In this excerpt from her upcoming memoir "Shadow Daughter," Harriet Brown explores the unique challenges of being estranged from your family at the most festive time of year.

By Harriet Brown
October 24, 2018
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I used to think I was the only person in the world who hated holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, three-day weekends—they all filled me with anxiety and a creeping sense of dread. If, as the holiday approached, my mother and I were in one of our rare periods of rapprochement, I’d have to at least consider visiting her and my father; after a few days of strained conversation things would nearly always deteriorate into one of my mother’s predictable outbursts. If we weren’t speaking at the time, I’d be off the hook for visiting. But that also meant that I wouldn’t be able to see my father, sister, or other family members. The price of not having to deal with my mother was being excluded from trips, celebrations, and outings with other people I loved and missed.

It was a losing proposition either way. When I didn’t see my mother I felt guilty and sad. When I did, I nearly always came away a mess: vibrating with anxiety, plagued with panic attacks, sleepless and angst-ridden.

Eventually I realized I wasn’t the only one caught between this particular rock and hard place. For people who are estranged from close family, holidays can seem like a private circle of hell. If you’re completely estranged—no contact at all—you may feel like you’re shut out, the only person in the universe who’s not laughing, eating, drinking, and otherwise living your best life with the people who are supposed to love you most. If you’re in the midst of what researcher Kristina Scharp, PhD, calls chaotic disassociation, meaning you have a volatile on-again off-again relationship, holidays present an unresolvable dilemma, one that’s exacerbated by scrolling through social media posts of other people’s amazing celebrations.

Many estranged people feel shamed and stigmatized during the holiday season. Victoria, a 44-year-old professor in Tucson, Arizona, is estranged from her parents, brother, and sister. For years she told people she and her husband were visiting “friends and family” over Christmas, though they actually spend the day every year with friends. She worried that people might wonder what kind of person doesn’t have relatives to visit on the most family-oriented day of the year. They would think less of her. They would judge her.

Sandy, 70, a retired nurse in Georgia, is estranged from her daughter and grandchildren, but not by her own choice. Ever since her daughter cut off contact four years ago, Christmas has become the most painful day of the year for her. It hurts to see her friends post pictures on Facebook of their families smiling around a Christmas tree or raising a glass at the dinner table. “We can’t do any of that,” she says. “And that’s what I had looked forward to at this age.”

Even when you’re absolutely clear that estrangement is the right choice, the holidays can trigger guilt and shame. Tracy, a 58-year-old teacher in Ann Arbor, Michigan, never regretted cutting off contact with her abusive father. Yet she’s also keenly aware of the stigma that comes with estrangement, especially around holidays. “Nothing else I’ve done has made me feel more like an outlaw,” she says.

Whatever your estrangement situation, there are ways to make the best of things during the holidays or at any time of year. Here are a few of the strategies I and other people have found helpful.

Limit your exposure. If you can’t skip a family gathering altogether, or don’t want to, think about making an appearance rather than showing up for the whole event. If the holiday requires overnight travel, get a hotel room rather than bunk with family. It’s easier to keep drama to a minimum if you have your own space to retreat to.

Create a family of choice. For years my husband, daughters, and I celebrated holidays with the same group of friends. Some of them no longer had living parents, some were estranged, and some lived too far away from families to get together much. We became one another’s families of choice, people we actually looked forward to seeing at Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Passover. Sandy, the retired nurse, found her family of choice in an unexpected place. She started volunteering with a hospice organization–in part to distract herself from missing her grandchildren–and became close with a family whose youngest child has a brain tumor. Now Sandy and her husband take the older kids apple picking, host them for sleepovers, and invite everyone over for Christmas. They’ve unofficially adopted the whole family. “It’s filled the void,” she says.

Skip holidays altogether. When my mother was still alive, my husband, daughters, and I sometimes sidestepped the holiday issue by traveling, preferably to a place where that holiday wasn’t celebrated. Montreal for Thanksgiving, for instance. Other years we stayed home but agreed to just ignore the hoopla and spend an ordinary day together. Either way we avoided the conflict and drama of a family holiday—and sometimes that was exactly what we needed.

Excerpted from Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement by Harriet Brown. Copyright © 2018. Available from Da Capo Lifelong Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

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