Tangled

I’m attempting to decorate the house and it’s leaving me frustrated.

Not just frustrated, but to the brim. Every little extra thing is spilling me over the edge. Stubbing my toe. Knocking something over. A Christmas light catching on something and pulling it with it.

But I know that my baseline has been temporarily raised. A stubbed toe isn’t really just a stubbed toe right now.

The Christmas lights. That’s where I’m getting the most frustrated. Even the ones that were neatly put away are a tangle when I try to get them out. The delicate ones fold and knot. The bigger ones catch on each other. Half of them, I have to throw out anyway — the lights are out and I can’t pinpoint which bulbs ruined it for the rest of them.

And they catch and snag when I try to hang them across the house. I slam my shin on the back of a chair and the noise I make is something primal.

“Why do I even bother?” I find myself thinking again and again. Because the lights are so beautiful, I find myself answering. Because you’ve decided the pain and frustration of all these entanglements are worth the beauty it can create.

I smirk. Maureen from Rent enters my mind again. Idina Menzel staring wide eyed at the stage lights and shouting, “It’s a metaphor!”

It is.

Christmas has a heaviness to it. The holiday season doubles the weight in our baggage somehow. It’s why every song about December is morose and melancholy. It’s just a more heightened time, while we simultaneously get dragged down.

I’ve returned to recovery meetings. The ones meant for the family of those addicted. This time I’m focusing on the meetings for adult children of alcoholics. It’s fitting: it was around this time, four years ago, I started going to the broader ones. Walking in and sobbing during the meeting, sobbing afterwards, grateful beyond measure that my career hadn’t really taken off, that I had the time to drive around and cry and process.

I know I need them. Specifically for the meetings for children who grew up in it. I’m a textbook case. I know I am. All I have to do is pay attention when they read from the Laundry List in the very beginning of the meeting. If this were a high school test, they’d be putting me in the honors classes.

We became approval seekers and lost our identity in the process. We have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility and it is easier for us to be concerned with others rather than ourselves. We overcommit and get angry at those who don’t do the same.

Yup. Yup. Yup.

There’s a panel in the Watchmen graphic novel. Dr. Manhattan looks up at the sky and says, “I’m tired of earth, these people. I’m tired of being in the caught of the tangle of their lives.” I read that novel years and years ago, and I keep coming back to that one panel.

I’ve cried too much this year because of how tangled up I was in other people’s lives. So tangled up that it was inevitable that the cords would eventually wrap around my neck. I’ve taken off what I can. Cut what I had to. Taken steps back and put up boundaries and reminded myself that, “healthy people have boundaries; sick people feel guilty for even thinking about having them.” Decided, perhaps foolishly, that some tangles are okay — that the beauty of those lights are worth it.

I’ve learned a lot. Learned that if someone takes a step back, you don’t take a step forward. Learned that you can pour your heart out and still be left to clean it up alone. Learned that trying to untangle someone else’s mess just leaves you with lacerations on your skin. I’m doing my best to practice better boundaries and better self advocacy — but the fact remains, the more invested I am, the likely it is I’m going to slam my shins and stub my toe.

I keep coming back to one night this year, when two of my friends got uproariously drunk. They were gliding across the house and making wild plans and statements. The owner of the house turned to me, the quiet, mostly sober one, and said, “thank you.”

Thank you for being the responsible one. Thank you for being small when the others are taking up space. Lest anyone forget that the reinforcement for this behavior comes from all angles.

There’s a line from a TV show, about Christmas. About how we put up all these lights to safeguard against the darkest time of year. That we put up with all its tangles because otherwise the blackness fills the space instead. The funniest thing is, the line was barely a sentence long. So short and so obscure that you can’t find it anywhere online, even if you search the episode’s name. Just like the Watchmen panel, it’s something small that made something big within my soul.

I’d be amiss to say that I’m still getting used to some of the cuts I’ve made this year. The air is cold in the distance I created. There’s a phantom ache across my skin where those tangled cords once threatened to cut off circulation. Perhaps I’m afraid that stepping away from the tangles means that the lights have abandoned me too, that the darkness will close in. Perhaps suffocating entanglement at least meant things were shiny and bright.

Perhaps I just have to have faith that I’m making the right decisions, win, lose, or draw. That the ones I signed on to keep will straighten themselves out, that I’ll be rewarded with beauty in linear fashion, and not a mess that will leave me with indents in my skin and bruises on my shins and a primal sound of suffering escaping my mouth.

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