I’ve just been helping my husband and two daughters decorate ye olde Christmas tree and I feel a massive migraine coming on. Perhaps, it may even be an aneurysm. I believe I already know the answer to this question but am I the only one who wants to strangle herself with tinsel at this time of year?
My two girls, aged 11 and two and a half, are delirious with excitement at the coming of the blessed Noël. My oldest is blasting “100 Greatest Christmas Hits” from her iPad as we untangle masses of lights that have become obscenely intimate with one another while in storage and wipe the dust from the much-used baubles and the same pious-faced angel that has perched atop the tree for many a Saviour’s birthday.
George Michael is lamenting giving his heart away last year and I am smiling through gritted teeth, trying very hard to muster up the appropriate amount of Christmas cheer for the auspicious occasion. I’m also trying very hard not to be overly-OCD about where the decorations go on the tree. I am showing remarkable restraint, I think.
The little dictator… sorry, toddler… has positioned herself firmly inside the box from which the spiky tree has just been removed and is yelling, “Santa! Christmas Tree! Angel! Presents!” at the top of her lungs. My kids believe in the magic of Christmas and I truly want them too. I want them to be dizzy with excitement and filled to the gills with festive anticipation. The 11 year old, with much reluctance and a tinge of sadness, admitted to not believing in Father Christmas anymore this week but she is doggedly drumming up elation in her younger sister in the most loving and adorable way. She wants her to believe in the magic, just like she did, too. It is the sweetest act of sisterly love. She loves Christmas whether or not she believes in a Caucasian, bearded guy who has been sliding down a chimney we didn’t have for the all of her remembered life. (She suspended her disbelief in the most impressive manner and for the longest time. Serious props.) Santa or no Santa, she really fucking loves Christmas.
I, however, do not like Christmas. Not even remotely. I am, basically, The Grinch incarnate. Just Coloured and with masses of undisciplined, curly hair. Aesthetics aside, I would also steal Christmas like a cranky-ass thief if I could. I do not like the tangible frenetic build-up to the festive season, where the energy in the air screams manic consumerism and faux festive cheer. I do not wish to deck the halls with boughs of fake holly or hang the stockings by the chimney with care. I cringe visibly when I hear endless loops of Christmas carols about soft, new-fallen snow blasting through the tinny speakers of shops when the reality is that the only Winter Wonderland I’ve walked through lately has been the chilling air-conditioned aisles of Woolies, and when I eventually finish enduring the heaving masses and endless queues, I step outside and bake to a near-crisp in the blazing African sun. Not a snowflake to be seen for miles. The Christmas they sell us is the one we invariably buy.
Let me be frank: I have a solid collection of eclectic disorders in my mental health arsenal so with anxiety, depression and mixed mood states knocking on my brain’s door like Jehovah’s witnesses, there is no part of these holidays that makes me happy. On the contrary, it makes me mildly hysterical. I wish to hide and weep and rock myself gently while in the foetal position until it is all over. I’ve been in recovery from substance addiction for a while now so I can’t even drown my sorrows in multiple helpings of Christmas pudding. I just want Christmas to go away. Is that too much to ask for Christmas?
I feel this way because this season is a reminder that, in the glare of the flashing, seizure-inducing Christmas lights, I feel alone and that no one will truly understand why.
This season unashamedly reminds me that I am the product of a deeply dysfunctional family-of-origin, a broken one steeped in tragic and unresolvable toxicity.
It reminds me that there will be no joyous family gathering.
It reminds me that I have to pretend for others.
It reminds me that there are certain expectations of how I should behave or feel.
It reminds me that I am still a hurt little child who so badly wants to believe. In something, anything. Just not my lived reality.
It reminds me that I feel lost at this time of year, buried under the weight of what should be and what never was.
I reminds me that I miss my family.
I’ve chosen to actively disengage from certain slow poisons because of a deepened, healthy sense of self-preservation but losing family is a monumental loss and the absence of familial connection can be so distressing and unimaginably isolating. It’s hard to let go of toxic relationships but it is often necessary to sustain one’s own sanity. And that’s a mission I’ve undertaken over the past few years but I still often feel like I’m going crazy. Despite all the evidence pointing to the fact that I have made the right decision, I still feel, somehow, that I’ve made a mistake. That I am the mistake. Ah, the dysfunction runneth deep. And when the television adverts and Christmas specials scream “happy families” and “happy endings”, it’s hard to reconcile the primal need for connection with the difficult choice to let go. Add to that the end-of-year fatigue and annual mental and emotional burn-out, it makes me want to scream like a banshee into the holy night.
And I know, or at least I sincerely hope, that I am not alone. Christmas isn’t a jolly, holly experience for everyone. Most people, if they’re truly honest, feel at their loneliest and most disconnected and psychologically disjointed at this time of year. Some people are entirely alone; they have no family at all. I work in the helping profession and it always baffles me how we sit on a knife’s edge of savage emotion, barely keeping our shit together, all year and then, come December, we are expected to miraculously be happy. It really makes no fucking sense to me.
So I’m giving myself a new, different kind of gift this year: the gift of authenticity, the gift of being human. Great gift; execution level difficulty: mammoth. But I’m going to do my damnedest.
I’m allowing myself to grieve an inexplicable, unexplainable loss. I’m recalling brutal memories and wrapping them gently in forgiveness. I’m expressing my true feelings as they arise uncomfortably and inconveniently only to those that get it. I’m avoiding the frenzy and hype (and the shopping malls). I am connecting, albeit virtually (because: ew! people!), with other self-confessed “orphans and atheists” who are also products of damaging dysfunction. I am choosing my repurposed “family”. I am hand-selecting the people who love me and understand me. I am gathering my own family close – my loving, understanding husband and two amazing girls – and we are creating our own Christmas traditions and throwing in a pinch of that elusive magic so that my daughters aren’t also traumatised at this time of year until the end of their days. That is one of my gifts to them, cheap as it may sound, that they don’t associate this time of year with brokenness and heartache.
For me, this year has been primarily about boldly speaking my truth and now, going forward, it’s going to be about living my truth. This is much easier said than done but I refuse to inflict this intolerable pain on myself any longer.
Now, pass me the tissues and that damn tinsel.
by Giles Griffin
Published August 2018 by Jacana/MF Books
Desirée-Anne Martin is a force. For recovery. For self-love. For hope. Witness the last three sentences of her book – in the Acknowledgements: “And to all the hurt little – and grown-up – girls, this story is for you. There is always hope. Always.” But don’t be fooled. This is not a sweetness and light story. Precious few fairies appear in it. In fact you need to hang on tight for a rof-and-ready roller-coaster ride of note. And this, by the by, despite a comfortably middle-class and lacking-for-little background, as the chapter entitled “Don’t swim after eating” implies. That stopped me in my tracks: my own mother used those very same words on many an occasion. But the swimming-pool-in-the-back-garden social veneer, it turns out, is very thin.
Here, as evidence, is the structure – deceptively ordered at first, except for perhaps a hint of trouble in the middle… Part 1. The Rules. Part 2: Breaking the Rules. Part 3: Fuck the Rules. Part 4: The New Rules. Part 5: Bending the Rules. As you can tell, Ms Martin is not one for rules… Nevertheless, each chapter is carefully named and the typefaces used in the book are elegant; but then there’s that dystopic cover… and that less-than-romantic byline: “A girl who searched for love but found destruction instead.” Not exactly Mills & Boon then.
Like I say, few silver linings. And so, along the way, the language pulls no punches; the shattering descent into addiction is graphically described. Immediate, visceral, utterly believable, she paints a dark picture of a deeply unstable, tortured life of multiple addictions. But then, somehow, miraculously, she survives.
You will be relieved to know, there is some – though not much – dark humour as well, as her back cover bio hints: “A recovering addict, she believes caffeine, cigarettes, chocolate and bacon are the four major food groups.”
Hang in there for that humour – it saves this memoir from being unrelentingly brutal and hopeless and allows, finally, as the LRC’s Dawn Garisch describes it, for this lovely summary: “Desiree-Anne Martin has spun the straw of addiction into gold.” Bearing in mind how tight a hold drugs and addiction have on South African lives, we really need these flashes of gold, those “true words that will, somehow, begin to heal that which has been broken.” Between the covers of “We Don’t Talk About It. Ever.” you will find those true words. Go read them.
[Yet another reason to buy this book as a gift for yourself or others this season!]
an excerpt from my memoir, We Don’t Talk About It. Ever.
available at Amazon and all good bookstores.
if you haven’t read the book yet (and if not, why not?!), read the free sample of the first few chapters, available on Amazon.
you will be hooked. promise.
an excerpt from my memoir about the heritage of coloured hair.
A series of portraits and stories of survival from South African women who are adding their voice to the “Me Too” movement of fearless expression.
— Read on sarahisaacsphotography.com/2018/06/26/me-too-speaking-our-truth/
finally! my book cover can be revealed! so in love with the design ♥️
out in August. available everywhere.
this is an extract from my memoir…
Words are my drug of choice.
They are my refuge; they are my panacea. They are the antidote to the poison that runs through every artery and vein of the anatomy of my childhood. Long before the hastily inhaled cigarettes that burned my throat during second break, half-hiding in between the crumbling headstones of the long-forgotten brides of Jesus up at the small convent cemetery. Long before the bottles of Bioplus mixed in cups of too-strong coffee that kept my heavy eyelids from drooping while I poured over mind-numbing high-school calculus equations and heady historical facts about dead people and disremembered places. Long before the back-end of the toothbrush connected with my epiglottis forcing the acidic, bilious contents of my stomach to lurch out of my mouth and leave telltale splatters across the toilet bowl. Long before the shiny blister packs of slimming tablets that would make my heart race and jaw tremble and makes me rub my hungry, concave belly with reticent glee. Long before that first sip of cheap, red wine ran into my parched veins and quenched every thirsty cell of my body until it felt like I had come home at last. Long before I submerged myself in the unbearable heat of that scorching bathwater over and over again to relieve the unbearable pain of what lay trapped within. Long before the codeine daydreams and the benzo comas. Long before the endless stream of men and women that filled my mouth, my cunt, that filled any void that existed. Long before LSD made my unconscious bleed all over my reality. Long before the dizzying nights of delirious dancing spurred on by the piles of cocaine I snorted up my raw nostrils and even before the chemical hazy halcyon Ecstasy-laced weekends where I fell in love with everything and everyone except myself; and long before the crack pipe burned my bottom lip and pinned me up against the wall, scrambling for an exit route; and yes, long before the needle pricked my flesh and sent that noxious, precious elixir straight to my orphaned soul and cradled it and made it whole. Long before all of that, there were words.
I remember smuggling a book into the toilet on a Sunday afternoon during my designated naptime when I was four years old. I already had problems sleeping when I was supposed to. I was teaching myself to read, having stolen my older brother’s Kathy and Mark readers from his brown boxy school case. Kathy has a bright red dress and milky white skin framed by hair cut in a severe brown bob that never moves no matter how much she was urged by Mark to: “Run, Kathy, run!” Mark also runs a lot, in his short blue shorts and knee-high socks accompanied everywhere by their dog, Spot. They run everywhere, they frequently sit on the mat, they ride on the bus to the City with their Mum who wears a smart green hat and a coat, and once they drive in the car with their Dad who also wears a hat which he takes off every evening when he comes home from work.
I recall sitting on that cold tiled toilet floor, the avocado green and white-patterned tiles – tracing the words with my index finger and matching them to the garishly coloured illustrations of a smug, dawdling tortoise and an arrogant, reckless hare. I remember my frustration at not being able to decipher some of the words. I wanted to know them. I needed to know what happened. I remember the look on my mother’s face as it appeared at the crack of the open door: surprise, then anger and disappointment. I felt ashamed, found out. I instinctively hid my book behind my back. I hid my words. Like I would hide everything else that would come after.
And later I would achieve small literary victories: having stared for what seemed like an eternity at a large ornate framed black-and-white photograph of my mother on her wedding day that rested on the white melamine TV unit – trying and failing to make sense of the words printed beneath the photo – one day the phonetically pieced together “VAN KALKER P-A-H-O-T-A-G-R-A-P-E-E-H-Y-A-H” suddenly and magically made sense and I yelled at the top of my childish voice, much as I imagined Archimedes proclaimed, “Eureka!”, “PHOTOGRAPHY!” I marched triumphantly around the house repeating the newly discovered word over and over again, “Photography! Photography! PHOTOGRAPHY!” This made no sense to any of my family members, but I didn’t care to explain it. The word, the unearthed treasure, the reconstructed jewel, was mine.
When my brother was in Standard One and I was in Sub A (which would later come to be known as Grade 3 and Grade 1 respectively), he would climb into the car after school bemoaning the fact that he had to learn a four stanza poem about seashells on the sandy seashore by the end of that week. I had it memorized and could recite it by the end of the 20 minute drive home.
Once I could read confidently, I consumed books, in fact, all reading matter I could get my hands on. I inhaled words, chewing and digesting them greedily at any given opportunity. Blurry-eyed and bent over my runny porridge, during car rides despite my stomach swirling and my head pounding from carsickness, propped up in my bed long after the 8 o’ clock TV news jingle had signaled that it was time for my brother and I to go to sleep, during school holidays where I would scour over prescribed set work books and finish them long before the academic year even began, anywhere and everywhere, I wrapped words around me like a steely suit of armour.
I would write too. I started my first “Secret Diary” at age 9, inspired by The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole and I would journal well into my late twenties and again in my thirties. I would religiously scribble my one-dimensional observations and fickle feelings down onto paper in my oft-criticized, untidy script. I would use the diaries as a tool of self-expression, but also as a tool of blatant manipulation, leaving them open on certain pages in strategically placed locales for my prying mother to find if I wanted to communicate something that I was too afraid to do directly. Like asking for my first bra.
Words became my guaranteed escape from the lies and the secrets, from the trauma and the terror. I found solace in the fantastical worlds that books offered and the inviting landscapes that my imagination conjured from the dry, sweet-scented pages.
Later I found refuge in the words of annotated scripts and dense screenplays. Words that had a transformative effect on my domain, and even more so on my identity. In drama class at school, at the theatre school that I secretly auditioned for and gained acceptance into, I could morph into anything, anyone. Just, please dear God, anyone that wasn’t me. I could take myself away from my reality and slip into any space and time, just by uttering a few appropriated lines or manipulating my larynx and changing my accent. I hid behind the safety of others’ words because mine always seemed insufficient or often entirely absent.
Words held unimaginable power. Words, when pieced together in a certain manner, exerted great influence. I became adept at weaving stories, a mixture of fabrications and quasi-truths, to cover up the reality of how utterly ruined I felt inside. I learnt early on that I was a remarkably convincing liar and that deception slipped off my forked tongue easily and without reason or apparent provocation. I lived in a constant state of semi-realism, blending fantasy with reality and spinning it around myself like a comforting cocoon. I used anything, any form of control, to not feel the excruciating pain of the truth.
But I am done with deceit. Lies hold no more allure for me. Laurie Penny, feminist commentator and author wrote, “All I’ve ever wanted to do with writing is to move the world in small ways with words,” and that is the sum total of my most humble hope. That I find my words again and that they form my truth and that truth is steadfast and undeniable.
That my words connect with another and move them to tell their truth.
And that words will, somehow, begin to heal what has been broken.