Dear Drama Observers,
Last week, I posted the first five of ten tips for managing holiday dramas from my ingeniously entitled ebook, “10 Tips for Managing Holiday Dramas.” This week, I’ll give you tips six through ten. In case you missed last week’s letter, you may read here.
Holidays are fun occasions for some people but ones that are seriously dreaded by others. The festive Thanksgiving pictures all over Facebook yesterday were posted alongside memes expressing the negative feelings of those whose holidays weren’t so festive.
If you did miss last week’s letter, let me give you the setup of the story once again.
“I swear if I weren’t related to these people,” Bret told Amy as they drove to his family’s Christmas party, “I’d have nothing to do with them.” He continued, “I’d rather somebody roll me up in a blanket and beat on me than go to this thing.”
The first time Bret ever heard the term “dysfunctional family” years ago, he felt gratified that someone had found a way to describe this family of his which didn’t, well, function. He joked often that he was “raised by wolves” but the line was funnier than the experience. After introducing Amy to the pack before they married, he assured her (only half-teasingly), “If you want out now, I’ll understand.” But she stayed because she loved him and he wasn’t like the rest of them. That is, he wasn’t crazy. But he sure felt crazy at times and the obligatory holiday gathering was one of them.
What Bret and Amy understood that was about to happen at this frightful family feast was . . . drama. This wasn’t pessimism on their part because it occurred whenever these folks got together. Indeed, drama was the only way they knew how to relate. Drama observance can be enjoyable but drama participation is miserable. And if Bret and Amy didn’t employ what they’d learned over the years about drama non-participation, this was going to be a miserable afternoon and evening.
There were ten things they did, counterintuitive actions which were thought through and practiced ahead of time. They’d learned all of them through the exasperations of having done things the wrong way. Which makes sense because experience is often the best teacher. But before getting into that, let’s set the scene and introduce the characters we’re about to observe.
The lead role is played by Dad, a batty weirdo who requires everyone—including his own children—to call him “Boss Man”. The moniker fits because he’s the classic my-way-or-the-highway kind of person.
Bret’s mom is sweet but passive, never challenging Boss Man with a contrary opinion or preference. She’s somewhat like the old Edith Bunker character who covers her displeasure with syrupy joviality. No doubt, her ability to “get along” with her husband is contingent upon her willingness to maintain a passive stance.
Bret’s sister, Renee, is somewhat of a chip off her dad’s block. That is, she’s just as headstrong and controlling as Dad. She refuses to call him Boss Man, insisting instead on calling him “Loser Man.” She’s in her thirties and still lives at home with no relocation in site. Their power struggles are loud and constant. He’s nitro to her glycerin. Mom’s attempts at cheery mediation repeatedly fail as might be expected.
Those are the main characters but also attending this binge will be a curious amalgam of relatives and non-relatives, barmy misfits who somehow find a place at every holiday table. There will be Dad’s creepy army buddy who always insists on being called “Uncle Fred.” How to put this delicately . . . Fred has an unpleasant smell and covers his stench with a cologne that stinks even worse. You can always tell when Fred’s been at the house because the mixture of BO and cheap cologne lingers for days. By the way, Fred laughs hilariously at every stupid joke Boss Man tells. Very annoying.
And Fred will most assuredly bring with him his skank de jour. It’s never the same person. The parade of babes who’ve graced these gatherings over the years has provided Bret and Amy rich fodder for post-occasion analysis. Last year, the woman he brought, Trixie, had a prominently displayed tattoo depicting a tawdry sex act. Very classy.
Beyond that, who knows who’ll be there? Their table somehow attracts eccentrics like mosquitoes to a bug light. And why these people choose to come is anybody’s guess. Bret remembers nary a holiday occasion that had less than twelve attendees. Very perplexing.
They arrived at the gathering and, halfway up the driveway, could smell Fred. His putrid blending of aromas—sewage with a hint of English Leather—was wafting through the crevices of the house. They walked in and were immediately aware of how few people they knew. Then they saw Bret’s dad. “Well,” Boss Man proclaimed, “so nice of you to grace us with your presence.” “Did you get lost?” he asked with a note of obvious sarcasm. Mom rushed over to take their coats and offer them something to drink.
They walked into the living room and saw—having previously smelled—Fred, sitting on the couch glued to his date, Candie. Candie was wearing stiletto heels, fishnet stockings, mini skirt, and a tube top (it was 20 degrees outside). She looked like a cross between Cruella Deville and a poll dancer. When introduced by Fred, she barely nodded and returned to what she was doing before they came into the room—licking and chewing on Fred’s earlobe. It was disgustingly inappropriate but Bret and Amy noticed that no one else seemed to notice, or care.
And then they heard Renee. She had just gotten “into it” with Boss Man, or Loser Man depending on who’s doing the describing. She was screaming every profanity known to man, along with some nasty innovations of her own creation. Dad returned fire, besting her only in decibel level. Again, everyone—strangers and relatives alike—went on about their business as if nothing odd was happening. Fa la la la la.
Alas, none of this took Bret and Amy by surprise because they’d seen some iteration of it so many times before. That’s why words like “dysfunctional” and, better yet, “crazy” seemed so fitting to describe this asylum-like gathering. But they had learned how to handle it. Armed with this wisdom, there were ten things they did, strategies they employed to insulate themselves from the revolting drama into which they had just stepped.
And it should be mentioned, the following principles work any place crazy-people dramas occur, including offices, neighborhoods, or even churches. The settings vary but the principles remain the same.
- They Demanded No Encores
When you watch a compelling drama, you don’t want it to end. You want more, an encore of sorts. But when you’re in a drama like the one being attended by Bret and Amy, you’re just ready for it to be over. They wanted it to end before it ever began. There’s a common mistake that people unwittingly make that has the unintended outcome of extending a drama. That is, they attempt to speak truth to power, to tell somebody off, to set the record straight. The ground on which they stand to make their points may be solid, but underneath is quicksand sucking them right back into the drama.
In their less-experienced years, less-savvy years, Bret routinely committed this error. If Dad made a snarky remark about his late arrival, Bret would say something like, “Dad, I’m a grown man. We have a life outside of here. You can’t dictate to me how to live and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” Now, Bret’s reasons for saying this were arguably justifiable, given Dad’s my-way-or-the-highway stance. But the thing is, Bret’s words had precisely the opposite effect because they would then be tied up for the next half hour in an unwinnable verbal tug-of-war. It dawned on Bret one year that he was spending an enormous amount of energy attempting something impossible: reasoning with an unreasonable person.
So, instead of telling Dad to stop controlling him, he just stopped being controlled. Dad was never going to “get it”. But Bret discovered that independence from Dad’s control could no longer be contingent on Dad’s ability to understand. With reasonable people, words matter. With unreasonable people, actions accomplish what words can’t.
By the way, here’s what happens on TV. The person being jerked around by the jerk declares: “See here, Mister. You’ve been controlling people your whole life and I’ve had all I can take of your jerkhood. I won’t stand for it anymore. Got it?” At that point, the room falls silent, the jerk fumbles for words, and then slinks away in shame.
Well, that’s just TV. Real life dramas rarely end that way.
- They Took Note of the Exits
Two years ago, Bret and Amy experienced what might be called an “intervention” at the family gathering. They sat down at the table, a term which should be used loosely because it was more of sloppy assemblage of card tables and things topped with outdated Formica. Their place at the “table” was against a wall with no way to exit the space without crawling over someone.
Halfway through the meal, Dad asks Bret in front of everyone, “Has your car been running OK?” “Sure,” Bret says. “Why do you ask?” “Oh, I figured it was broken down because you never come see us but once a year.” The only sound heard after that was Fred’s creepy laugh. Then, Erlene, Fred’s date that night (whom they’d never before met) spoke up. Erlene, had shaved off her eyebrows and painted them back on, only the re-drawings arched way too high creating the perpetual surprised look of someone who’d just won the lottery. In her gravelly, I’ve-smoked-four-packs-a-day-for-forty-years voice, she says, “You two are just breaking your daddy’s heart.” Then everyone else chimed in expressing the same unsolicited sentiment—for what seemed like forever. It was just awful and they had no way to escape.
Driving home that night, Bret and Amy made a commitment to never let that happen again. “We will stand up for the meal if we have to but we will never again be in a position where we can’t leave at a time of our own choosing.” In subsequent years, one of the first things they did upon arriving was to plan out their way of escape if and/or when it was needed.
- They Avoided the Reviews
Dramas are sickening, crazy-making, and exhausting. Drama participation—or even just trying to avoid becoming a drama participant—takes such a toll that most people need time afterwards to debrief. It helps to have others with whom the story can be told and the feelings processed. Like describing the experience of a near-miss at a railroad crossing, it helps to have others who can hear the tale and identify with the emotions.
But a word of caution is in order. People can bring the drama home with them. Before they realize it, they can talk so much about it that drama recollections start to consume all the conversational space in the household. And it happens easily. The intrusions are so audacious, the boundary-crossings are so egregious, the expectations are so unreachable, and the characters are so weird that rehearsing the tale again and again is very tempting.
Bret and Amy’s first few trips to the family’s funny farm were followed by days of drama review. They talked about it so much that it made them sick. And it made them sick. Like eating lime Jell-O and saltines after the stomach flu, they had to change their conversational diet to let their guts recover. It helped to debrief about the drama, but they had to set limits on the debriefing.
9. They Made the Drama a Comedy
“Laughter is the best medicine” as the saying goes. Dramas can be funny but, again, they’re not funny when you’re caught up in them. They’re funny after the fact. Bret and Amy never left these occasions wracked with jocularity. They felt angry, flummoxed, frustrated, and worn out. And the more they talked about it, the worse they felt.
It helped some when they learned to laugh at various ludicrous aspects of the drama. And there was plenty of comedic material to recollect. There was Candie’s mid-winter skimpy attire, Fred’s skunk-wearing-perfume bouquet, Erlene’s cartoonish eyebrows, Aunt Mini’s gurgling respirations, Renee’s trash-talking of Loser Man, and lots, lots more. They weren’t laughing so much at the individuals in a mean-spirited way but to mock the balderdash. And that helped to make the drama a bit more tolerable.
- They Wrote Their Own Plays
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Bret and Amy cultivated an existence apart from Bret’s drama-filled family. That’s why they chose to see his parents only once
a year—they could only take them in small doses. Superficial and infrequent contact was doable, but up-close involvement with the family drama was not.
They were very intentional about starting their own family traditions. They went with some other friends to cut down their Christmas tree. They attended the Christmas cantata at church. Amy took part in collecting gifts for needy families. Bret went with other men to put up Christmas lights on the homes of elderly folks who couldn’t do that kind of work themselves. They filled their holidays with things they loved and looked forward to them all year.
Here’s something that happened almost every holiday season. They’d be in a normal-people gathering and someone would suggest that everyone share their favorite holiday memories. Bret would then hear uplifting tales about kids in footy pajamas, families making Christmas cookies, hanging of ornaments on trees, caroling in the neighborhood, and chestnuts roasting on open fires. Bret wouldn’t say anything because he figured it might throw a wet blanket on the occasion to talk about the heartwarming parallels between his family and the Jerry Springer Show.
But you know what Bret and Amy discovered? They actually had a pretty sizable peer group. Plenty of folks didn’t have the holidays of Christmas cards and Hallmark movies and they found some solace in that. Not that they rejoiced in the dysfunctional backgrounds of others but there was a sense of comradery with those who’d survived it.
By doing the ten things mentioned above, Bret and Amy didn’t change the drama but they managed it. They contained the family drama in such a way their holidays were no longer spoiled as they had been in years past.
Till next week.