As I walked into the drugstore to pick up a roll of toilet paper and cat food the week of Halloween, I found myself being stared down by an oversized Rudolph doll.
His doe-eyed expression triggered a swell of anxiety within me.
This is not because I have an irrational fear of stuffed reindeers.
The blinking red nose is a taunting reminder that for those of us who are members of dysfunctional families, the most wonderful and challenging time of year is upon us.
It's nothing personal against Santa and his squad.
The issue isn’t that the holiday season evokes a new, once-a-year, unpleasant feeling.
Rather, this time of year magnifies the most complicated, sensitive area of my life: family.
Truth be told, dealing with family is a year-round struggle, full of constantly changing variables.
Over the past several months, certain situations have left me emotionally raw when dealing with the subject of family, particularly my mom.
The holiday season has never agreed well with her, physically or emotionally.
Her first heart attack took place two weeks before Christmas when I was in the seventh grade.
The song "Jingle Bell Rock" instantly takes me back to driving to the hospital to visit her after her emergency quadruple bypass.
Sophomore year of high school, we found ourselves awkwardly shoving turkey into our mouths, trying to scrape together some normalcy after my mom had come from a week-long stay in the hospital to recover from a heart attack and a stroke.
Despite the choruses of gratitude that Thanksgiving, due to the gift of having my mom alive and home to celebrate, our hearts were contradictory.
Looking back, who could blame us?
Mom was trying to make sense of what the hell just happened to her body, my dad was trying to adjust to this new level of caregiving and, at 15, I was just angry everything was changing again.
After that Thanksgiving, I somehow took up the notion that it was my responsibility to continue the holiday spirit for my household.
Despite my dad’s grumbling of how much he hated the holidays, I pleaded each year to have people over.
Regardless of the fact that like clockwork, my mother would snap by the end of the celebration and leave someone in tears, I begged her to decorate the Christmas tree with me.
Granted, the tree had been downsized from the real Douglas fir that would need to be cut down to fit into the house to an artificial, three-foot fake that topped a card table covered with a candy cane tablecloth.
But it was our Christmas tree.
It was a symbol there was still a pulse of holiday cheer in our home, despite it being weak and requiring me to resuscitate it several times.
With tensions high, countless cigarettes smoked and many swear words uttered, I set us up in front of my tripod to take a family photograph that I had paid to put on a holiday card to mail.
Despite neither of us having a domestic bone in our body, I forced my mother into the kitchen to bake homemade cookies from her mother-in-law’s recipe.
If we went to another family member’s house for the holiday, the entire time was spent holding my breath, waiting for the first sparks of a fight between my parents.
This continued up until 2013.
After seasons of force-feeding my parents the version of holiday cheer that I had wanted so badly to replicate when I was a child, something snapped.
Coupled with a nasty bout of depression, with almost a decade of dragging my parents through the most wonderful time of year kicking and screaming, Christmas 2013 was spent in my apartment, crying tears that were ugly and far from jolly.
The realization finally washed over me that the holiday season I was trying to wrap my family up in was only making me miserable.
No amount of garland or mistletoe would make up for the fractures that were felt by all of us, 365 days a year.
Trying to make our dysfunction disappear for several weeks just because it was the holiday season poured salt into the wounds I had been trying to heal.
With almost every aspect of the civilized world focused on the family-centric holiday season, letting go of my attempts to save the season for my family has been challenging.
Last Thanksgiving, I made the decision to spend the day with friends. This was a roller coaster of mixed feelings.
The entire day, I fluctuated between guilt, self-consciousness, relief and hope. As my therapist Dr. R pointed out, these feelings are to be expected.
Old habits die hard, especially ones hardwired to family.
A few weeks later during Christmas, I experienced another tidal wave of emotions as I showed up with my case of beer and presents to the same friend’s house.
Last year marked a new chapter in my life as an adult.
It was the first steps to creating my own traditions for the holiday season, involving willing participants and tear-free dinners.
A few days after Christmas, I visited my parents. We shared a pizza and exchanged gifts.
It was the first time in my life that their living room did not show any trace that the holidays had recently been celebrated.
Did my heart break a little bit when my dad said he missed seeing me on Christmas morning?
But do I regret the decision I made and the new way I proposed to celebrate with my parents after the holiday?
Now, I’m sorting through another mixed bag of emotions with the second year of going about my own holiday season.
Last week, I attempted to create a cheese and fruit turkey-shaped appetizer — courtesy of Pinterest — at my friend’s house, where I celebrated.
Last Wednesday, I spent the day outlet shopping and brunching with another friend, taking in the changing leaves and crisp fall air.
Last Sunday, I went out to breakfast with my dad and squeezed in a short visit to my mom, since she was in a good mood.
I spent Thanksgiving morning watching the Macy’s Day Parade with Annie, my lovable tabby cat, just like we did last year.
I would be lying if I did not admit a tiny corner of my heart holds on to a wish I could be going to my parents' house with some of my extended family and snapping photos similar to the ones I’ve been reflecting on over the past few weeks.
But, it is less intense this year.
It's slowly being replaced with the anticipation of trying new traditions.
Creating and becoming comfortable with a new way of celebrating a holiday season is a work in progress.
But at least there’s eggnog to take the edge off.