“I have wished time and time again, to trade the agonizing loneliness that I have now, for the abuse of my past. I cannot wish my family back into existence.”
By Tabitha McDonald. Tabitha is a young adult who transitioned out of care without a permanent family. Tabitha presently coordinates the Adoption Council of Canada’s Youth Speak Out Program so that youth in and from government care can share their stories as experts, and bring about a call to action on a national scale. Tabitha spent six years in care before aging out. She wrote an article for the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) about her experiences with Thanksgiving, and writes here about Christmas. She can be contacted at Tabitha@adoption.ca
The Christmas season is upon us; festive songs, seasonal beverages, Black Friday sales and the incessant, never-ending messaging that a happy society is one filled with happy families.
I used to be in a family. I used to think that I was happy. I used to write Christmas lists with a characteristically keen eye to detail and aesthetics. I used to wait with baited breath at the top of the stairs on December 24th, after dragging my brother from his mountain of blankets, and point to a dusting of salt on the table as proof that reindeer were real. I used to love our annual ski-trip and the labor intensive Christmas dinners that had not only turkey, but ham and roast beef, maple glazed carrots and the most delicious mashed potatoes imaginable. I used to gleefully smash a Terry’s Chocolate Orange, while sitting next to a warm and welcoming fire, and watch as it split apart, as if by magic. And then, I watched my family fall apart.
I watched as my step-mother and brother left when my father’s alcohol fuelled rampages could no longer be swept under the mint green living room carpet; an, ‘it’s all your fault,’ on her lips as her white Sorel boots packed the frost hardened snow toward the car and a life that no longer included me. I dream of that moment, now, years later. I dream that I spoke up and demanded that they stay. I dream that I yelled, and screamed and begged for them to take me, to not abandon me on that desperately cold morning. I dream that I chased the car down, that it was all an elaborate hoax, that when I open my eyes, I’ll be waking up to a world where mom is in the den watching Trading Places, not six feet in the ground with a headstone that is so plain it made me want to dig my heart out from my chest.
But that is not my world. In the aftermath of their departure, I faced the torment of my father alone, until I came to be in a group home. More than three years later, I aged out of government care without a permanent family because it was decided, for me, that my stability was more important than a chance at permanency. I have spent inordinate amounts of time ascertaining the likelihood of time travel - researching quantum mechanics, cosmic strings and black holes, Einstein-Rosen Bridges and Alcubierre drives, but no number of shattered teacups will knit themselves back together again. Time moves inexorably forward. I cannot, as I have wished time and time again, trade the agonizing loneliness that I have now, for the abuse of my past. I cannot wish my family back into existence.
The holidays are not kind to those who have pasts like my own. The holidays are not kind to a young woman who managed to escape the horrors of abuse, only to wish for it again in the face of catastrophic loneliness. I am homesick for a home that does not exist.
I had a panic attack at a drug store recently when I saw an advent calendar, a long forgotten memory seeping through my thought patterns, flooding the pockets of my heart before it crashed over me in a wave, it’s force driving a low, keening wail that I barely recognized as my own from deep inside. I had to pound at my chest, pound at the place above my heart as the cry mounted, as the agony flooded to the surface, as terror clawed its way to the fore. Anxiety and terror stay with me, forever it seems, always at the ready, always prepared to lunge out at me from the darkness and light alike to steal my breath and sanity away. Panic. Panic grips me so tightly that it shudders my whole body.
What are you supposed to do when everything has the potential to trigger an intense reaction such as this? I can assure you that it isn’t easy, that there is no fool-proof methodology that works as a blanket solution. I can tell you that I am, with a great deal of work and support, finally finding it within myself to be truly hopeful. For the first time in over a decade, I have been asked to write a Christmas list, to be made to truly feel as though I am a part of a friend’s holiday traditions. I can tell you that it is desperately hard work, to open up my heart after working so diligently to ensure that it would be permanently welded shut. I can tell you that I am still often side-swiped, even with thorough preparation, but that I have people on speed dial who understand and are willing to calmly anchor me when I am in the throes of a panic attack.
Intrinsic in the values of Canadians is the idea of family, and yet thousands of youth wait for the ghost of a chance for the permanency and peace a forever family can bring, watching it drive further and further into the distance as their workers deem them too old, or too stable or too much of a bother to warrant the effort to find them a safe, stable and secure parenting relationship that is based in love, unconditional commitment and lifelong support. Every single person deserves a family. Every single person should have the privilege of feeling homesick for their loving families and time honored traditions. I hope someday to believe it about myself; for now, I work tirelessly to ensure that the 30,000 children and youth in care in Canada not only believe it, but achieve it.