support them alone). My parents even bought back the iPods they gave to my niece and nephew for Christmas last year after my brother pawned them.

Of course, he treats my parents just as you would expect a meth/cokehead sociopath to treat people. He steals from them, calls them names, threatens to physically harm them, lies to them about everything and anything. My parents get upset, draw the line, call everything the last straw, but they always give him a second chance because he is their son. Always. He manipulates them with kindness as easily as he manipulates them with terror, and when he does that, things are fine for a week, then get bad again.

Last week it got the worse it’s ever been. My mom wouldn’t give him money—she’d just given him a $100 the day before, and had nothing more to give—so he threw a wine bottle at her, spit in her face, threw plates on the floor, rampaged through the house, threw their cat against the wall, and destroyed furniture. He left when my mom called the cops, though he stopped to steal beers from the fridge as he went. (I guess attacking your mother calls for a cold one.)

Things were strict for a few days: my parents would not return his calls and they would not allow him into the house again, only interacting with his baby mamas in regards to the kids. But, as always, he weaseled his way back in without an apology or even acknowledgment of the incident. Seriously, Sugar, that’s what gets me! These things happen, and he calls them for a favor the next day and pretends nothing was wrong. My parents have long tried to get him help for anything and everything that could help him stop being a lunatic, but he refuses. It’s the rest of the world that has a problem, not him. My parents blame drugs because they didn’t see the worst of him as a kid, like I did. I think he’s just an evil person.

Yet, I would forgive him the nastiness of his brotherhood. Yes, it was beyond anything normal, but we’re adults now, and if he was apologetic and had grown out of his “bullying,” I would have been fine. I would have welcomed a relationship. But I can’t forgive what he’s done to my parents. If anyone else treated them this way, there would be restraining orders and court dates.

This is a long story, Sugar, for a simple question about Christmas.

I want my brother out of my life. I think about what he’s done to my parents and I feel such an impotent rage. While writing this letter to you, I had to leave the computer at points to calm down because my typing fingers were shaking. I don’t want to sit across the table from someone who’s called my mother a fucking cunt. But as long as my parents let him in, I feel I can’t cut him out. We always have a family Christmas, but this year I want to put my foot down. I want to say that I won’t be there when he is. I’ll do whatever my parents want, because I love them, but I won’t do anything involving him, because I love them. I cannot abide anyone who would hurt them. He’s stolen their peace of mind, their belief in themselves as good people, and their identities (literally—having committed such fraud via their credit cards and bank accounts; because they refuse to press charges, their credit is shot).

I worry that refusing to see my brother at Christmas would be an empty gesture and that it would only cause more drama and pain in my parents’ lives. I would miss my niece and nephew on Christmas and I want to make a normal day for them (though I see them all the time, since my parents take care of them 99% of the time when my brother has custody). But I don’t know what else I can do.

I feel so powerless—the same way I felt as an 11 year-old living with someone who threatened to kill me on a weekly basis. I can’t do anything to help my parents, and they won’t do anything to help themselves. I can’t talk to friends about this, because they don’t understand why my parents don’t cut him off. My parents have been told by lawyers, cops, therapists, and friends—and me—that they are enabling my brother and that they should cut ties with him, but they won’t. I’ve given up on trying to change their approach. I just want to feel in control of who I have in my life. I don’t think I should have to pretend to love someone who hurts my parents. Yet I know my parents would be hurt if I refuse to have Christmas with them and my brother. They’d see it as a judgment on them. Sugar, what should I do?

Love and kisses,
C.

Dear C. and Not Even Getting Coal,

I’m answering your two letters with one reply because—different as your stories are—for each of you, I have essentially the same advice. Fuck Christmas. Something far more important is at stake. That would be your emotional well-being, as well as the dignity and grace and integrity of your lives.

It’s such a cliché, sweet peas, but it’s true: you must set boundaries. Fucked up people will try to tell you otherwise, but boundaries have nothing to do with whether you love someone or not. They are not judgments, punishments or betrayals. They are a purely peaceable thing: the basic principles you identify for yourself that define the behaviors that you will tolerate from others, as well as the responses you will have to those behaviors. Boundaries teach people how to treat you and they teach you how to respect yourself. In a perfect world, our parents model healthy personal boundaries for us. In your worlds, you must model them for your parents—for whom boundaries have either never been in place or have gone gravely askew.

Emotionally healthy people sometimes behave badly. They lose their tempers, say things they either shouldn’t have said or could have said better, and occasionally allow their hurt or fear or anger to compel them to act in inappropriate, unkind, or overall jackass ways. They eventually acknowledge this and make amends. They are imperfect, but essentially capable of discerning which of their behaviors are destructive and unreasonable and they attempt to change them, even if they don’t wholly succeed. That’s called being human.

The situations the two of you describe are different. They are deeply embedded family systems that function entirely off kilter. You both narrate stories that read like hostage tales. In each case, one destructive and irrational figure is holding the gun. That figure has taught you all how to treat him or her and your family obeys, even when it’s nuts to do so. In what universe does a mother emotionally blackmail her adult child for choosing to do what any reasonable person would be expected to do—study for an important exam, say, or move out of the house at the age of 21? In what universe does a man assault his mother, ransack her house, then crack open a beer?

Yours. You must exile yourself from it. You must make a world of your own. You can take the first steps now, but the internal weeding out of so much familial dysfunction is going to be a years-long process, no doubt. I strongly encourage you both to seek counseling.

So let’s talk about Christmas.

Not Even Getting Coal, I can’t diagnose your mother from a letter, but I can tell you that the pattern of behavior you describe is worrisome and deep. Personality disorders are serious and incredibly difficult to breach. You can love your mother. You can have compassion for her. But you mustn’t live your life making excuses for her and sacrificing your position, your sense of morality, and your sense of reality “in order to keep things running smoothly.” As you know, that is no life. That’s hell.

I think at this impasse you should tell your mother that you love her and that you know she is upset that you weren’t able to see her on your birthday, but that you could not because you were busy with something else. Don’t apologize; simply acknowledge the situation and express a wish to move on. If your mother chooses to remain furious with you, that is her choice. Not yours. The two of you have been locked in a sick dance all of your life. The power you have now, darling, is to make a different move. To refuse to dance. To say without anger or scorn what you know to be moral and reasonable and accurate and move in that direction, regardless of how your mother moves.

The same is true for you, dear sweet C. What a terrible situation you’re in. Your letter knocked me flat. Your brother is a sociopath and your parents are his suckers. There is no way to extricate yourself from this without extricating yourself. You know you want to cut off all ties with your brother, so do that. But you need to set boundaries with your parents too.

Remember what I said about boundaries not having anything to do with whether you loved someone or not? Here’s where that part comes in. Your parents are good people who have lost themselves in a nightmare. I don’t agree with their continued support of your brother, but I understand their impulse to do so. Your brother is their son, the boy they’d have died for probably from the minute he was born. But they didn’t have to die for him. He’s killing them instead.

You mustn’t stand by, a willing onlooker. I’m not telling you that. You’re telling me that. So don’t stand by, honey bun. Tell your parents you love them and then simply love them. Give to them all the gorgeous daughterness you have inside of you. But do not participate in their self-destruction. Inform them that you will be cutting off all ties with your brother and map out a plan for seeing them on Christmas and beyond. Don’t let them try to talk you out of your decision, even if your decision means you spend Christmas alone. Let this be the first step of many in your healing.

As for your niece and nephew, I hope you can continue to be a presence in their lives. How about approaching their mothers to make arrangements to see them when they are not under your brother’s care? (You didn’t ask about this, but I’m terribly worried about those kids. You say their mothers are “okay,” but you also say your brother—who is not okay—has partial custody of his children. Even if your parents take care of them “99% of the time,” it doesn’t sound to me like your brother should be the legal custodian of anyone right now, even for a little while. Might you to investigate ways you can to protect those children by legally limiting your brother’s contact with them?)

You both expressed fear about your parents being hurt by your choices, and perhaps you’re right that there will be pain. C, your cooperation in your parents’ wildy codependent behaviors has likely been a consolation to them. Not Even Getting Coal, as you know so well, your obedience to your mother’s irrationality and abuse is what makes the whole thing work. When you set new boundaries—when you say that you will not tolerate certain behaviors any longer—there will be strife and sorrow. But your lives will be changed for the better. And maybe—just maybe—the example you set will motivate the people you love to make some changes of their own.

Lastly, what I’d like to impress upon both of you is this: in spite of the complexity of your situations, neither one of you wavered when it came to what you know to be the right thing to do. That’s because you know the right thing to do. So do it. It’s hard, I know. It’s one of the hardest things you’ll ever have to do. And you’re going to bawl your head off doing it. But I promise you it will be okay. Your tears will be born of grief, but also of relief. You will be better for them. They will make you harder, softer, cleaner, dirtier. Free.

A glorious something else awaits.
Yours,

Sugar

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