it’s beginning to look a lot like dysfunction.

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. 

review: We Don’t Talk About It. Ever.

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!]